I’ve heard all the arguments from athletes who think it’s okay to just play sports and not be leaders: I just want to play sports. I’m not perfect. No one listens to me anyway.
I’ve even heard adults agree, saying: That’s too much of a burden to place on a young athlete.
But let’s take another look at the facts. Athletes, just by nature of their roles, are in the spotlight. Even if they are on the bench, they are still out in front of the spectators. Classmates, other parents, siblings—they all see the athlete’s behavior as if it were on center stage.
They can do two things with this exposure: choose to lead, or choose to follow.
As our three kids grew up playing sports, we always encouraged them to be leaders instead of followers, and we also talked about what being an athlete and a leader looks like.
Leaders model more than demand. In fact, demanding is not a leadership trait; it’s more like a weakness. The strongest leaders I’ve ever known are those that walk the talk; their actions speak louder than their words.
No, your child doesn’t have to be an extrovert or a vocal leader; he or she need only to consistently set an example and that repetition will eventually influence teammates to follow. As quarterback for his high school football team, my son’s leadership was characterized more by relationships and setting an example than by yelling at teammates on the field. The result was there was not one offensive lineman on his team who did not proudly protect him.
Leaders take ownership. This means accepting blame for mistakes, going above and beyond assigned duties for the team because it’s MY team, and being an advocate for every team member because they are MY teammates.
Leaders prioritize team. The best athletes get there because they help their teammates win, not because of their individual statistics. Leaders put the team’s success above personal success.
Leaders know when to speak and when to listen. 'Seek first to understand, then to be understood' is one of the principals of leadership espoused by expert Stephen Covey and the mantra that our three athletes grew up hearing. To understand your teammates, you have to listen to them. There does come a time, however, when every leader must have the boldness and the wisdom to speak up and say what should be heard. One of the real challenges of being a leader is knowing where to draw the line.
Leaders show optimism. When an athlete or team loses, or doesn’t achieve what they’d hoped, it’s easy for athletes to beat themselves up - but pessimism brings down a team. An athlete’s optimistic attitude will most likely be contagious.