Is Your Best Player Also Your Best Leader?

“As I look back on my coaching career, almost all of our best seasons occurred when my best player was also my best leader,” UNC baseball coach Mike Fox astutely noted when we first designed and developed the Carolina Leadership Academy.

Think about your best seasons as a coach…

I’ll bet you too had many of your best seasons when your Best Player was at least one of, if not the best leader on your team.

Your Best Player is undoubtedly influential just for their sheer athletic talent alone. Not only do they have your full attention as a coach but they also usually have tremendous pull with their teammates because of their ability to perform at a high level. Many teammates mentally and socially put the team’s Best Player on a pedestal, want to be around them, desire their respect, and look to them to set the tone for the entire team. As the team’s alpha dog, teammates also often defer to the Best Player on a variety of matters. For better or for worse, your team’s Best Player is typically placed at the top of your team’s totem pole.

With this level of influence because of their physical prowess, imagine if you could add another, deeper level of respect as your team’s best leader as well. Not only do teammates admire the person because of their athletic skills, they also willingly and wholeheartedly follow them because of their strong and credible leadership skills.

This “Best Player/Leader” combo, such as a Derek Jeter, Tim Duncan, Diana Taurasi, or Tom Brady, is an enormously positive and powerful one-two punch that has tremendous influence on your team. "When your best player is one of your hardest workers. That's motivating. That's special. And it has a trickle down effect," says Klay Thompson about Golden State Warriors MVP teammate Steph Curry.

Here’s what the Killer Combo of Best Player/Leader brings to your program:
• sets the tone at practice, in the weight room, in conditioning
• exudes confidence your team can take on any challenges and achieve lofty goals
• maintains their poise and composure and calms the team when adversity hits
• makes smart choices on and off the playing field and encourages others to do the same
• plays and practices with high energy and enthusiasm and lifts others to their level
• encourages and builds the confidence of their teammates
• realizes that it is more about the total team’s success - not just their own stats
• builds and bonds your team and galvanizes them toward a common goal
• holds self and teammates accountable to your team’s high standards

Sounds pretty amazing, right? It most definitely is!

Having your Best Player as your team’s best leader is one of those special situations coaches salivate over and often springboards your team to greatness – not to mention makes your life so much easier as a coach.

Unfortunately, in a recent survey I conducted, most coaches estimate that only 10% of the time their Best Player is also their best leader.

Translation: 90% of the time your Best Player is not your best leader – or, put another way, roughly only 1 out of every 10 seasons your Best Player is your best leader.  Regrettably, the Best Player/Leader magical combo is the rare exception rather than the rule – especially if you leave your Best Player’s leadership development totally to chance rather than consciously developing them.

I highly encourage you to identify your best athletes when they are young and invest the time to develop their leadership skills along with their physical skills. In fact, we encourage the coaches in our Leadership Academies to make sure they get their most talented young athletes into our Emerging Leaders program so we can maximize their chances of becoming the Best Player/Leader combo for the team. You too can do the same by intentionally developing the leadership skills of your young, highly skilled athletes with our Team Captain's Leadership Manual and Team Captain's Culture Manual.

When Your Best Player is Your Best Leader

Here are some things you should do when your Best Player is your best leader.

1. Celebrate and be thankful

As mentioned, this is a rare yet special situation. Whether you consciously and systematically developed your Best Player’s leadership skills over time or you simply lucked out, count yourself fortunate to have your Best Player as your best leader.

2. Appreciate and partner with your Best Player/Leader

Let your Best Player/Leader know how much you appreciate and value their leadership. Let them know that you would like to develop a positive and productive partnership and trust to co-lead the team. Of course, the buck stops with you as the coach and adult, but you can work together to create a highly credible leadership team.

3. Communicate often

Invest the time to communicate with your leaders often to ensure you are on the same page. Dedicate time for frequent check-ins so you can collectively monitor and manage the team.

4. Encourage them to connect with other leaders on the team

Build a strong leadership team comprised of your coaching staff as well as other key leaders on the team. These leaders can come from various position groups on your team as well as the different classes.

5. Have their back when they enforce team rules

Enforcing your team’s rules and standards with their teammates can be a scary and difficult challenge, even if they have the respect of their teammates as the Best Player/Leader on the team. Be sure to support them and have their backs when your leaders put themselves out there to constructively confront their teammates and uphold the standards of your team.

6. Don’t expect them to be perfect

Even though they are a great athlete and talented leader, they won’t always be perfect. Just as they will make some physical mistakes from time to time, so too will they make some mistakes in their leadership.

7. Be careful not to over-praise them in front of the rest of the team

While you likely love a lot of what they do, you also have to be careful not to over-praise your Best Player/Leader with the rest of the team. Too much praise may quickly turn the tide of respect and lead others on the team to resent the leader and your special relationship with them.

8. Get tough on your Best Player/Leader to send a message to the rest of the team

Let your Best Player/Leader know that sometimes you will be extra tough on them in an effort to send an important message to the rest of the team. When you openly challenge your leader and expect more from them, it lets everyone else know where the bar is set for your entire team. Privately remind your leader that your primary intent is not to be super critical of them, but to raise the standard for the rest of the team.

What to Do When Your Best Player is Not a Leader, or Worse, a Negative Leader for Your Team

Since the vast majority of the time your Best Player will not be your best leader, you need to know how to make the best of a less than ideal hand. Our Championship Coaches Network members can click on Part 2 of this blog post which focuses on 9 strategies you can use when your Best Player is not your best leader, or worse, a Negative Leader for your team.

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