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Arkansas State University

Learn About Vulnerability And Its Role In Coaching Strategy

Why do people play sports? To answer this question, consider the reasons why people get involved in sports from an early age, particularly team sports. The reasons include social belonging, personal development, purpose and meaning. These have always been fundamental needs served by the institution of sports for individuals.

Command-and-Control Is Dying Out

Despite the yearnings that drive people to get involved in sports, coaching has traditionally been dominated by a command-and-control style of leadership, which is similar to military leadership. Group objectives overpower individuals’ objectives. In the professional ranks, this leadership style effectively broke egos that had been inflated through athletic supremacy at the amateur and youth levels. An athlete with a diminished ego likely would feel the need for improvement and would take better to direction and even criticism.

Furthermore, it was believed that leadership should flow from the top and that an authoritarian style was necessary to exclude contradictory input from players about how practice should be conducted or a game plan devised. To get everyone on the same page, players would have to look to one source for direction and discipline. The style does have merits, even today as it becomes outmoded. It promotes clear organizational hierarchies, it is outcome based, expectations are made clear, and goals are reliably achieved. But at what cost?

Many authoritarian coaches routinely cross the line between commanding and bullying. Especially when coaching kids, the risks of bullying include diminished self-esteem, loss of confidence that transcends sports, shame, a belief that something is the matter with me, and a lack of the very comfort and security that was sought in sports participation.

Too much bullying from coaches causes many young athletes to lose interest not only in a particular sport but all sports, and even participation in organizations outside of sports in which there are authority figures. On the field, the fear that authoritarian coaches instill is a mental game killer, rather than a motivator. Athletes focus on avoiding mistakes and being punished, rather than trying to excel. They worry about making the wrong decision and being humiliated by their coaches in front of their peers.

Many of coaching’s greatest legends embodied authoritarian leadership. Years after the experience, players extolled the leadership styles of Vince Lombardi in the National Football League; Felix Magath, the German soccer coach, and Bobby Knight, the Indiana Hoosiers college basketball coach. Each won championships and has the pedigree to claim that an authoritarian style works. It did work, but today’s athletes have more access to information about coaching styles and can choose whom they want to play for based on that approach. In addition, the role modeling of authoritarian coaches in the big leagues to Little League coaches led to inappropriate and abusive treatment of children.

Vulnerability and Human Virtue Prevail in Today’s Coaches

More and more, young athletes want to see the same qualities in their coaches that they admire in people. Humility, modesty and vulnerability top the list. Inspirational motivation, providing opportunities for shared leadership and athlete input, and creating a sense of shared ownership of outcome are key factors, as well. This is about “we,” not “him” or “her,” and the athlete is more invested, with more confidence and better relationships with teammates.

So what makes a coach with these values “vulnerable?” The idea is that vulnerable coaches do not need to have all the answers, they do not need to be unyielding, and they can use trial and error as they work collaboratively with players. They can take the blame they deserve when things go wrong, and their status won’t suffer from short-term failure. The team is behind them. The quest for glory goes on, together. They are free to make improvements, innovate and even reinvent themselves — and that creates a great example for athletes, who also are imperfect, vulnerable humans.

“Servant”-style sports leadership takes the vulnerable concept a step further. Now the goal is to serve rather than to lead. In coaching young athletes, this style involves being a steward of human beings, of ethical and caring behavior, of enabling athletes by focusing on their strengths. Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, who coached five teams to national championships, was an example of this style. He believed he had been entrusted to show care, respect and concern for his athletes.

The evolution of coaching styles has implications for organizational leadership at large, and for all of society. What we see in the microcosms of life that sports represents are virtues at work, producing successful outcomes. We see happier, more well-adjusted athletes, learning to collaborate on teams and developing confidence that lasts a lifetime. If they win a few more games this season, that’s just icing on the cake.

The Arkansas State University Master of Science in Sport Administration online curriculum includes a number of courses that prepare students for various roles in collegiate and professional sports. Ethical Issues in Sport examines moral and ethical situations in various sports environments, including coaching. Sport in Society explores sociological constructs as they impact all levels of sports participation. Sport Leadership covers principles that relate to key topics affecting sport managers and organizations, including organizational goals, strategy, culture and change.

Learn more about A-State’s M.S. in Sport Administration online program.


Coaches Insider: Coaching with an Appropriate Leadership Style

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