Something was still missing. He wanted something more for the upcoming season and for his players. Over the last fifteen years this coach had mastered the technical and tactical parts of his game, becoming one of the most well-respected coaches across the country. So when he reached out looking for help with his culture I got excited.

After talking for over an hour learning about his team and his own journey in coaching, he identified the biggest area he wanted to grow his culture—leadership. The players on his team were followers and compliant to nearly everything he asked of them, but they weren’t ever leading. He then asked the trillion-dollar question, “What’s the best way to develop leaders this year?”

My answer was simple, “Go first.”

So often in an effort to bring leadership development into sports we can focus heavily on others. Our intentions are good and strategies are positive, but at their core is the idea we need to change others—they need our fixing.

My encouragement to this coach was to first start with himself.

Going First

The next week the leadership team sat down in the coach’s office with an article in front of each person titled, The 7 Qualities of Great Leaders. After everyone had read the article, he posed a question to the group, “Which of these qualities do you think I have the most room for growth?”.

Silence filled the room.

After nearly a full minute of awkward silence one of the least outspoken leaders tried to deflect the question by saying, “Well I think you are really good when it comes to preparation and organization, but I am sure you could keep improving.”

The coach persisted, “Thank you, but I need you to answer the question. Your honest feedback is critical to my growth as a leader and vital to our success this season.”

After awhile, players started to slowly share feedback on the coach’s obvious struggles with patience. The more players spoke the more this coach embraced the feedback and dug deeper asking them to share specific examples of the negative behaviors.

By the end of the thirty-minute leadership meeting, his leaders had identified his area for growth, clarified specific negative behaviors, and agreed to support the coach as he worked to improve in those areas.

This coach also modeled a growth mindset to his leaders, setting the stage for successful future conversations with them about their own individual areas of growth.

But something more impactful happened throughout the conversation—the relationship with his players deepened.

Lead with Your Strengths, Connect through Your Struggles

People seem more interested in being perceived as a great leader, than actually becoming a great leader. We try to fake it, until we can make it. People see through it and it builds walls to real relationship. Our real story is what people will connect with.

Years ago, I had reached a critically low point in my relationship with a few players. My own decision to open up and share my struggles as a coach and admitting some of my personal struggles to these players was a turning point in the course of our relationships. Instead of these players respecting me less, the players opened up and admitted to some of their own struggles and fears.

Trust and respect are not built by presenting a strong front at every moment, they are built by finding appropriate times to share the struggles and challenges our life entails.

-J.P. Nerbun