Practical Methods for the Strength and Conditioning Coach to Develop Student-Athlete Leadership—Part II

by Michael Kasales, MA, CSCS, RSCC, USAW-2, FMS
NSCA Coach June 2017
Vol 4, Issue 4

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This article is the second part of a two-part series that considers the potential role strength and conditioning coaches have in developing student-athlete leadership.

Introduction

This article is the second part of a two-part series that considers the potential role strength and conditioning coaches have in developing student-athlete leadership. Part I of this series provided a brief overview of leadership concepts and theory, presented definitions for student-athlete leadership and student-athlete leaders, and discussed the roles and relationship between the sport coach and the strength and conditioning coach. This article will discuss specific contributions the strength and conditioning coach can make towards student-athlete leadership development, as well as recommend some practical methods for developing student-athlete leadership.

Strength and conditioning coaches spend significant time with student-athletes during an academic year to improve their athleticism and prepare them physically to compete in their respective sports (11). During this time, the opportunity exists for the strength and conditioning coach to contribute to the development of student-athlete leadership skills. As discussed in part I, the strength and conditioning coach should coordinate with the sport coach before beginning any effort to develop student-athlete leadership skills. The strength and conditioning coach should understand the sport coach’s philosophy and goals for the team, as well as the role student-athlete leaders will have on the team. Once the strength and conditioning coach understands the sport coach’s vision, the contributions to developing student-athlete leadership will likely be well received by the student-athletes and appreciated by the sport coach.

Strength and Conditioning Coach Contributions to Leadership Development

The strength and conditioning coach can potentially influence and have a direct role in developing student-athlete leadership skills. First, the strength and conditioning coach may serve as a role model and set the example of positive behavior for student-athletes (13). Second, the strength and conditioning coach can collaborate with student-athletes to establish strength and conditioning training goals, then provide instruction for student-athletes to achieve these goals (9). Third, the strength and conditioning coach can provide motivation to student-athletes through positive feedback on exercise technique and encouragement to provide maximal effort during strength and conditioning training (16). And lastly, the strength and conditioning coach can develop excellent rapport and trusting relationships with student-athletes (17). Through the execution of a strength and conditioning program, more practical opportunities can be presented to student-athletes to improve their leadership skills, such as a) assigning responsibility or designating leadership roles to the student-athletes to gain experience in leading and decision-making, and b) assigning senior student-athletes as mentors to younger student-athletes to gain experience in teaching and developing team cohesion (4).

Role Modeling

Role modeling should occur in clearly defined and positive ways (13). The values expressed by the strength and conditioning coach should reflect and reinforce those of the sport coach and the academic institution. This ensures there is no ambiguity or uncertainty in the direction the sport coach has established for the team, or in the values of the institution as a whole. As a role model, the strength and conditioning coach must strive to treat all student-athletes fairly and equally to ensure each student-athlete is afforded the same opportunities for development. Because each student-athlete is unique, with their own personal strengths and shortcomings, the strength and conditioning coach must recognize and respect these differences to avoid displaying favoritism towards any individual or group of student-athletes. Finally, the strength and conditioning coach should possess strong character and impeccable integrity as these attributes provide the “moral compass” required to be socially responsible (15). The strength and conditioning coach of poor character or with questionable integrity will be challenged to compel the student-athlete to develop his or her own character and integrity (15). A strength and conditioning coach should realize and accept the responsibility of being a role model. This responsibility and commitment can have a positive effect on the development of the student-athlete. Otherwise, the strength and conditioning coach may be missing an important opportunity to contribute to the development of the student-athlete (13).

Goal-Setting and Achievement

Most strength and conditioning programs are based on clearly defined goals, typically a measure of intensity, volume, and duration. This provides the student-athlete with objective, daily performance goals. The ability to establish and achieve goals is an essential part of leadership development (9). The strength and conditioning coach should periodically review these goals with the student-athlete to ensure improvement in athletic performance. The strength and conditioning coach should ensure the studentathlete understands basic principles for resistance training (i.e. the difference in training variables for strength development versus power development) and training metabolic energy systems. Many young student-athletes may believe the bench press is the sole measure of athletic performance and strive to lift greater loads in a one-repetition maximum (1RM) effort; however, for many sports a 1RM bench press may not be the best predictor of athletic performance. As the student-athlete gains greater appreciation for the exercises that directly translate to athletic performance, the student-athlete can provide constructive feedback to the strength and conditioning coaches in order to refine or establish new performance goals. With this knowledge, a student-athlete may realize that established goals are achievable and potentially reinforce the goal-setting process for other aspects of life.

Providing Motivation

Many strength and conditioning coaches realize the importance of motivating student-athletes during training. Training requires student-athletes to work hard and often at near maximal levels of efforts to benefit from the training. The strength and conditioning coach can motivate student-athletes in several ways, such as providing timely and positive feedback, recognizing performance, and providing encouragement with enthusiasm (2). Positive motivation promotes the continued exertion of effort by the student-athlete, particularly during difficult tasks (3). Continued efforts by the strength and conditioning coach to motivate student-athletes often result in the student-athlete developing his or her intrinsic motivation (the desire to perform and participate in sport for the sheer pleasure and inner satisfaction obtained from the experience), which contributes to the development of leadership skills. Providing positive encouragement and motivation often develops the student-athlete’s desire to train, and encourages positive interaction between the strength and conditioning coach and the student-athlete (6).

Developing Rapport and Trust

Given the amount of time spent together and the close interaction between the strength and conditioning coach and the student-athlete, the opportunity exists for the strength and conditioning coach to develop excellent rapport with the student-athlete (17). Having good rapport often leads to establishing a level of trust between the strength and conditioning coach and the student-athlete, further contributing to the development of the student-athlete (1,2,17). Allowing the student-athlete to voice opinions and concerns demonstrates a degree of social support towards the student-athlete which studies suggest is an important component in the coach-athlete relationship (2). In order to develop trust with the student-athlete, the strength and conditioning coach should be empathetic towards the student-athlete’s opinions and work together to address issues, while maintaining a degree of discretion in divulging personal conversations to other coaches or student-athletes. Negative behaviors, such as intimidation, bullying, and threatening actions, should be avoided as this impedes building rapport and may lead to increased student-athlete anxiety and decreased athletic performance (1).

Assigning Responsibility and Decision-Making Experience

Leadership development requires intentional efforts to assign leadership opportunities to student-athletes. Once these opportunities are assigned, instruction and feedback on leadership performance is necessary to fully benefit from the leadership experience (8,17). Most strength and conditioning programs include a wide variety of training modalities and equipment, which provide numerous potential opportunities for the strength and conditioning coach to assign leadership responsibility to the student-athlete. Effective leadership development should allow the student-athlete to practice leadership under the strength and conditioning coach’s supervision, allowing the student-athlete to make meaningful decisions (7). Assigning a student-athlete the responsibility to develop and lead warm-up sessions, set up specific exercise equipment, demonstrate proper technique, or account for teammates are a few ideas available to the strength and conditioning coach to develop responsibility. The strength and conditioning coach must clearly articulate the standard to which the task is to be performed. The strength and conditioning coach should not assume the student-athlete fully comprehends all of the task requirements. Providing the student-athlete opportunity to ask questions or clarify requirements will reduce ambiguity and assist in the successful accomplishment of the task. 

The strength and conditioning coach should avoid telling the student-athlete exactly how to accomplish the task, leaving some of the critical decision-making up to the student-athlete (except in cases where poor decision-making could result in the potential injury to the student-athlete and teammates). The student-athlete must be afforded adequate time and resources to prepare for and execute the activity or task. This may require the strength and conditioning coach to assign the responsibility several days or weeks in advance. The strength and conditioning coach should confirm and rehearse the activity or task with the student-athlete to ensure all aspects of the activity or task have been addressed. At the completion of the activity or task the strength and conditioning coach should provide feedback to the student-athlete on his or her performance. Feedback should focus on decisions and actions that contributed to success, as well as those decisions and actions that challenged the successful completion of the task. As a student-athlete demonstrates the ability to successfully accomplish assigned tasks and develops greater levels of self-confidence, the strength and conditioning coach should assign tasks with increasing levels of responsibility. Empowering student-athletes with decision-making opportunities provides the experiential learning that contributes to leadership development (7).

Peer Mentorship

A final recommendation for the strength and conditioning coach to develop student-athlete leadership skills is assigning a more senior or experienced student-athlete the responsibility to mentor and encourage younger or less experienced student-athletes (9). Research suggests that peer mentorship can improve the leadership abilities of the mentor (12). As a mentor and developing leader, student-athletes can serve in several important roles. First, they provide advice and focus to teammates in order to accomplish team objectives. Second, they motivate and encourage teammates to perform at their best. Third, they serve to address the needs of their teammates and develop team cohesion (5). The interaction among teammates from different backgrounds is also important in developing respect for others, which is a desirable leadership attribute (10). As part of a strength and conditioning program, mentorship may be limited to activities in the weight room and on the practice field, but still provides valuable experience and opportunities to teach and motivate younger teammates.

Conclusion

Leadership development is a continuous learning process in which a student-athlete must evolve and practice a specific skill set to develop true aptitude (14). While many sport coaches realize the value of student-athlete leadership, numerous competing requirements prevent the sport coach from fully focusing on this aspect of student-athlete development. The strength and conditioning coach can potentially contribute to the development of student-athlete leadership skills. By sharing a common vision and understanding the values of the sport coach, the strength and conditioning coach can effectively direct efforts in accordance with the direction for the team set by the sport coach. The strength and conditioning coach’s behaviors and actions influence the development of student-athlete leadership skills—serving as a role-model, establishing training goals with the student-athlete, motivating the student-athlete through positive feedback and encouragement, and developing rapport and trust with the student-athlete. The strength and conditioning coach also provides the student-athlete with practical opportunities to improve their leadership skills by providing leadership and decision-making experiences to the student-athlete and establishing a mentorship program to develop team cohesion. While not a traditional role or responsibility, the strength and conditioning coach can surely play a part and contribute to the development of 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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References 

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Mike Kasales is an adjunct professor with the University of Denver’s Master of Arts in Sport Coaching program and is currently pursuing his doctoral (...

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