Organized Team Sports: The Great Leadership Academy

October 24, 2022

by Tom Console

As someone who has been an active participant in organized sports my whole life, I’ve come to realize the correlation athletics have to the leadership professional. To me, five qualities routinely appear in great leaders, and these same qualities are organic to organized team sports. This is why the field of play is truly the “The Great Leadership Academy.”   

Team Sports: A Breeding Ground for Leaders

Being a member of a sports team prepares you for leadership. Teams collectively drive towards a common goal, gain external and internal discipline, and work hard to develop skills. Both sports and leadership disciplines require personal growth and development. Inability or unwillingness to do so ultimately leads to stagnation and failure.

As a former college football player, I knew that I could always get a little bit faster, tackle a little bit harder, or improve my footwork and agility. I quickly realized that, by being better every single day, I could be a more effective asset to my team.

Just like in football, I try to get a little better at leadership every day. I read books and blogs and watch videos about leadership styles and methods authored by great leaders in business, history, the military, and in sports.

I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been surrounded and mentored by some phenomenal leaders, trying my best to emulate them. Now, as an assistant coach for my former college team, I have countless opportunities to apply the lessons I’ve learned.

This is exciting, because there’s a chance to develop leadership ability at every practice, team function, and game. In this piece, I will tackle (pun intended) the five essential lessons of “The Great Leadership Academy” through the lens of football.

1. Confidence

All great leaders are confident. Confident in themselves, team members, and their organization. Confidence can be represented by a simple formula:

Knowledge + Competence + Adaptability + Consistency (K-CAC) = Confidence

Knowledge is knowing where I belong on a certain play. I understand when to blitz the quarterback or sit in coverage.

Competence is the ability to achieve an outcome. When I’m supposed to blitz, I must have the skills and technique to get around an opposing offensive lineman.

Adaptability is dealing with less-than-ideal circumstances. The linebacker in front of me got blocked, and now I have to adjust my angle and make an open tackle in space.

Consistency is routinely performing at a high level. I just broke up a pass intended for a wide receiver. Great! Can I do that again the next time?

Every repetition we take in each practice of the season, we grow in our Knowledge, Competence, Adaptability, and Consistency. Games provide us a benchmark to test these four areas, and if we perform well, we grow in our Confidence, week after week, season after season.

For leaders, K-CAC = Confidence

2. Staying in Your Lane and Building Trust

As leaders, it is often tempting to take over a subordinate’s project. You feel like you could do it better yourself, or you lack faith in someone else’s K-CAC.

If the linebacker doesn’t trust me (the free safety behind him) to cover my zone on a pass play, he may decide to compensate and drop deeper than he is supposed to. This leaves a shorter passing lane open and gives up easy yardage.

Leaders must resist the urge to micromanage. Instead, focus on what you’re supposed to be doing and trust your teammates to do their job.

3. Get Ready for the Next Play

Whether your last play was amazing or terrible, there’s another one coming up. Leaders must have a short-term memory and play with humility.

The Amazing Play: You just made a big hit that everyone in the stadium heard, completely taking the receiver off his feet. That’s awesome, and you can celebrate… a little. But no one likes a showboat. Be humble, because unless the game is over, you still have a lot of work to do.

The Terrible Play: You let up a big score, and your team isn’t too happy with you. Recognize your mistake and learn from it. Failure is a great teacher. It’s okay to fail, but not okay to repeatedly fail in the same manner. Again, there is still a game to play, and you need to mentally be ready.

4. Honesty

We have a great expression on our team: “The film don’t lie.” Simple and to the point, it illustrates how you can’t hide your mistakes forever.

Throughout your career, be it the football or leadership field, your boss WILL point out failures, mistakes, and shortcomings. It’s their job to help you get better.

Are you open to that criticism, or do you make excuses? Do you take responsibility, or try to pass the blame on to others?

Frequently during film breakdown after a game, I’ll ask players why they appear to be in the wrong spot on the field. Sometimes, their answer is great: “Well coach, according to the scouting report, I knew they were going to throw the ball to that receiver. I put myself in a better position to make a play.”

But most of the time on these leading questions, I can literally hear the excuse being constructed a word at a time, offering an explanation to cover up mistakes. Not only is there a refusal to take accountability, but everyone in the room can hear the lie, and that player loses credibility.

Occasionally I get, “That’s my fault coach, I messed up. It won’t happen again.” Accepting responsibility is a valuable tool for growth and development. I fail all the time. Acknowledging failure and getting better makes me a more effective coach and leader.

5. Mentorship

As a leader, you must constantly mentor your subordinates, peers, and superiors. You also must be open to being mentored from all directions.

It’s easy to mentor subordinates; they rely on your experience and knowledge. Mentoring peers and superiors is more challenging. A lot of people will instinctively think you are trying to one-up or embarrass them.

I was guarding one of our top receivers in practice and picked up a tell on his route. He would lean slightly towards the middle of the field with his shoulders while his lower body stayed in a straight line. To me, it was a dead giveaway. I told him about this tell and, at first, he accused me of trying to look good for the coaches.

I let him know that if I saw it, then other safeties around the league would see the same. After a few more times of running this route without getting open, he came to understand that I was just trying to help him out and later told me he used that piece of advice against opposing safeties to beat them on the same route.

This was a great lesson for me on how to mentor and be mentored. If you come at it from the angle of genuine care about their success and use good communication, you can get people to listen. If they don’t want to listen to your advice, you can try again with a different approach, or you can consider moving on and getting ready for the next play.

The Great Leadership Academy

Sports offer us many great leadership tools to utilize while developing our own personal style. To some people, leadership, like athletic ability, comes naturally. Other people work twice as hard to get the same results. No matter your natural propensity towards leadership, all leaders must work to develop their skills, and the great leaders understand that this work is continuous. Fully embrace the journey of the “The Great Leadership Academy.”

Subscribe above to receive a free, no-ad leadership message every Tuesday. Leaders grow by reading about, discussing, and practicing leadership. Thanks to Tom Console for being a guest author. We’re always looking for guest authors to share their leadership thoughts and will help you with your writing. Send us an email if interested.

Tom Console is a Defensive Quality Control Coach, University of Pennsylvania Sprint Football Team. He’s been voted Team Captain twice by his peers, was the 2010’s Penn Sprint Football All Decade Free Safety and was named the 2018 Penn Sprint Football Team MVP. He’s a Second Lieutenant in the United States Army and the recipient of the Army Health Professions Scholarship Program. In this program, he is currently earning his Doctorate degree at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, Class of 2024.

His thoughts do not represent University of Pennsylvania nor the United States Army.

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