Tag Archive for leadership

Who should be leader on the court?

Leadership is a major consideration for any team. To that end, a coach presented the following scenario.

If my best player is the Alpha, asserting herself, telling people where to go etc. But she isn’t the setter, how do you feel about that. I.e. does the player’s position matter?

Here’s what I personally believe. Feel free to argue otherwise.

The setter should be a leader on the court, but does not need to be the leader. For sure, the setter runs the offense. In that role it is important that they be a leader.

Similarly, the libero is the first ball specialist As such, they have leadership responsibility in the areas of defense and serve reception.

Then there’s the middle blocker. They are generally in charge of the blocking side of things – especially when their team is serving. As such, they are leaders in their own way also.

As you can see, I expect leadership to be shared around. It comes from multiple sources and in different ways. Rarely will you have a situation where only one player is the leader, even if they are captain. They may be the vocal leader, and as such the most overt. That isn’t the only form of leadership, however. Nor is it necessarily the most important.

So the answer the question posed, I have no problem with a non-setter being the “alpha”. That is, of course, so long as they are not in conflict with the other leaders and lead in an appropriate fashion (different discussion).

I should note that the above has little to do with who you select for the official team captain. That’s a different type of responsibility. It’s about dealing with the referee, not about dealing with their teammates – though there can certainly be overlap.

Book Review: Legacy by James Kerr

Legacy, by James Kerr, is a book that often comes up when discussing coaching book recommendations. I want to stress up front that this in not a coaching book. Amazon at this writing has it listed in Sports Psychology, but that doesn’t fit either, to my mind. I think the book description does a pretty good job of saying what it’s really about.

In Legacy, best-selling author James Kerr goes deep into the heart of the world’s most successful sporting team, the legendary All Blacks of New Zealand, to reveal 15 powerful and practical lessons for leadership and business.

Focus on that last part about lessons for leadership and business. That is most definitely what the author provides.

As for the rest of it, I have my issues. The description makes it sound like the story of the All Blacks is the core material. In particular, the team’s transformation after a period of uncharacteristic under-performance is meant to be the main focus. While that story provides a framework, that’s about all. You can perhaps work out the time line of that transition, but it’s presented piecemeal. One of my problems with the book was that at points I didn’t know where the author was in the All Blacks history when he shared certain stories. It was rather annoying.

Also, the All Blacks are not the only references the author makes. He includes ideas from the likes of Phil Jackson and Bill Walsh as well, in terms of sports. There are a number of non-sports references too.

Obviously, I have no problem with references to all-time great coaches. Sometimes the language of the text is a little too stereotypical of leadership books, and there is too much repetition of certain elements for my taste. Overall, though, the “lessons”, concepts, and explanations are quite worthwhile.

Overall, I’d say this is a book worth reading if you go into it with the right set of expectations.

Develop these habits to be a better coach

A while ago I commented on a blog post which discussed 10 things that lead to coaching failure. The same author has a related post looking at the habits successful coaches develop. They are loosely based on the ideas put forth in the book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey (which is definitely worth a read).

They are as follows (paraphrased):

  1. Make training harder than competition
  2. Learn and develop at a faster rate than your athletes
  3. Make your rate of learning faster than your opposition
  4. Develop your creative thinking abilities
  5. Coach the individual
  6. Ensure that each player out-prepares their opposition
  7. Develop training plans which optimise impact on each player
  8. Make training as game-like as possible
  9. Adopt an integrated approach to talent development
  10. Lead

The first entry is something I have long lived by, and I think #8 has been pretty well covered. Notice the heavy focus on individual athletes. Also see how many relate to continuous learning.

I think #4 deserves a little extra attention.

You may not think of it this way, but coaching is a creative endeavor. At least it is when done well. I’m not talking about whether coaching is an art or a science, or some combination. It’s much more simple than that.

Coaching is about identifying a need and figuring out to meet it. That almost always involves trying to work around limitations or constraints. It’s creative problem solving. An example of this is dynamic practice planning.

Coaching leadership differences between the genders

During my Volleyball Coaching Wizards conversations I’ve spoken with coaches who have worked with both male and female players. I always make a point of asking each of them how they approach the two genders. Is there any difference in their coaching? What’s been interesting is that many have responded that they don’t really change anything.

One of the early influences on my own coaching was Anson Dorrance. He’s the long-time women’s soccer coach at the University of North Carolina. He started off on the men’s side and for a while coached both men and women. As a result, he’s got some very interesting observations on the differences in leading the two groups. They tend to disagree with the “I treat everyone the same” idea. Check out this discussion of his on the subject (hat tip to volleyballcoaching101)

One of the things I can’t help but wonder about coaches who claim they are the same coaching male athletes and female ones is if there really are differences they just don’t recognize. I know that I am different coaching men than coaching women. It’s not an intentional thing for the most part. I don’t consciously say I’m going to have this demeanor on the court with the men and this other demeanor with the women. It just sort of happens.

Listening to Anson, the other thing I got to wondering was if coaches tend to niche themselves based on whether their personality better suits working with one gender or the other.

Adapting team leadership roles

I place a lot of responsibilities on the shoulders of my team captains as part of a general delegation process. I give them administrative duties. They help me better understand team and player sentiment and dynamics. I solicit advice and feedback from them on a regular basis. And of course I expect them to provide on- and off-court leadership and generally represent the ideals of the team and the program.

My 2013-14 Exeter women’s team captain was about as good as I’ve ever had. Her organizational skills were top notch to begin with. She and I were able to communicate about team and player issues. And her leadership developed very nicely as the season progressed.

Going into the 2014-15 season, though, there were a lot of questions about her role with the team. After the prior season she was very resistant to the idea of carrying on as captain. This was mainly a function of her own increasing workload as a PhD student with teaching duties. She also had a resident hall adviser position. She didn’t feel she could be as hands-on with the team admin side of things as she was previously.

Now, you have to keep in mind that we’re talking about a student-run club here. That puts a greater burden on the player-leaders from an organizational perspective than would be the case at a US university in a varsity program where there’s more of a support structure.

As much as there was that resistance to remaining team captain, I could not see a situation in which she would simply be another squad player. That was what she had in mind. The leadership personality was now too strong. The expectations were too high. She was always going to be a leader of this team. From the try-outs onward she took charge and was clearly viewed by the new players as who they look to for direction. Maybe if we had a highly experienced player with a strong personality coming into the team there would have been a question as to whether another candidate existed for team captain. No such player turned up, though. That being the case, it was a question of how to arrange things to allow her to be that leader, while removing a considerable fraction of the administrative work.

I an idea to create the position of team secretary. The role mainly involved getting information out to the team and collecting anything from them I or the club might need. It wasn’t complicated work. Chasing up 13 other players can pose its fair share of challenges, however.

The captain and I talked about it. We selected a player we thought would be good for the role. It wasn’t a player we identified as being a team leader. She wasn’t really even a potential future leader per se (though that prospect always exists). It was more someone organizationally capable and able to coordinate with both myself and the captain.

Did it work? I think so. We looked at the situation we had and found a solution. No two teams or seasons are the same. You probably won’t have a consistent leadership structure among your players. That means adapting and finding ways to get what you need.

Principles for success from the front line

After writing the post about the characteristics of a good team captain, I recalled something worthwhile on the subject of leadership. It’s applicable equally to captains and coaches, so I thought I’d share it here.

One of the great cinematic works of recent years is the HBO series Band of Brothers. If you haven’t seen this World War II story, and can deal with a fair bit of graphic war oriented footage, I strongly encourage you to watch the series. It is based on a book of the same name which documents the history of a real unit of US paratroopers – Easy Company, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment – from their initial training through to the end of the war. The series includes interview footage of the surviving members of Easy Company and generally provides a good soldier’s perspective.

One of the officers for Easy Company is Dick Winters, who ends the war as a Major. He authored his own book titled Beyond Band of Brothers: The War Memoirs of Major Dick Winters. In it he not only tells the story from his own perspective, which is a little different (though not dramatically so, just more a matter of perspective), but he also shares a number of his insights into leadership. At the end of the book there’s a page titled Leadership at the Point of the Bayonet where Winters shares his principles for leaders. I think they are well worth reviewing for volleyball coaches and are something which can help in the development of good team captains.

Ten Principles for Success
  1. Strive to be a leader of character, competence, and courage.
  2. Lead from the front. Say, “Follow me!” and then lead the way.
  3. Stay in top physical shape – physical stamina is the root of mental toughness.
  4. Develop your team. If you know your people, are fair in setting realistic goals and expectations, and lead by example, you will develop teamwork.
  5. Delegate responsibility to your subordinates and let them do their job. You can’t do a good job if you don’t have a chance to use your imagination and creativity.
  6. Anticipate problems and prepare to overcome obstacles. Don’t wait until you get to the top of the ridge and then make up your mind.
  7. Remain humble. Don’t worry about who receives the credit. Never let power or authority go to your head.
  8. Take a moment of self-reflection. Look at yourself in the mirror every night and ask yourself if you did your best.
  9. True satisfaction comes from getting the job done. They key to a successful leader is to earn respect – not because of rank or position, but because you are a leader of character.
  10. Hang Tough! – Never, ever, give up.

The qualities of a good team captain

There is an article in which Team GB 2012 Olympic volleyball captain Lynne Beattie talks about team captaincy. When I coached at Exeter, I had the misfortune of coaching against Lynne and her Northumbria team during the national semifinals of the 2014 BUCS Final 8s. Well, misfortune in terms of being sorely outclassed on the court. We were just happy to have progressed that far!

Anyway, the article brings up the qualities which make for a good team captain. It talks about how after a certain point it’s just not simply the best player on the team. This isn’t to say that doesn’t often remain the case, as the qualities which produce good captains very often result in good players as well. It’s just that not all great players are captain material.

So what does Lynne think good captains have? Calmness under pressure is at or near the top of the list. Hard to disagree with that. Nobody wants a captain who cracks when the heat is turned up. It needs to be the other way around – the captain helping the rest of the team deal with the stress and strain.

From my own perspective, here’s what else I think makes for an ideal team captain, in no particular order:

Team focus

They put the team’s performance and objectives ahead of their own. This isn’t to say they don’t worry about their own game, but they are committed to the broader goals.

Communication skills

A good captain communicates well with both their teammates and the coach(es). For me the latter is very important. I need to be able to have a dialog with my captain(s) to be able to ensure that I know what I need to know to manage the team most effectively and that the team understands my thinking and decision-making.


This need not be of the loud, constantly talking kind. I should be able to look at them and see the focus, concentration, and commitment in their eyes, though.

Work ethic

The captain must be one of the hardest working players on the team, if not the hardest. Lazy players in leadership roles set very bad examples.


This is multifaceted. The captain must respect the players and be respected by them. The same is true with the coach(es) and anyone else associated with the team.

Organizational skills

I personally delegate quite a bit of team management to my captains, so having someone who can be organized is important. The ability to delegate to others is useful in this context as well.

Positive attitude

I’m not talking cheer-leading here. For some captains, in some circumstances, that is a desirable course (as with coaches), but what I’m talking about here is mentality. There’s no whining or moaning or pulling of faces when they disapprove of something. They are constructive rather than critical. They are more optimist than pessimist.


This maybe falls under communications skills, but I want to break it out for specific focus. It is important for a captain to be able to be critical of their teammates, either individually or collectively. And from there they must be able to effectively kick them in the butt when required. Sometimes that sort of thing is much more impactful when it comes from within the team rather than just coming from the coach.

I’m sure you can think of some other features of a good captain. If you do, or you disagree with something I’ve said above, leave a comment below.

Terry Pettit has a chapter in his book Talent and the Secret Life of Teams in which he talks about some of the captains he had over the years. It is definitely worth a read. It speaks to both the demands of captaincy and the different types of captains there are. We don’t often get an exact ideal captain in our teams. I happened to have a very good one on that team which reached the BUCS semifinals, but in some ways she grew into the role over the course of the season. The coaching of the captain as a leader is something which cannot be ignored in all this. It probably doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

It should also be noted that captaincy isn’t the only form of leadership.

Picking team captains

A while back I came across a blog post which discusses the subject of picking team captains. The blogger in question took something of a military view on leadership and the selection of leaders. Generally speaking, though, the major question was whether the team should select captains or the coach. Each method has pluses and minuses.

Team votes on their captain

On the plus side, if we as coaches allow the team to pick their captain there’s a pretty good probability of team buy-in for the choice. The risk, of course is that you get it what essentially is a popularity contest which doesn’t reflect actual leadership. You could also end up with a squad split based on which player ends up being leader and which one doesn’t.

Coach picks the team captain

Here, the benefit is that the coach can select a player who most demonstrates the characteristics they want in the team’s leader. The risk, however, is that the team does not accept the selected player well.

The author of the blog post offers a split solution of having two captains – one voted and one coach-picked. I’ve definitely seen teams do this. I’ve also seen teams have multiple captains who were either strictly voted for or coach-selected. The advantage to the multiple-captain situation is you are able to balance strengths and weaknesses among the captains.

I personally tend strongly toward the coach-selection model. For me, I think the risks in the democratic model are high, while if I’m doing my job of observing team dynamics I should be able to avoid picking a captain the team won’t accept (not that it’s a guarantee, of course). Importantly, I also want to ensure that the team’s captain is someone with whom I can work and communicate, to whom I can delegate, and from whom I can get meaningful information and feedback.

What about you? What’s your team captain approach?

Get others involved

I want to share one other bit of advice that came out of the “If I knew then…” seminar I talked about previously. It’s the need to get others involved in your team/club/program. I think this subject deserves its own space as it’s probably something many of us don’t do nearly as well as we could or should. I know I often fall short myself.


The first part of involving others is the ability to delegate. In terms of a volleyball coach that generally means giving assistant coaches responsibility for certain facets of coaching and/or administration. If you look at a collegiate program in the States you’ll see that the various assistant coaches have different duties. There is often some coaching specialization – one may work with the setters, another on blocking, etc. One assistant may be the recruiting coordinator, while another may handle all the team travel. On match day one assistant may have stats duty while another pays attention only to the opposition side of the court.

Obviously, in a smaller club environment, or in a situation where one is short of staff, there’s less opportunity for pure specialization. The coaches must all wear multiple hats. One way to help spread the responsibility around in those situations is to delegate to the team captain(s). This can be a very good way to develop their leadership skills along with helping you get things done as efficiently as possible. I think you get the idea.

The key to delegating, of course, is matching skill sets to the necessary jobs. This goes for the fun stuff as well as those duties no one really wants to do. You may want to shuffle some drudge work off to an assistant. If you actually are the best for the job, though, then you’re actually not helping your cause at all. Focus on apply everyone’s strengths as best you can.

Enlisting External Help

The other part of involving others is bringing in support from those outside the coaching circle. Running a team or program involves any number of tasks. A coach must do some of them, but willing volunteers can do plenty of things. Generally, these are going to fall into the administrative category – fund raising, equipment purchases, travel arrangements, etc. Volunteers can even handle some on-court stuff, though. For example, if you go to a big Juniors club tournament in the States it’s not unusual to see fathers of the players on the court during warm-ups retrieving balls to keep things moving so the team can focus on getting in their reps.

Of course you do need to be cautious in who you bring in to help you out. You don’t want someone who is going to negatively impact the culture or chemistry of your team or the dynamics of your staff. Parents are often a very delicate thing. They can be quite willing to help out, but it comes in many cases with biases, so you generally need to give them very specific, very narrow responsibilities.

Inventory Time!

Take some time and list out all the various responsibilities associated with managing your team or program. Then list out all the resources you have available to you currently in terms of personnel who can help out, along with the strengths and weaknesses of each. Once you have both, match the strengths of your resources with the responsibilities.

Can you match them all up? Can you do it, but only if you stretch things a bit? Are there places where you have someone doing something when they would be better suited to do something else? That’s where you need to try to take a wider look at what’s available to you. Maybe you can use people connected to your team in new ways. Maybe you need to bring someone else into the fold.

What’s your experience?

I’d be interested to hear your own strategies for enlisting additional help, and any stories you have about doing so. Feel free to use the comment section below or start a conversation Facebook.

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