Five Steps to building a fortress of leaders

Sports training isn’t about generalities. You’d never tell your team, “Just get the ball out there… somewhere.” Or say, “Don’t worry about the goalie. Just kick it within the vicinity.”

Without accuracy, without precision, there is no game. There is no goal, there is no team. More importantly, there is no win.

Leah Johnson, Head Women’s Volleyball Coach at Southern Illinois, felt concerned enough about the generalities surrounding leadership to get in touch with our team of experts at Positive Performance. Specifically, she wanted to know our opinions about:

  1. Leadership in athletics;
  2. Developing leaders within the team;
  3. The importance of strong leadership skills.

And we’re going to tell you precisely what we told her.  


Let’s get specific

Generic leadership training isn’t specific to the sports arena. Leadership tips are being passed around everywhere. From the mouths of retail managers to their employees, from counselors to parents in family management clinics, from business consultants to CEOs of huge corporations, from military officers to the enlisted, ‘leadership training’ is the ‘go to’ term.

Generalities are great… for the average-minded. But, when you need to get the most out of your players, it’s time to go even further.

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and a team is only as strong as the fortress it’s built.

Leadership IS important but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s not start building leadership without a proper foundation. After all, leadership is not simply about learning how to communicate effectively, nor is it merely people management, or being able to put the right person in the right place to achieve a predetermined goal.

Leadership is really about one thing: strength. More specifically, mental strength.

A leader lacking strength lacks belief, and a team cannot gather behind a leader who does not believe in him/herself.

Can you imagine the Revolutionary armies gathering behind a timid George Washington? Or a meek FDR guiding the United States through World War Two?

Don’t get me wrong. Conventional leadership training—which builds communication, confidence, responsibility, people management, and motivational skills, among other things—is important. Many successful team captains, managers, and coaches out in the field use skills taught by conventional leadership training to effectively guide their teams on and off the playing field . But I think too often we, as professionals and as people, forget that leadership is built on INTERNAL FORTITUDE, not external strength.

Imagine this very common scenario:

You have a 22-year-old senior captain with low or inconsistent self-confidence. While she helps your team in innumerable physical ways, what you really need is some leadership. You need SOMEONE to step up. The problem is, while this athlete has the best intentions, you can see from the way she interacts with teammates and how she handles stress that she is inadequately equipped with the mental skills needed to:

  • Handle strong competitive pressure
  • Deal with team and personal failures
  • Lead your team on the field or court

Frankly, while “leadership training” is the go-to default for many coaches and while this player may benefit from that kind of training in some small ways… this athlete simply doesn’t need leadership training right now!

What she needs first is the mental skills to build a solid sense of self upon.

Resilience. Mental Toughness. Confidence. Call it what you will, but without it your team will fail in places that can’t be mended by more reps, more practice, more gym time, or more games. It’s an internal issue resulting in an external problem. And, being internal, an internal remedy is the only answer. That remedy is building up mental skills.

And, at Positive Performance, we’re pros at building mental toughness.

And, since we believe in action, here are five ways mental training can help change uncertain players into athletic leaders:

1) Fear Awareness. Fear paralyzes. It stalls. It’s the difference between a goal and no goal with seconds left on the clock. Fear has many faces: responsibility, social image, disappointment, newness, discomfort, loss. The most important question here is: ‘What are you really afraid of? Once this question is answered, the athlete can take time to address those fears head on.

2) Give Up Perfection. One of the biggest barriers to athletes becoming leaders is the intimidation of being perfect. They feel that without achieving perfection they are ill-equipped to lead others. This means their ability to lead is dependent on how they are performing that day. Missed shot? Leadership suffers. Missed a dig the last two plays? Leadership suffers. Woke up on the wrong side of the bed? Well… you get the point. The key is to disconnect “perfection” with “leadership”, thus making your athlete’s role as a leader more about how they handle imperfection, not about if they are perfect or not. Otherwise the times you need leadership the most are the times it is noticeably absent.

3) Be Bold and Brave. It takes guts to stand up and be a leader. It takes a strong resolve to stand up for what is right. It takes internal fortitude to confront and challenge a teammate. Players with low self-confidence avoid scenarios where they are required to “step up”; they may even hold others back from bravery, often times without knowing it. People with high confidence will raise others up to their level… and those with lower confidence will drag down the rest.

4) Build Mental Muscle. Most athletes recognize the importance of exercising all the parts of the body and not just one or two groups of muscles. Muscular balance is critical to avoiding injury and playing at one’s best. However, one area is all too often thought of as secondary, if thought of at all: the BRAIN.

Great leaders take the time to develop themselves as people, not merely as bodies: they recognize their strengths and work on their weaknesses. All of them. Improving mental strength and humility makes an athlete mentally tough and a person their teammates can trust.

5) The Discipline of Positivity. Great leaders know that mental strength is a discipline, not a character trait. Do effective leaders feel great every day? Of course not. Do they always find it easy to be positive? No. Leaders are human; they have bad days just like everyone else. The difference is that leaders recognize that thoughts guide behavior and they learn to be disciplined in their thinking. Being positive is a choice, not a trait. As a coach you know this, the leaders of your team might not.

And that is Positive Performance. We teach teams and individuals how to build the internal fortitude necessary for great leadership. I hope that reading this will make you look at your training techniques from a new angle. Perhaps you’ve learned something new and you can now prepare to build your team’s leadership muscle from the inside out, building in and around them an even stronger fortress of skill and power.

Or, if you’ve already been applying these tips to your team and are wanting more… we’ve got plenty! We invite you to contact us as soon as possible so that we can share with you even more training techniques which have been proven to increase year over year wins by 15%. Remember: great athletes are developed from the inside out. Building your fortress with a strong, internal foundation, will guarantee you and your team the best results, the most victories, and stronger, more confident student-athletes.

P.S. In addition to the 15% year over year win increase, our studies have shown that mental training also improves teams’ offensive and defensive skills by significant margins. Visit the results page to read more about the results behind our mental training.

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