Player Leadership: A Guide to Avoiding the Emotional Hijacker

The first text in the book “The Miracle of St. Anthony” is a story from former Florida State coach Pat Kennedy.

“We were in Vegas at the AAU event last summer, recruiting some kids on a South Dakota team.  They come in, all white kids, beautiful uniforms, four coaches, parents in tow, running all kinds of offenses and defenses.  So, I told my assistants, ‘Now, watch this.  See this team here?  Eight black kids from Jersey City.  Shitty uniforms, no parents, not even a coach.  Just a chaperone somewhere there.’

“So, I tell my assistants, ‘Watch these Jersey City kids kick the shit out of that team.’

“They’re like, ‘Why? What’s special about them?’

“I told them, ‘They will not say a word to the refs.  They will not say a word to the other kids.  They’ll get on each other’s backs for not taking a charge, not closing out, not stopping penetration.’

“So the game starts, and they were huddling at the free-throw line, one or two kids were yelling about not closing on penetration.  They’re coaching themselves.

“My assistants finally said to me, “Holy shit, these kids play like they’re possessed, like they’re freaking animals.  Who are they?’

“I said, ‘Well, they’re Bob Hurley’s kids.'”

Bob Hurley is the legendary coach of St. Anthony’s, and the lesson in this story beyond the praise of Hurley, is that he succeeded in cultivating positive leadership in his players.  Through his leadership, he ingrained in his players a collective standard of excellence that they accepted as their own, and for which they held each other accountable.  This is genuine leadership.

It has been my observation that many coaches talk of leadership and bemoan a lack of leaders among their team without creating conditions for leadership to grow.  The coach must set the initial standard, and be consistent in recognizing and rewarding it.  Once this momentum is established, the coach should incorporate into the standard input from the players.  If they suggest it themselves, the players are immediately invested in it’s adherence and success.  This is conditional on the experience and growth of the group.  When Coach K took control of the USMNT, he set out a “gold standard” of rules that came directly from his players.  Obviously, taking this approach unfiltered with a freshman or jv high school team is not advisible.

The other peril is falling for a fake leader or appointing a leader.  Some players will come to you with a large personality that may in and of itself dominate your team dynamic.  Being vocal or forceful in nature is not leadership, and you are at risk of having your team emotionally hijacked by this type of leader.  Whether you allow a domineering personality to dominate your team, or caste a leadership role on someone unsuited for it, you will suffer the consequence of losing credibility with your team.

The leader must be an exemplification of your standards and an extension of your beliefs.  This is an organic process.  Hurley’s players did not come to St. Anthony huddling at the free throw line to berate each other for poor close outs.  They were first berated by him, until they saw the significance of his teachings and the effect they had on the outcome of the game.  They chose to accept these standards and hold each other accountable.  In doing so, leaders were trained to lead and those that couldn’t follow aren’t playing at St. Anthony’s anymore.

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