November 11, 2021 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Leadership Issues Facing Youth Sports

Growing up, I played roller hockey with the neighborhood kids. We played without the watchful eye of a coach or parent. Never once was I corrected for the litany of “mistakes” I made every day. When disagreements occurred, no coach or parent was there to intervene either. We had to figure it out ourselves.

This type of unorganized play lends itself to a form of natural leadership, teamwork, and conflict resolution development.

Too many of our youth athletes today are missing out on this process. In addition, we are sheltering our youth athletes more within organized sports. Don’t like the team you made? We’ll move you to a different one. Coach isn’t playing you on the first line? Mom and dad will make sure the coach hears about it. We are insulating our kids from the very adversity that helps produce leadership and character qualities we all want our youth athletes to learn.

Below are the top four leadership abilities we need to do a better job of teaching your athletes.

Ownership and Responsibility 

leadershipPerhaps the biggest and most detrimental consequence to leadership skills that our modern sports culture has created is the lack of ownership and responsibility among players. Too often, I will see players skate off the ice at the end of practice while a few coaches pick up pucks, put cones away, throw dividers back over the boards, and gather up any other practice items. Other times, a coach will switch a drill from one corner to another as every player moves, the pucks and cones stay put. The coach is left to work it all out, wasting precious ice time to set up a drill that would take mere seconds to set up if the players took ownership of it. To fix this, we need to start delegating leadership tasks to youth athletes by the time they are nine or ten years old. 

Encouragement of Teammates 

Transactional leadership is the ability to get a group to do a simple, routine task, like leading a warm-up. A more transformational form of leadership requires a leader to approach a sullen teammate and help pick them up. What do you say to a player disappointed by their spot on the team? Or to a teammate that is having a tough time at school, perhaps being bullied, and seems to have lost interest in the sport? It is hard to imagine how a youth athlete could respond to such a situation if they’ve never been asked to take on the most basic leadership tasks. Even after mastering those, encouraging a peer or group of peers is not easy. Coaches need to provide direction at first. Find the opportunity when a teammate is down and talk to a leader about how to solve it. Before issues even arise, talk with your leadership group about potential problems and how they can respond. Set aside time to digest the leadership problems facing your team.

Enforcing Rules and Standards

When a peer isn’t playing hard, listening like they should, or misbehaving in some way, there are few leaders in youth sports with the ability to enforce the team standard. It’s certainly not easy but this is something we want our youth athletes to be able to do. Perhaps the most common example of where this type of leadership is needed with bullying. Bullying is generally an act of insecurity. The bully, insecure about his or her own place in the group, lashes out against someone perceived to be lower than them. It takes courage for a leader to step up and intervene, but that is the standard we should expect from our athletes.

Leading Humbly 

It’s a tougher job today to raise youth athletes that are humble and hardworking. The prevailing youth sports culture glorifies eight-year-old skaters for their “skills”. They are given public recognition throughout the year, amplified by social media. All of this gives them a warped sense of self-identification and self-worth. Is it no wonder we lack leaders that serve their teammates and team before themselves? Not at all. And I don’t blame the kids for this. We’ve created this monster and it is our job to fix it. To combat the noise out there, coaches and associations need to direct constant messaging to their youth athletes that help put the sport in proper perspective and encourage athletes to be humble servant leaders. 

There are a lot of adversarial forces that make our job as coaches and mentors harder than in the past. That’s why we need to address leadership training with greater purpose, resolve, time, and energy. We need to set aside the time, coach up our coaches, and communicate with parents on how to do this. In the following articles, I will address more leadership topics and ways for us to address leadership training positively in youth sports.