by Michael Kasales, MA, CSCS, RSCC, USAW-2, FMS
NSCA Coach June 2017
Vol 4, Issue 3
Participation in sport is beneficial for a student-athlete’s personal development and provides opportunities to learn leadership skills (9,11). Student-athlete leaders provide a powerful source of inspiration to their teammates (8). Student-athletes can mentor younger players on the team, organize team activities, assist the coaching staff, and serve as positive role models for athlete behavior. Most sport coaches value the leadership provided by their student-athletes, and leadership development is often listed as an important component of an athletic program (24). While the responsibility for leadership development typically resides with the sport coach, other members of the coaching staff can potentially contribute to this effort, including the strength and conditioning coach.
The strength and conditioning coach is often involved with the student-athlete throughout the academic year, and spends a significant amount of time with the student-athlete during pre- and in-season training. The strength and conditioning coach works closely with the student-athlete to improve athletic performance through detailed programming and appropriate exercise prescription (13). Through the course of conducting training, relationships are formed between the strength and conditioning coach and the student-athlete. While the primary responsibilities of the strength and conditioning coach are to improve athletic performance and reduce the risk of injury, the strength and conditioning coach who understands the fundamentals of leadership development can leverage the positive relationship with the student-athlete to improve the student-athlete’s leadership skills. The purpose of this two-part article is to investigate the potential role strength and conditioning coaches have in developing student-athlete leadership and recommend practical methods that can assist in this development. Prior to recommending practical methods for developing student-athlete leadership, this article will briefly discuss the roles and relationships that the sport coach and strength and conditioning coach have in developing student-athlete leadership.
Volumes can be written on leadership and leadership development. And while a great deal of research has been conducted and numerous articles have been written on leadership, the information related specifically to student-athlete leadership development is still rather sparse. According to James Burns, an early authority of modern leadership practices, “leadership is the most observed, yet least understood, phenomena on Earth,” (5). The definition of leadership is open to debate. However, for the purpose of this article, the definition of student-athlete leadership is based on the work of Cotterill and Fransen (6). It is defined as the interactive process used to influence teammates to accomplish tasks and achieve established goals, develop team confidence and foster cohesion, satisfy teammates’ needs, and resolve team problems in order to enhance team performance (6). Furthermore, the definition of a student-athlete leader is the team member selected by coaches or recognized by teammates, occupying a formal (or informal) position, who exercises the process of leadership, as defined previously (6). The subject of leadership is complex and includes many facets such as: (a) personal traits, behaviors, and skills; (b) leadership styles; (c) leader functions, situations, and context (e.g., leadership environment, organizational type, and design); and (d) the relationships between the leader and the followers (21).
The development of leadership theory dates back to 380 BC with Plato’s philosophical writing, Republic; in the time since Plato first penned this work, numerous other leadership theories have been presented, including trait theory, great man theory, situational theory, transformational and transactional theory, servant-leadership, and others (1,21). Several models have been developed to assist in applying leadership theory to practice, such as the social change model for leadership development, multidimensional model of leadership, and leadership scale for sport (16). Scholars have defined certain leadership styles, or how a person behaves and performs the act of leading. Common leadership styles include authoritarian, democratic, participative, and laissez-faire (21).
Leadership is a process of personal interaction and feedback, and numerous personal traits and characteristics have been identified in effective leaders (3,21). Additionally, effective leaders often possess certain intrapersonal and interpersonal skills that allow the leader to better understand personal strengths and weaknesses, and positively relate to and interact with others (21). Leaders also require an understanding of the environment and organization in which leadership will be applied (4,19). For today’s student-athletes and coaches, developing leadership skills can be challenging due to generational differences, specifically between the younger, Millennial Generation athlete, and the older, Generation X or Baby Boomer Generation coach (19,26).
Scholars will continue to study and debate the subject of leadership, but current research suggests that there are several concepts that are central to leadership: (a) leadership is a process; (b) leadership involves influence; (c) leadership occurs within a group context; and (d) leadership involves goal attainment (15,21).
Sport coaches have many responsibilities, but they primarily: (a) ensure their athletes and teams achieve established goals and objectives, which typically means winning or improving athletic performance; (b) instruct and train student-athletes on sport-specific techniques; and (c) develop effective team tactics and strategies to succeed in competition (14). The sport coach is also responsible for understanding and providing for the developmental needs of the student-athletes, and plays a critical role in developing leadership amongst the team’s student-athletes (20,27). In addition, there are certainly numerous other responsibilities and requirements of the sport coach, including recruiting, scheduling, record keeping, resource and funding management, coach and player management, public relations, and coordination with administration officials (3). Given the multitude of requirements, the sport coach must prioritize tasks and allocate time to accomplish them. As research indicates, it is difficult for
any school to be free of the pressures to win on the playing field, which often results in winning being the first priority (20). As winning is prioritized, the focus on student-athlete leadership development may diminish. However, the sport coach typically has other personnel and resources available to avoid abandoning leadership development altogether. Given the time a student-athlete spends conducting strength training and conditioning, the strength and conditioning coach may provide the sport coach the resources to maintain it as a priority or provide additional support in developing student-athlete leadership. Both the collegiate sport coach and strength and conditioning coach should keep in mind the need to understand and comply with appropriate National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) bylaws for athletic activities (17,18). Similarly, coaches at other levels should comply with applicable codes of conduct.
The strength and conditioning coach works directly with student-athletes to develop all physical qualities, such as speed, strength, power, agility, cardiovascular/muscular endurance, and flexibility, which improve athletic performance and prevent injuries specific to the performance of a given sport (13). The strength and conditioning coach spends a significant amount of time interacting with the student-athlete. During the off-season, student-athletes are allowed to participate in eight hours of structured athletic activity and 20 hours during the regular season (17,18). This typically results in 3 – 5 hr per week during the pre-season being dedicated to strength and conditioning, and 2 – 4 hr per week during the competitive season. Depending on the school and the circumstances, the strength and conditioning coach may interact with the student-athletes during the post- and off-season as well. The strength and conditioning coach is primarily responsible for developing sport-specific strength and conditioning programs, prescribing appropriate exercises, and instructing and demonstrating proper exercise technique. Today’s social norms generally exclude leadership development as a core requirement for the strength and conditioning coach.
Debate and research continues on the training and education requirements to prepare and certify a strength and conditioning coach. The National Association for Sport and Physical Education (NASPE) provides guidance on a strength and conditioning coach’s responsibility towards growth and development of youth athletes, but no single standard exists for required coaching certification at the college level (28). Additionally, there currently exists no commonly accepted standard or certification for developing student-athlete leaders. The subject of education and certification to qualify an individual to teach leadership development is a critical area of study; however, this is beyond the scope of this article.
A successful strength and conditioning coach has significant influence on student-athletes, serves as a positive role model for behavior, provides focus to achieve established training goals through a strong work ethic, motivates the student-athletes through positive feedback and encouragement, and develops trust and a healthy relationship with the student-athletes. Research indicates these characteristics are associated with effective leadership and may contribute to the strength and conditioning coach’s ability to develop student-athlete leadership skills (2,7,10,25,26). Before the strength and conditioning coach begins any effort to develop student-athlete leadership skills, coordination between the sport coach and strength and conditioning coach should be completed.
The sport coach is normally the person with overall responsibility for the team and the student-athletes. The sport coach establishes his or her philosophy and vision for the team, as well as corresponding goals and objectives. Decisions on training, activities, and the welfare of the student-athletes are ultimately the responsibility of the sport coach. The strength and conditioning coach is typically in a support role and is primarily focused on improving athletic performance. At some institutions, the strength and conditioning coach is a direct report to the sport coach. Conversely, at other institutions the strength and conditioning coach supports the sport coach but reports to a director of strength and conditioning. Prior to pre-season training, the strength and conditioning coach typically coordinates with the sport coach (or a designated assistant) to identify sport-specific needs and training goals required for designing a strength and conditioning program that will support athletic development and the intended game tactics. As training seasons progress, the strength and conditioning coach continues coordination with the sport coach to refine training goals, adjust the strength and conditioning program, or modify training for a specific student-athlete due to injury or performance requirements.
During the initial coordination with the sport coach, the strength and conditioning coach must gain an understanding of the sport coach’s philosophy and vision for the team. At the same time, the strength and conditioning coach should share his or her coaching philosophy. The process of reviewing coaching philosophies and vision ensures a common understanding and shared vision between the sport coach and the strength and conditioning coach (12). Once established, the strength and conditioning coach should fully support the sport coach in pursuit of the team vision. This investment in the team vision ensures that the strength and conditioning coach’s influence on the student-athlete contributes to the vision established by the sport coach (22,23). If developing leadership skills are a component of the team vision, the strength and conditioning coach’s contributions to developing student-athlete leadership will likely be well received by the student-athletes and appreciated by the sport coach.
Participation in sport can provide student-athletes with many great opportunities and experiences, including the opportunity to develop and practice leadership. While the responsibility for leadership development typically falls on the sport coach, other members of the coaching staff can contribute to this effort. In the intercollegiate athletic setting, the strength and conditioning coach can play a role in the development of student-athlete leadership. For the strength and conditioning coach to be a positive contributor to this effort, he or she must have a clear understanding of their role, the role of the sport coach, and the interaction and relationship between the two. Part 1 of this series of articles briefly discussed the definition of leadership, leadership concepts, and the roles and relationship between the sport coach and the strength and conditioning coach. Part 2 of this series of articles will discuss specific contributions the strength and conditioning coach can make towards student-athlete leadership development and recommend some practical methods to developing student-athlete leadership.
This article originally appeared in NSCA Coach, a quarterly publication for NSCA Members that provides valuable takeaways for every level of strength and conditioning coach. You can find scientifically based articles specific to a wide variety of your athletes’ needs with Nutrition, Programming, and Youth columns. Read more articles from NSCA Coach »
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