As an athlete, your attitude and behavior outside of competition can have just as much impact on the team as your athletic ability. Coaches who want to get the most out of their athletes should emphasize the importance of being a leader and exhibiting good character at all times. That’s democratic leadership in sport.  Do what is right, not what is easy.

Advantages of Democratic Leadership

One of the most overlooked aspects of good leadership is that you are not succeeding if you don’t make the people around you and your teammates better.  Good leaders develop those that look up to them. Leaders provide feedback and reinforce positive efforts in others.

A successful athlete encourages teammates and challenges them to improve. A successful leader develops the leadership capacity of others so that they will be able to share responsibilities and insights. Eventually, one might step up into leadership roles.

Different Styles on an Ambiguous Path

So when I stick around to watch my kids’ practices I take a backseat and watch. And at a recent practice the coach yelled out after the kids were finished their competing drill “losers pick up balls, the winners get to watch.” My son happened to be on the winning team that day, and he watched as the other kids picked up balls.

As we walked to the car, I casually asked my oldest why some did not have to pick up the tennis balls. Being an empathetic young man, his eyes gave away the fact that he already knew the ‘right’ answer. But in an effort to reinforce democratic leadership, I asked my son to always demonstrate his character by helping others pick up the balls regardless of his perceived stature.

Great Sportsmanship is a Requirement

Tim Tebow is a leader. He had the incredible power to elevate his team. Evidence is his now immortalized promise speech after a Gator loss to Ole Miss. Where the leader goes, the group usually follows.

Great athletes exhibit sportsmanship over gamesmanship. They don’t soccer flop. They own their mistakes. Coaching like Van Gaal provided his athletes helps to do just that.

A great leader doesn’t get out of control in the heat of competition and doesn’t gloat when they are victorious. Watch a tennis match for the final handshake in the end. Or little leaguers with ‘good game, good game’ handshakes. Win or lose, congratulate your opponent’s effort, a teammates’ resolve and demonstrate strength of character. 

Leaders Eat Last

Many of the characteristics required to be a successful leader interlock with one another. Most importantly, when you stand to benefit because of status or performance, pick up the tennis balls. Demonstrate democratic leadership through sport and then let others go first.

It is in the best interest of everyone. Use it as a constant source of intrinsic motivation and start a fulfilling journey with your sport.