10 Qualities of a Leader in Sports [+ Tips & Insights for Coaches]

Portrait of happy female physical education teacher at school gym looking at camera. Students are exercising in the background.

The lasting impact of a coach should not be underestimated. Coaches have the ability to instill qualities of a leader in sports, but also skills that seamlessly translate into various aspects of student-athletes’ lives.

The University of San Diego’s certificate program, Coaching Today’s Student Athletes, was created by coaches for coaches to foster strong leadership in sports and those big-picture, change-making skills. Keep reading to learn about key qualities of a leader, ready-to-implement tips and relationship building tools.

Qualities of a Leader in Sports

Tips for Coaches to Develop Strong Leaders

How to Build a Strong Coach-Athlete Relationship

Qualities of a Leader in Sports

Attributes learned in a sports setting can help athletes long after their last game. Here are some of the many qualities that coaches can nurture in student athletes:

  1. Accountability. Strong leaders in general take responsibility for their actions and hold themselves accountable. A culture of accountability is important to unite a team.
  2. Patience. Practicing patience in sports cultivates mental focus and discipline, as well as improving emotional control.
  3. Integrity. Athletes who participate fairly in competition are fostering sportsmanship, trust and credibility.
  4. Vision. Being able to form a clear vision and long-term perspective for oneself and the group is incredibly valuable.
  5. Communication. The ability to effectively listen, speak and provide constructive feedback is arguably the top quality of a leader in sports.
  6. Emotional intelligence. Not only should a leader be able to understand their own emotions, they should also be able to meaningfully connect with others.
  7. Decision-making. This includes analyzing situations, considering different perspectives, and making a decision that is best for the team.
  8. Adaptability. Changing course in the face of adversity, and encouraging others to learn from setbacks, is at the core of adaptability.
  9. Confidence. Leaders should exude confidence, therefore motivating teammates, and serving as a model for overall success.
  10. Resilience. Overcoming challenges is just the beginning. Resilient leaders also maintain a positive attitude.

Tips for Coaches to Develop Strong Leaders

There’s more than meets the eye when it comes to a coach’s role. Besides completing logistical tasks — such as planning practices, strategizing plays, and organizing game days — a coach’s most important job is mentorship. Consider these tips to have the most impact:

  • Model behavior. Define the culture of the team and embody it.
  • Find ways to motivate. A coach is the team’s biggest cheerleader and should consistently act as such.
  • Be transparent. Have open communication with members of the team, just as you expect from them.
  • Utilize the GROW model. Developed in the 1980s by Sir John Whitmore and others, GROW is an effective framework for goal setting and problem solving:
    • Goal. Clearly establish what you want the team, and each player, to accomplish.
    • Reality. Focus on attainable achievements to ensure that everyone stays motivated.
    • Options. Encourage athletes to think more broadly about challenges they may be facing. Oftentimes when they turn to a coach, they feel limited by their own mindset and need to be provided with options.
    • Will. Ask these questions regarding any action plan that is formed: “What will you do?” and “On a scale of one to 10, how likely is it that you will do this?”

How to Build a Strong Coach-Athlete Relationship

Honesty and positivity are at the heart of a strong coach-athlete relationship. These tips will help you foster the type of relationship that benefits everyone long-term:

  • Form strong individual relationships with members of the team in order to understand personal goals that will contribute to team wins.
  • Establish trust by being honest and good-intentioned. This sets a standard of respect among players.
  • Act as a role model, which is a 24/7 job. That includes taking accountability for your actions, just as you expect from those you coach.
  • Consider hosting a team event outside of the typical practice or game atmosphere. This gives athletes a chance to connect with you, and each other, in a more relaxed setting.

To nurture these skills, USD created a 100% online, self-paced program. The certificate can be earned in as few as two semesters. The four required courses focus on principles of coaching, character and athletics, how to reach every athlete on your team and leadership in coaching.

Learn more about the importance of continuing education for educators with the free ebook: 5 Reasons Why Continuing Education Matters for Educators.


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