Team Leadership Lessons from Athletes

athlete-leadersLeadership is fundamental to performance in both business and sports. As a result, in the world of sports, most of the leadership research over the past 25 years has been focused on the appointed coach or team captain, versus athletes who demonstrate leadership qualities and actions on the playing field (“athlete-leaders”). The distinction is important because athlete-leaders improve team cohesion, athlete satisfaction, team confidence, and motivational dynamics within the team.

Cotterhill and Fransen (2015) reviewed the existing research covering athlete leadership with the goal of better understanding the role of the athlete-leader and his or her impact on team performance. The authors described a four-part categorization, including two on-field leadership roles (task leader and motivational leader) and two off-field roles (social leader and external communications leader). Their study showed that teams with athlete-leaders who collectively fulfilled all four roles saw higher team confidence, stronger team identification, and better team performance. Notably, in a study of 4451 athletes and coaches, in only 2% of the teams did one athlete fulfill all four leadership roles. Equally notable, there were a maximum of three athletes perceived as leaders on any one team.

Cotterhill and Franson concluded that team performance is enhanced when leadership is shared across the team. The studies they reviewed consistently showed that the role of the team leader should be to foster that shared leadership. Moreover, many of the research studies demonstrated that the qualities of an exceptional team leader were not determined by playing time, age, team tenure, or sports experience. Teammates indicated that it was their connection to, and relationship with, the team leader that most determined their perception of leadership quality, along with the team leader’s willingness to “walk the talk”. The results of Cotterhill and Fransen’s review of the athlete-leader literature are consistent with research conducted among organization-based teams – at the core of team effectiveness are key relationships. Team leaders who ensure those relationships foster energy and engagement see improved performance and increased well-being.

Stewart T. Cotterill & Katrien Fransen (2016) Athlete leadership in sport teams: Current understanding and future directions, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9:1, 116-133, doi:10.1080/1750984X.2015.1124443


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About the Author

Dr. Jeb Hurley is a leading expert on team dynamics and building high-performance hybrid / remote teams. He guides leaders in understanding and influencing human behavior and creating trust and psychological safety. Jeb’s innovative, behavioral science-based approach to leadership development improves team performance and people’s wellbeing faster and at a lower cost. Learn more about Jeb’s work at Brainware Partners.