How to Take Your Sports Leadership Training to the Next Level

A decade ago it was cutting edge to do any kind of sports leadership training with athletes. Our groundbreaking Leadership Academies at Stanford, Illinois, and Pitt were the very first of its kind, pioneering leadership training with athletes and setting the standard for collegiate athletics.

Now, as more and more colleges and high schools understand the sheer importance and value of leadership training for their student-athletes, it is time to evolve beyond merely providing basic leadership training to a more sophisticated and ultimately effective approach.

Ahead of or Behind the Curve?

So, if you are not already doing some kind of sports leadership training for your student-athletes (and coaches), by all means START. You are unquestionably behind the curve at this point if you don’t have any substantive leadership development programming available for your student-athletes.

If you are already doing sports leadership training, ask yourself if the training you provide actually produces better leaders. Does your investment of time, energy, and money actually yield better leaders? How do you know for sure?

We know in our Leadership Academies that at least 95% of student-athletes will measurably improve their leadership skills anywhere from 10%-40% each year they are in the program. And finally, if you are doing leadership training and you know for sure it produces results, ask yourself if you can better tailor your approach to the unique developmental needs of your student-athletes.

For those of you who already systematically train your leaders, you can take your sports leadership training to the next level by doing one key thing: segment your leadership training. This subtle yet significant step substantially increases the impact, relevance, specificity, and effectiveness of your training. Here’s exactly what I mean…

One Size Does NOT Fit All Sports Leadership Training

Too many people take what I call a "one-size-fits-all" approach to leadership development. They gather the entire team (or whole student-athlete body together), freshmen through seniors, leaders and followers, starters and subs, credible and clueless, and try to teach and train them as leaders in one big, homogenous group, as if they are all at the same level.

This shotgun approach is like having a group of beginners, intermediates, and elite level athletes in your sport and trying to coach them all the same. Would you teach the very basics to the beginners and bore the heck out of the elites? Or would you teach the sophisticated, advanced skills to the elite athletes and go way over the beginners’ heads? Even teaching to the intermediates still doesn’t really solve the situation.

Just think about it for a second... Is the new, clueless, unproven, first-year freshman, who doesn’t even know how to effectively lead himself, at the same level as the experienced, proven, mature, respected senior captain who is ready to lead your team to a championship? Of course not!

Lumping everyone together in leadership training as if they are all at the same level is as ludicrous as trying to run an effective practice with a group of beginners, intermediates, and elite athletes all together. The primary problem with this misguided, general, one-size-fits-all approach is that each person is at a very different level in their leadership development. Teaching and training them all the same is an injustice and insult to everyone.

Wouldn’t it be smarter, better, and more effective to understand where each person is on their leadership development journey and strategically segment and target your leadership training accordingly? Just as you would coach a diverse group of beginners, intermediates, and elite athletes differently, it is both wise and necessary to take the same personalized and strategic approach with leadership development.


Sports Leadership Training Segmentation

Rather than take the one-size-fits-all approach to leadership training that so many try unsuccessfully to implement, we use three primary levels to segment our Leadership Training. These three segments revolve around three critical skills that all leaders must develop and demonstrate:

1. SELF LEADERSHIP: How to Lead Yourself

2. TEAMMATE LEADERSHIP: How to Lead Your Teammates

3. TEAM LEADERSHIP: How to Lead Your Team

In consultation with the coaching staff, we invest the time to consider and honestly evaluate where each athlete is on each of the skills by asking these critical questions:

  • How well can and does this athlete lead him/herself?
  • How well can and does this athlete lead his/her teammates?
  • How ready, respected, and equipped is this athlete to partner with the coaches to help lead the whole team?



Based on the answers to these questions, we then intentionally slot them into the corresponding level that best meets their unique needs and stage of leadership development; hence, segmentation.

SELF LEADERSHIP = athletes who can’t yet consistently and effectively lead themselves learn and practice Self Leadership

TEAMMATE LEADERSHIP = athletes who can lead themselves but aren’t comfortable or effective leading their teammates learn and practice Teammate Leadership

TEAM LEADERSHIP = athletes who can lead themselves effectively and know how to lead their teammates learn and practice Team Leadership

You then can structure your sports leadership training so it best serves each of your athletes. Sure, your younger athletes will likely be involved with the beginning levels and your older athletes at the higher levels. However, keep in mind that this competency-based approach depends more on a person’s readiness to take on leadership responsibilities than what year of school they happen to be in. It also means that athletes should not advance to the next level until they consistently understand, demonstrate, and master the skills of the level before it.

Bottom Line with Segmentation: Assess the ability and readiness of your athletes to lead themselves, lead their teammates, and lead the whole team. Then, rather than take a one-size-fits all approach to leadership development, slot them into the appropriate level that best fits where they are currently on their leadership journey.


Here are some practical strategies to successfully implement this more advanced, segmented approach to Sports Leadership Training for your team or athletic department.

SELF LEADERSHIP: How to Lead Yourself

Who: Typically younger athletes (most often freshmen and sophomores) who need to learn how to be more responsible and committed

What: Teach and train them how to be fully responsible for themselves, make smart choices, be reliable, and make a full commitment to their training and team

When: As early as realistically possible. You can invest time in the summer or as soon as possible in the pre-season to work with your athletes who need to learn Self Leadership

How: We have four proven resources that provide a convenient and comprehensive program to teach and train these critical Self Leadership skills.

Responsibility = The Athlete’s Responsibility Manual provides a systematic 6-week self leadership development program to teach and train your athletes what it takes to be responsible (freshmen early fall semester or summer before they arrive)

Accountability = The Teammate's Accountability Manual provides a practical 6-week accountability training program to teach and train your athletes what it means to be fully accountable to each other (freshmen late fall semester)

Commitment = The Athlete’s Commitment Manual provides a 6-week commitment program to teach your athletes what it means to be fully committed to their task, training, and team (freshmen spring semester)

Confidence/Composure/Character = The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual teaches and trains athletes how to become effective Leaders by Example (sophomores fall semester)

TEAMMATE LEADERSHIP: How to Lead Your Teammates

Who: Athletes who know how to effectively and consistently lead themselves and are ready to learn how to lead their teammates. These are typically your more mature sophomores and juniors who have credibility with your coaching staff and their teammates because they lead themselves well

What: Teach emerging leaders how to become effective Vocal Leaders for the team and how to become an Encourager and Enforcer with their teammates

When: Best done in the offseason or preseason

How: The second half of The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual focuses on the Teammate Leadership skills athletes need to become effective Vocal Leaders of the team.

TEAM LEADERSHIP: How to Lead Your Team

Who: Your most respected and credible athletes who know how to effectively lead themselves and their teammates. These will likely be your most respected juniors and seniors - those who are captain-worthy

What: Partner with your established team captains and leaders to help you build and sustain a Championship Culture within your program

When: Off season is ideal but early preseason works as well

How: The Team Captain’s Culture Manual provides a 10-Step Championship Culture Blueprint to teach your leaders what it means to be a Creator, Champion, Connector, and Caretaker of your team’s all-important culture

To help your established team leaders develop and master the skill of holding their teammates accountable, which is their #1 struggle, we also have the How to Hold People Accountable Manual which provides a seven step program to create a Culture of Accountability.


As you can clearly see, dividing your team up into these specific and strategic segments based on your athletes' current leadership skills and abilities is an advanced approach to leadership training. This segmented system best targets your training where it is most appropriate and ultimately has the greatest impact.

While segmentation can obviously take some more time, the payoff and benefits far outweigh the costs. If you are fortunate enough to have a coaching staff, you can assign a specific staff member to take the lead on training each of the three different segments.

In conclusion, in today’s day and age of highly competitive athletics and the visibility that your athletes have in respresenting your team and school, sports leadership training is essential. If you are not training your leaders, start. If you are training your leaders, evaluate its effectiveness. And if you know it is effective, take it to another level by systematically segmenting your approach to best target and impact the various segments of your team. Your athletes will appreciate the dedicated time and attention you spend with them and it will exponentially accelerate their growth as leaders and people – plus make a big contribution to your team’s success.


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