Photo: Christine Wisch
“Sports build character” is a popular mantra in our society. We love sports and want our kids to participate in them. Of course, not because we think they will become professional athletes, but instead because we believe playing sports helps shape and mold them in positive ways. We can’t accept this belief as intrinsically and fundamentally true of sport.
Competition can just as easily teach and validate unsportsmanlike behavior as it can instill values like leadership, teamwork, and integrity. The way we structure our youth sports organizations will determine what our kids learn playing sports. It’s imperative we take action to mold the results rather than simply accept some predetermined outcome of the game.
Coaches at every level beginning at Squirt/10U should have ways to delegate leadership to their players. Before a high school captain gets the C on his jersey, he probably should have led some off-ice warm-ups for his teams growing up, spoken directly to the coach when an issue arose, or been responsible for making sure the locker room was clean before the team departed the rink. While these are relatively simple tasks compared to the leadership dilemmas that arise throughout a season, experiencing them provides a scaffolding for youth athletes to ultimately become effective leaders in tougher situations.
Below is a short list of leadership tasks that can be expected by certain ages.
• Run off-ice warm-ups with coach present.
• Speaks directly with coach if player has question on playing time, position, etc.
• Looks coach in eye when speaking.
• Locker room leader to make sure locker room is clean.
• In most cases, coach instructs players to resolve conflicts amongst themselves and provides guidance from a distance.
• Shakes coaches’ hand.
• Team talks: players begin to take lead, coach helps moderate.
• Players take ownership of practice (move pucks, help set up cones for familiar drills, etc.)
• Locker room leaders are assigned to do time-checks and make sure everyone is ready on time.
• Bystander bully rule (must intervene or notify an adult).
• Players lead warm-ups without direct coach supervision.
• Lead younger groups in training exercises or on-ice sessions.
• Help teammates when they are down, provide positive encouragement without coach prompting.
• Bring team concerns directly and respectfully to coaching staff.
• Mentorship program with Mites/Squirts/PeeWees/Bantams.
There are plenty of other ways to have players take ownership and many coaches have come up with far more creative solutions. Many associations have that coach everyone speaks highly of. How do they inspire their players to take a greater leadership role, become better teammates and excel in the classroom?
Let players resolve conflicts as much on their own as possible. It’s not easy to ask players to step up and deal with their team problems head on. Certainly, an easier road is to just arbitrate the dispute yourself, hear both sides, hand out discipline and move on. But we all know that the issues often remain when the players do not tackle the team problem, at least in part, on their own.
It is amazing how effective student-athlete leadership can be in squashing bullying, laziness or a lack of focus. When strong leadership exists, problems rarely come to fruition. A player that starts to cross the line is told, implicitly or explicitly by the leaders, to knock it off. And guess what? They almost always stop.
As coaches, we don’t have to do much besides manage the issue. Sure, we might suggest to a leader on the team to talk with a given player or step up in a certain way, but we often don’t need to step in much further. In other cases, if strong leaders are not present in the group, the coaches are continuously intervening, asking for greater work ethic or someone to step up to the team bully.
The sooner we teach players to assertively stand up and confront team leadership issues, the better positioned they’ll be to lead in more difficult situations.
Josh Levine is the Assistant Coach of the Bloomington Jefferson Girls Varsity Hockey team and owner of The Fortis Academy. Fortis works with youth associations to implement skill development programs with all teams, from Mites to Bantams. The program includes parent education seminars, coaching clinics and Fortis skill-based practices. If you’re interested in learning more, shoot Josh an email at email@example.com. Follow Fortis on Facebook and Instagram.