By: Kelly Inouye-Perez
Originally Published in: Winning Ways of Women Coaches
Provided by: Human Kinetics
All the best teams in every sport have strong leadership among team members. But not every team member is going to be as suited as another for leadership responsibilities. Identifying and piecing together into a unit the various strengths and personalities on your roster is a big part of coaching effectively.
In the history of UCLA softball, we have never had captains. I don't determine who the captains are or put a C on your jersey. You earn that. It is your overall body of work, what you do on the field and off the field, and all those types of things that determine what people think of you. I'm not always with them, so I am not always able to know who those people are.
I do expect leadership from the player at the catcher position. Even if I have a first-year catcher, I'll tell her, You better step up and open your mouth and not act like a first-year player."
Although we don't have captains, we do have a leadership group. Oftentimes it is comprised mostly of seniors who know and have met the expectations of our program. I don't like players getting to their senior year and not being great leaders. That means they are not great followers, and as a result the seniors turn into people you never thought they would be. Maybe they can't get the team to follow them even when they know it is their responsibility. That affects their play on the field, which affects the culture, which affects everything. Sometimes you have great seniors and sometimes you don't. And if you have a poor group of seniors who haven't bought in, feel entitled, and aren't the most talented, it will likely be a tough year.
I began looking for an approach that would ensure that we would, as a team, consistently have all our bases covered in terms of player leadership and role execution. When I read The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell (2002), it seemed to relate to our teams and the roles we needed fulfilled. According to Gladwell, there are always the salespeople, the mavens, and the connectors that form the team's core group. I realized this during the season of our first national championship, when everybody was frustrated and stuck. So I decided to use things from that book that would create change - positive change, I hoped.
I set about identifying the salespeople, the powerful personalities on the team, the mavens, the connectors who were the glue on the team - the players who brought people together and who were always taking care of and supportive of everyone. Then the key was getting them all to fit together in the team's social dynamic, which is big. Salespeople, we need you to be up front and center. Connectors need to get buy-in from people. Reach out to your teammates and pull them together: "Come on everyone, we really need to do this if we want to win." Mavens, be clear, know what is going on, and ask questions. Just ask if you don't know.
When those three groups are functioning and working together effectively in a group dynamic, it can be very powerful. That's what happened in that championship year. We went from working against ourselves internally because of our differences to using our differences as our strength together as one unit. My adaptation of Gladwell's model designated a role for members of each class to fulfill:
Instead of simply giving seniors leadership of the team, I have them lead through influence, and that is by supporting and really building up the younger Bruins. I tell them, "Seniors, it is your last lap. Enjoy it. Influence positively. Make sure everybody enjoys this ride. Take care of the younger Bruins. Bring them in and make sure that they know they matter."
The juniors are the leaders in our program. When I say leaders, I mean active leaders. When it comes to organizing events or picking uniforms or talking with the coaches or sending messages to the team - active leadership things that normally would have fallen on the seniors to do - the juniors have that responsibility in our program. Juniors are also an extension of the coaches to the rest of the squad, communicating and reinforcing what we say. I message through the junior leadership group, and they meet with me to ensure that they are meeting their responsibilities.
Sophomores have the responsibility of followership. A big part of being a leader is knowing how to be a follower. I tell them, "Next year, you will be the leaders, so if some of the things they are saying don't make sense, you better go get clarity and learn how to get buy-in because you are going to be next. I can tell you one thing. When you are a leader and you don't have people who are following, it is not a fun dynamic."
First-year players are learners. Come in and learn. Ask a lot of questions, use your resources, put yourself in a position where maybe you don't know it all but you are going to be taken care of by the senior class - which is another way in which seniors influence the team.
This model frees up seniors and allows them to benefit the program most. They still are leaders (from their experience as juniors) and have influence and can help make decisions, but it is not their responsibility. Their responsibility is to influence everyone positively.
At times, seniors will get so frustrated with their younger teammates for not understanding things or not buying in, so you need to remind them of the learning process they have had in their years in the program and to nudge their younger teammates in the right direction, but with some patience.
Recently we had two Olympians we weren't sure were going to come back to finish their eligibility. They were gone for a year, but now they have returned as seniors, so I told them to just enjoy the ride. I don't need you to come back in and be the voice right now. We are all happy they are back, but we don't need them to do the heavy lifting. Enjoy this ride, and if we need you, we will call on you. I involve them in the leadership meetings, but I don't have them be the voice. It frees them up to enjoy their last year. They can appreciate being with all their sisters instead of having to meet with the coaches all the time.
Another thing I learned from Gladwell's book is that sometimes your salespeople, the strong personalities, will get to thinking that they know all the answers, and that's when I as a coach need to step in for a course correction. And that isn't the only scenario in coaching when you have to deal with challenging individuals who have lost sight of their roles and responsibilities.