Leadership and the Youth Sports Coach
Youth sports programs are booming and it is important to explore the leadership
role of the volunteer coach as a function of child development, especially the impact of
coach leadership on children dealing with difficult personal circumstance. The influence
of the coach is substantial, both in negative and positive ways. Therefore the
competence of the coach as a mentor and leader is a determining factor in creating
pleasurable and positive development in children.
Five Principles of Youth Development in Sports Programs
1. Personal Satisfaction (commonly referred to as “having fun”)
2. Emotional Development
3. Physical Skill Development
4. Social Development
5. Intellectual Development
Leadership Functions of the Volunteer Coach
The youth coach is defined as; “an adult who assumes responsibility for
managing the teaching process of children in relation to the mental, physical, and
emotional skills and concepts required to participate in an organized athletic, artistic, or
Accepting the coaching position does not in itself create the behavior or
circumstance from which effective and positive leadership evolves. There must be some
criteria, some formalization of process and action to establish the coach as a tangible
The foundation of the coach as leader is built from structure, organization, and
expectation. Once established, these three forces are the leadership platform from
which the coach engages the children to accomplish objectives found within the five
principles of youth development. Built upon the foundation of structure, organization,
and expectation are four leadership functions: team building, skill development, social
moderator, and counselor.
A team is a goal-oriented group. Establishing team leadership begins at the very
first meeting where control is established by the coach, and the concept of teamwork
begins. The notion of teamwork should be explained not in terms of winning or losing
but rather through the concept of personal achievement.
The coach must set group expectations and behavior standards through rules of
conduct. Like keeping your hands to yourself, the process of question and answer,
respect for authority, manners on and off the field, and intolerance of disruptive
behavior. Maintaining self-control, responsiveness to direction, and arriving on time and
ready to participate should become routine procedure. Drink and rest breaks should be
planned according to conditions and unless a special circumstance occurs, the children
should not be allowed to run off the field or dismiss themselves without consent.
Many times more than one coach is involved and the presence of an assistant is
highly recommended, as long as a clear line of authority is established. Responsibilities
should be divided and shared, with the coach ensuring that the process is sound and
that the process is followed. The assistant coach should be assigned certain
organizational tasks related to activities on the playing field, and take ownership of
those tasks for the duration of the program. Neither the assistant nor the coach should
engage in social conversations or other distracting activities that result in a loss of focus
on leadership responsibilities.
Generating an atmosphere of cooperation, education, support, growth, and group
dynamics can be more challenging than expected. The leadership role of social
moderator includes setting the stage for new experiences, generating positive morale,
and managing social interaction. The expectations established in Team Building specify
acceptable social behaviors, though not all children will readily accept or adapt to the
new standards. When behavior falls outside of the established social guidelines it is the
coach's goal to realign and affirm the expected behavior while earning respect from the
individual and the group. Leadership behavior complimentary to the role of Social
Moderator includes creating a fun and pleasant environment through compassion and
understanding of the children’s interaction.
This is what most volunteers think of when they take the job of coach. Although
teaching kids to play the game is usually the main reason for volunteering, the coach
must take into consideration the organizational skills required to facilitate the proper
environment for skill development. Without control and structure, practice becomes a
few moments of learning forged from a chaotic environment. Direction and expectation
provide the foundation for skill development and success depends on task focus and
The role of counselor is probably the most neglected and the hardest to master.
Each child comes into the activity with different expectations and may not know how to
behave or deal with the situation. The structured atmosphere may be overwhelming and
some kids find it difficult to accept the authority of coach as group leader. Children may
find the demands tiring and stressful. It is the coach’s job to assess each child’s
emotional level and perception. The coach must bond with each player as individuals on
the same playing field by helping each child meet the group’s expectations and gain
strength from self-achievement.
On the extremes are those children who have a tendency to act independently
thus difficult to bring into compliance. Most children used to low-structure environments
will respond to structure, and given a few practices will adhere to the standards if the
coach is persistent. However the toughest kids will always reject authority and this is
one of the most frustrating challenges a coach can face. This fierce independence is a
way of life for kids with adverse familial circumstances. They will be resistant to change,
or accepting the coach as their leader, though they also possess the greatest
opportunity for improvement. Establishing communication, demonstrating a never-
ending positive attitude, and not giving up are the keys. Some children may never meet
the expectation, but any positive change is a win.
Leadership Behaviors of the Volunteer Coach
Within the four Coaching Leadership Functions are specific leader behaviors that
initiate structure, establish expectation, and validate the coach. These behaviors
establish the coach as leader, and create the foundation of the child’s experience. The
coach must engage the group through praise and encouragement, establishment of
expectation, initiating structure, and demonstrating control over group opportunity.
Leading by Example
The coach presents the behavior model and must be cognizant of the children's
perspective. The coach should always maintain a congenial demeanor, keep emotions
in check, and control anger and frustration. A positive attitude in the face of a tough
situation will always bring a better result. Children are very perceptive to the coach's
dedication and attitude and react well to confident, mildly -passionate, displays of
positive energy. The coach also must be careful not impart to negative traits by making
excuses for being late or unprepared, thereby using compassionate substitutions in
place of true leadership.
Demonstrating Knowledge and Ability
Team leadership can be established through the demonstration of ability and
knowledge that exceeds the group average In the case of the coach being unable to
demonstrate the proof of the leadership position, coach effectiveness drops as the
coach employs substitute leadership behaviors to overcome a lack of knowledge. Skill
and knowledge substitutes are awarding false accolades, favoring popular players, self-
serving excuses to compensate for poor coach performance, and attempting to gain
influence through nicknames, etc.
. Understanding the basic concepts of the sport is a fundamental premise and the
ability to demonstrate physical skills is a great way to establish credibility. The level of
organized play will dictate the specific demands of the coaching position, and it is the
coach’s responsibility to continually develop skills and knowledge required to maintain
influential power over the players.
Setting and Maintaining Expectations
The players and parents will give as much as they are asked to, but if they don't
know what is expected then they will give just enough to conform to their personal ideal.
It is the coach's exquisite responsibility to control the level of participation by
establishing the expectations of the parent and the players. The actions of creating and
maintaining a clear and direct line of communication with the parents and the players
achieve this. The coach must make the effort to speak with parents who are not
supporting the group expectation.
One specific behavior that establishes the coach as leader is being at the field of
play when children arrive for practice and games. If the coach is chronically late then
most everyone will follow suite. Leader behavior characterized by tardiness and
inconsistent start times diminishes the experience and creates bad habits and reduces
personal responsibility of the group members. Make sure the parents understand that
you are watching their performance as part of the team, and that they have a role within
Acknowledgment of Achievement
As the individual and team skills improve it is very important to acknowledge the
results and reward the effort with praise. Each individual should be cited for examples of
personal improvement without the pressure of being expected to constantly give more
and more. The players will respond much more favorably over the long run when
incremental improvement is recognized. Similarly the whole group should be applauded
for the efforts and accomplishments of the team. Encouraging words and accolades go
a long way in winning the groups belief in the coach.
Building Great Coaches
Ultimately the local organization is responsible for developing the leadership
ability of coaches and instructors. Theoretically the Board of Directors and officers of the
organization establish the rules of engagement and conduct, setting standards of
performance for coaches, athletes, and officials. The local club may follow the lead of a
sanctioning organization, national organization, or in affiliation with recognized
governing bodies of the sport.
Initial coach development does not require a major commitment of resources or
require professional assistance. It starts by providing a written description of the
expectations, the commitment, and a list of basic skills and strategy objectives.
Personal behavior expectations such as timeliness, communication, and commitment to
the coaching process should be clearly described. Ideally this document is no longer
than one page. Start with basic skills and outline the level of play, and then provide the
availability of addition resources as the coach develops. The process of coach
development is ongoing and soon the leadership ability and skill development ability of
the volunteer coach will grow.
Working with Uncooperative and Defiant Children
One aspect of coaching is the possibility of having one or two disruptive and
uncooperative players. Certain children, for many reasons, cannot seem to conform to
the group expectations. Thus their behavior makes maintaining control difficult and
creates an unpleasant experience for everyone. Creating structure and organization will
create control, and for the majority of the group this control will result in self-direction,
thereby opening opportunity to work one-on-one with the distracted child. Here are
some points that deal with situations involving difficult children and ways to isolate the
behavior and still maintain the group structure.
• Ideally the child becomes focused on the activity and can leave their disruptive world
behind and enjoy self-absorption in the new task. This distancing from the
unpleasant will recharge their internal motivation and turn the new activity into a new
perspective of their world. Recognize when the child is engaged in a particular
aspect of the sport and leverage it to further the child’s interest.
• Recognize the difference between a lack structural expectation, and true emotional
issues. Children may not know how to behave or have pre-established behavior
expectations, but are otherwise well adjusted. Bring those responsive to structural
expectation into the fold quickly, thereby creating more time to work with the
emotional challenged child.
• The impact of leader behavior is a function of situational perspective. Children from
different backgrounds will view the same coach completely differently. The coach
must recognize this, and alter coaching behavior to meet individual circumstance.
One mistake is expecting every child to respond similarly to the same commands.
• You will never fit a square peg into a round hole. The objective becomes changing
the shape of both parts until a working relationship is established.
• Creating change and conformity in resilient children will take a long time. Commit to
persistent encouragement and always maintain a positive attitude, even in the most
• Keep emotions in check or risk losing respect and authority. The coach may be the
only opportunity for consistent structure in the child's life and it is a difficult concept
• Parent Involvement-The parent needs to know what's expected of themselves and
the child. Ask for encouragement and reinforcement.
At the end of the day the kids should go home with smiles from a sense of
accomplishment. Everyone wants the kids to have fun though it can’t be at the expense
of learning something about the activity and about themselves. The coach is the person
who sets the standard and makes the learning process a joyous occasion. It’s the coach
who has the attention of the children. And it’s the coach who should look upward and
meet the challenge with their own high personal expectations that raise the level of the
experience to new heights.