Leadership Style Discovery in Performance Coaching

TAGS: coaching styles, leadership, Joe Giandonato

Good coaching is based purely in leadership.” —John Wooden

John Wooden is among one of the winningest sports coaches of all time, amassing nearly 700 victories and ten national championships throughout his 30-year career as a basketball coach. Wooden and his extraordinary leadership abilities are lauded and emulated by contemporaries in a variety of sports. His leadership style, which will be discussed later, can transcend any industry and any aspect of one’s life.

Leadership and its relationship to athletics

Someone doesn’t have to hold a prestigious head coaching position at a Division 1 university or be a C-level executive of a company to be a leader. Let’s face it—most people aren’t able to reach the upper echelon of the coaching or business worlds but that doesn’t mean the people who don’t make it don’t need leadership skills. Many of us are coworkers, students, or perhaps even parents. Some of us are teachers. Some of us may work as personal trainers or strength coaches, and a few of us may be athletes, participating in team sports or individual endeavors such as powerlifting, Strongman, or bodybuilding. Regardless of one’s occupation, responsibilities, passions, athletic background, or sport, some degree of leadership skills are required to succeed in this world. A strength and conditioning or fitness coach will definitely need leadership skills, especially as he guides his athlete or client to his desired outcome, whether that’s securing a starting spot on the high school team’s varsity squad or shedding 15 pounds for an upcoming reunion.

Aside from numbers in the wins column or improved performances during competition, it is difficult to gauge just how important coaching is to sports. Attributes such as ambition, competitiveness, and work ethic take center stage when it comes to success. Coaching effectiveness, much like the aforementioned attributes, is just as important and equally as hard to quantify. Is a coach merely a manager just overseeing one or more athletes or is he integral to athletic success? What attributes or characteristics do successful coaches possess and what are some of their roles? Are coaches leaders? If so, what leadership styles do they practice? All of these questions will be discussed in greater depth throughout this work.

Roles and responsibilities of a coach

Not only is a coach an expert in a particular area, but he is also a manager, friend, planner, and motivator.

Manager: Managers are viewed as an integral piece to the success of a person and/or an organization. Appointing the right manager is crucial, and research indicates that there is a direct link between manager/coach behavior and an athlete’s performance (Crust 2006). A manager is charged with the responsibility of making decisions for the team or athlete and plays a fundamental role in the operation of a team. Managers also handle personnel matters, institute policy, and are responsible for skill development, fitness preparation, and public relations (Crust 2006).

Friend: Coaches also work to build rapport with their athletes, sometimes befriending them. They may lend support to their athletes and provide them someone to confide in. Relationships shared among coaches and athletes will be further discussed in this work.

Planner: Coaches develop strategies to achieve desired results. They assess talent, organize and develop the content of practices and specific drills (Crust 2006), and in the case of strength and conditioning and fitness coaches, design and implement periodized exercise programs to elicit continuous results (Baechle 2008).

Motivator: Coaches also serve as motivators to maximize an athlete’s full potential. Coaches utilize supportive behaviors such as providing choices within specific rules within the sport, providing a rationale for tasks and limits, and acknowledging their athletes’ feelings (Mageau 2003). These coaches impart their passion and energy for the sport in the athlete. Motivators have a strong drive to achieve and remain optimistic in the face of adversity (Goleman 1998). This attitude is contagious, as research has shown that these behaviors improve an athlete’s intrinsic motivation and self-determined types of extrinsic motivation (Mageau 2003).

Developing your philosophy

One commonality in successful leaders is they all have philosophies—a system of beliefs that they firmly stand by. Possessing a clear cut philosophy prevents ill advised decisions from being made and doesn't irritate athletes or clients with ambiguity. Have a defined goal and a thoroughly mapped out plan for getting there. Having a concrete philosophy in place puts things in perspective. The philosophy of strength and conditioning coaches should put a premium on winning and developing athletes, and the philosophy of personal trainers should include a commitment to empowering your clients and helping them get the results they desire. A successful philosophy is one that is achievement driven, measurable, and realistic. It brings out the best in individuals, thus fostering a winning attitude, and is tailored to the needs and goals of the individual. A philosophy must be established before one can consider choosing a leadership style.

Discovering your leadership style

There are numerous dimensions of leadership behaviors that a strength and conditioning or fitness coach can draw from that are sensitive to the situation, sport and/or activity, and skill level of the athlete or fitness level of the client. Six behavior dimensions of leadership exist, including autocratic, democratic, positive feedback, social support, training and instruction, and situational consideration (Zhang 1997).

Autocratic leadership: Autocratic leadership limits the involvement of its participants in decisions. The use of commands and punishments are prevalent as is the prescription of plans and methods for activities (Zhang 1997). With autocratic leadership, a coach or trainer will map out a plan with very little, if any, input from the athlete or client. The autocratic behavior dimension is a prime example of a coach or trainer giving the athlete or client what the coach or trainer thinks she needs.

Democratic leadership: Democratic leadership allows for the participation of athletes or clients in decisions, and coaches are respectful of their rights (Zhang 1997). Under this dimension, athletes or clients are allowed to set their own goals and are permitted to provide input about their training program. According to Coach Wooden, coaches should “consider the rights of others before [their] own feelings and the feelings of others before [their] own rights” (ESPN 2010). This form of leadership engages the athletes or clients that they are working with, making them feel needed and important (Zhang 1997).

Positive feedback: Positive feedback is based upon a behaviorist approach and is also known as positive reinforcement (Zhang 1997). Coaches and personal trainers will compliment or reward their athletes or clients on their successes, which maintains motivational levels (Mageau 2003; Zhang 1997). The athlete or client will be rewarded for a good performance or effort (Zhang 1997).

Social support: The dimension of social support, which is a humanistic style, satisfies the interpersonal needs of athletes or clients by remaining sensitive to them and helping them with their personal problems (Zhang 1997). A high degree of emotional intelligence (Goleman 1998), specifically empathy or having the ability to understand the emotional makeup of people and treating them according to their emotional reactions, will be required to effectively carry out this dimension (Zhang 1997; Goleman 1998).

Training and instruction: Another dimension, training and instruction, is utilized to bolster the athlete's or client’s skill set. Here a strength coach may help refine an athlete’s Olympic lifting technique or a personal trainer may guide his client through some mobility drills or flexibility exercises that were just introduced. This dimension focuses on explaining the techniques of the exercises and the tactics of the drills, provides rationale as to why these new concepts are being implemented (Mageau 2003), and clarifies training priorities to be worked on (Zhang 1997).

Situational consideration: The last dimension is situational consideration, which is based on the maturity of an athlete and current skill level. Coaching style must be adapted to suit the level of the athletes. The situational consideration is based on the situational leadership theory (Hersey 1977).

Situational leadership

The situational leadership theory, which was originally developed in the early 1960s by organizational psychologists Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard while they were members of the Ohio University faculty, has continued to evolve and remains popular because it’s easy to understand, relatively simple to apply, and works with most people and work environments. Different leadership styles can be adopted depending on the situation (Hersey 1977). These styles include directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating.

Directing: In directing, leaders define the roles and tasks of the ‘follower.’ The followers are closely supervised, and the leader makes all decisions. All communication is downstream originating from the leader. Usually the individuals being directed possess low skill levels but have a high level of commitment (Hersey 1977). In sports, this style is employed with youth athletes and predominates with the novice personal training clientele in the fitness community.

Coaching: The next style, coaching, is best used when individuals have slightly higher competence levels but aren’t as committed (Hersey 1977). Coaching, according to the model, is a behavior that is of high directive (roles and tasks of the ‘follower’ are defined by leaders) and high support (the leader gathers ideas and input from the followers before making decisions) (Hersey 1977; Mageau 2003). This style is best used when the athlete or client makes some progress, but their motivation begins to wane.

Supporting: The supporting style embodies a high supportive behavior but is low directive as the follower has more control of decisions (Hersey 1977). People who are led under this style have moderate to high levels of competence. This style is best used with intermediate athletes or clients who need guidance to get to the next level.

Delegating: Lastly, the delegating style is of low directive and support, as its constituents are competent and highly motivated (Hersey 1977). Leaders are still involved with decisions but to a far lesser degree. Leader involvement is decided by the follower. This style is best used when you’re working with an advanced athlete who may already be near or at the pinnacle of his game or the client who has shattered her previous fitness goals. The improvements made under this coaching style are comparatively miniscule but much harder to attain. A coach's or trainer's expertise is called upon in these instances to address these relatively small deficiencies to improve performance.

Transactional leadership versus transformational leadership

Two common leadership theories exist—transactional and transformational. Transactional leadership is based on the exchange of valued outcomes and behaviors among followers and leaders. Literature has shown that not all outcomes are equally reciprocated (Lievens 1997; Judge 2004) and that low quality exchanges could be detrimental to the morale of followers (Judge 2004). The downfall with transactional leadership is that it only develops the followers’ extrinsic motivation, largely due to the fact that it rewards them on outcomes. Conversely, transformational leadership improves stimulation and morale due to the four characteristics that compromise it—charisma, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Lievens 1997). Research has shown that transformational leadership results in higher job satisfaction rates and performance (Judge 2004).

Servant leadership

Authors, executives, and coaches alike have been inspired by the leadership skills of Coach Wooden. Dozens of books and documentaries have chronicled Wooden’s legendary leadership abilities, which netted his UCLA teams a record ten NCAA basketball championships. Wooden also authored nearly a dozen books on coaching and leadership development. His works reveal characteristics of a servant leader. Ten characteristics compose the servant leadership style. The most notable of them, which were traits of Coach Wooden, include conceptualization, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Joseph 2005).

Conceptualization: According to Joseph and colleagues (Joseph 2005), conceptualization is the servant leaders seeking to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. Before his success at UCLA, Wooden was a marginally successful high school sports coach and briefly served as Indiana State University’s basketball coach. There’s no doubt that Wooden dreamt of successes that would compel him to rise through the coaching world and lead a team to a championship.

Stewardship: “Servant leaders’ first and foremost commitment is to serve the needs of others” (Joseph 2005). Wooden undoubtedly put his team’s goals before his own, something that is uncommon today as coaches leapfrog from one position to the next. Wooden remained with UCLA for 28 seasons.

Commitment to the growth of people: “Servant leaders are deeply committed to the personal and spiritual growth of each and every individual within the institution” (Joseph 2005). Wooden was someone who was committed to developing his players and assistant coaches. Many who played under him, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor), wound up playing professionally. Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all time leading points scorer and a six time NBA champion (NBA 2011).

Building community: “Servant leaders seek to identify means of building community among those who work within a given institution” (Joseph 2005). Think about what Wooden has done not only for the UCLA Bruins basketball program but for UCLA and the sport of basketball. He’s an iconic figure who also revolutionized sport coaching and leadership theory.

Leadership styles, much like sport strategy and strength and conditioning and fitness programs, can't be adopted with a one-size fits all approach. Research has indicated that a blend of leadership styles may also be effective (Judge 2004). However, the success of one’s leadership depends on a multitude of factors, which may include the skill level of the leader and his followers, the goals of the team or the individual, or the leader’s credibility.

Establishing credibility

According to Kouzes and colleagues (Kouzes 2008), “credibility is the foundation for leadership.” The leader must demonstrate values that prospective followers admire, which motivates them to trust the leader (Kouzes 2008). The followers must trust the leader enough to accompany him on a challenging journey, be it getting to post-season competition or surpassing a personal record on a lift. Seven characteristics that are required to gain and maintain credibility were outlined by renowned sport psychologist Gregory Dale (2005).

Caring: The old adage goes that people “don’t care what you know until they know how much you care,” and in sports coaching, this holds especially true. Dale and colleagues (Dale 2005) suggest that caring coaches take a genuine interest in the lives of their players, forging long-term relationships with them and doing anything for them regardless of their talent (Dale 2005). Wooden exemplified this characteristic, as he was a servant leader.

Competent: Competent coaches have extensive knowledge and continue to sharpen their tools and add new ones as new research and trends emerge. These coaches most likely have the experience. They’ve “walked the walk” and have “been in the trenches.” They’ll also be the first to concede that they don’t know something, deferring an issue to another coach or expert. They’re also human enough to admit when they are wrong (Dale 2005). Research has shown that a coach’s competency level can affect the athlete-coach relationship (Kajtna 2009).

Character: Coaches who are viewed as being credible have character. They follow up on promises; are honest with athletes and other coaches, especially as it pertains to their roles within a team (Dale, 2005) or organization; and embody a strong sense of integrity.

Consistent: Credible coaches are also consistent. They are consistent in the way they administer punishment and how they handle themselves. They create an environment where their athletes know what to expect from them (Dale 2005). It could be said that consistent coaches don’t deviate from their philosophy and core values.

Credible coaches also communicate, they're committed, and they're confidence builders (Dale 2005). They’ll ensure that their positive and instructive comments outweigh the negative ones and will have a clear vision that they’ll communicate with their athletes. They’re also passionate, competitive, and inspiring. They’ll make their athletes feel valued and appreciated (Dale 2005).


One key cog to the success of an athlete and his coach is the relationship they share. Volumes of literature support the need for a good coach-athlete relationship to achieve goals (Trzaskoma-Biscerdy 2007; Baechle 2008; Bin Nazarudin 2009; Ramzaninezhad 2009; Zakrajsek 2007). Coaches’ leadership styles have been shown to have a great effect on team success and athlete satisfaction (Bin Nazarudin 2009). Team cohesion, also affected by the coach-athlete relationship, is a determinant in a team’s success (Ramzaninezhad 2009; Zakrajsek 2007). Additionally, the leadership behaviors of the athletic administration and head coaches impact the job satisfaction (Kuchler 2008) and cohesion (Zakrajsek 2007) of their subordinates. Research has indicated that effective leadership is required for a collegiate athletic program to be successful (Tucker 2009).

Literature has indicated that the type of relationships that coaches and athletes share is based on the coach's leadership style, which impacts performance (Kajtna 2009; Carron 1983; Trzaskoma-Biscredy 2007; Turman 2001; Zakrajsek 2007). Preferences of leadership styles vary based upon gender (Grenier 2005), the sport played, and the level of competition (Beam 2004). An athlete’s maturity (Carron 1983; Turman 2001) and skill level (Beam 2004) may also affect leadership preference. It should be noted that athletes' perceptions of their leaders and leadership preferences can change throughout the course of a season (Carron 1983). Relationships shared among coaches and athletes can be impacted by personality disorders (Arthur 2011), similarities and differences in passion (Lafreniere 2008), success levels (Trzaskoma-Biscredy 2007), and the task dependence and variability of the sport (Beam 2004). As it pertains to the field of strength and conditioning, differing leadership styles were identified among collegiate and professional basketball strength coaches (Magnusen 2010), although the fundamental strength training principles remained relatively similar (Simenz 2005).


The literature, which includes accounts of history’s most successful coaches, demonstrates that a variety of leadership styles can be effective. Instead of trying to find the leadership style that works for everyone and in any situation—a style that doesn’t exist—coaches should instead adapt their philosophy to the given situation, pulling from one or more theories at once to effectively lead people. Knowing when to apply leadership styles is of the utmost importance.

Leadership is an indispensable quality that can be developed with hard work. Leadership is a process and a lifelong journey and is an around the clock responsibility. Leaders develop and hone talent, take action, take accountability for their mistakes, and share their successes with the team or individuals they’ve developed. Leaders are made, not hired, and no, they don’t clock out after a long day.


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