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Differentiated Leadership: How to Figure Out What Each Athlete Needs

On a team, there are athletes who naturally gravitate towards leadership roles and require little support. But those athletes aren't the only ones who can be team leaders, and a dedicated coach can help athletes hone previously dormant leadership skills.

Here, TrueSport Expert Deborah Gilboa, MD, explains how to look at your team through a new lens: Seeing each athlete as capable of taking on leadership roles, and as individuals who may require different types of encouragement from you.

Leadership can look different to different athletes

It's important to recognize that leadership is not an inherent trait: it's a series of skills that can be honed. Similarly, there’s not just one type of leader. "We often have this picture, especially in sport, of what a leader looks like," Gilboa says. "Most people will list characteristics like outgoing, assertive, talented, and communicative. But the truth is that not all leaders are like that, and we rob some kids of leadership opportunities because they don't have those obvious characteristics. Some leaders have great insight and empathy, or the ability to listen and not to talk, or to delegate decision making."

Differentiate your coaching and their leadership

"Differentiating leadership means knowing your group and giving each athlete an opportunity to use the leadership characteristics that are natural to them," Gilboa explains. "And it's also about differentiating your approach to each athlete." Some kids will respond well to tough love, others need quiet guidance, some need reassurance, and some need to be pushed a bit harder in order to perform.

You need to let athletes lead

Because of the work required to manage a team and the needs of each player, you cannot be the only leader for your team. "There's not enough of you to go around," Gilboa says. "You'll burn out trying to be the only leader." However, especially at the start of a season, it can feel difficult to let go of leading and trust that your athletes can take over certain aspects. In fact, it can feel like more work as you set up team leaders who will run the team through warm up drills and cool-downs, or who will help to call plays and offer suggestions to other players. But fostering leaders in the group will pay off quickly—and save you time and energy through the season. Delegate as much as possible to leaders on the team as the season progresses. This is also great practice for them!

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Mental Health Coach TrueSport