democratic leadership in sport

Democratic Leadership in Sport: Action and Example

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.

Sport, in its very essence, is a microcosm of society – a tapestry woven with threads of human ambition, tenacity, failure, and redemption. Amidst this backdrop, the concept of democratic leadership stands out as an antidote to the autocratic coaching techniques that many of us might’ve grown up witnessing. Democratic leadership, as the very term suggests, is rooted in collaboration, mutual respect, and a shared vision.

Imagine a tennis doubles match. The pair, when operating under democratic leadership, doesn’t have a single dominant player barking orders or dictating every move. Instead, there’s a shared sense of responsibility. They communicate, both verbally and non-verbally, respecting the strengths and weaknesses of one another. The leadership flows fluidly between them, depending on the situation, much like a dance, sometimes leading, other times following.

But let’s expand beyond the immediacy of the tennis court. Consider a soccer or basketball team, where the coach doesn’t operate as a sole figure of authority but creates an environment where players, regardless of their stature or seniority, have a voice. The strategy isn’t just top-down; it’s collectively molded. This fosters not only a sense of agency among the players but also a deeper commitment to the collective goal.

However, don’t be mistaken. Democratic leadership in sport isn’t a laissez-faire approach. It’s not about everyone doing what they please. Rather, it’s about harnessing the collective intelligence and experience of the team. It’s about understanding that true wisdom doesn’t just reside in one mind, no matter how experienced, but can emerge from the interspaces of shared dialogue.

Action and example are the two fulcrums upon which this leadership pivots. A democratic leader in sports embodies the values they wish to see — dedication, respect, hard work, resilience. Through their actions, they set a template. But more importantly, through the encouragement of dialogue and shared responsibility, they set an example that leadership isn’t about autocratic rule, but about fostering an environment where every voice matters, where the strength of the team truly lies in each of its members.

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.

In the vast, intricate world of sports, where every second counts, democratic leadership stands as a testament that true success isn’t just measured by scores or medals but by the growth, camaraderie, and mutual respect of its players.

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