Jan 29, 2015
Follow the Leaders

Besides training athletes for physical development, this author uses the weightroom to cultivate their leadership skills and other intangible qualities.

By Tim Wakeham

Tim “Red” Wakeham, MS, SCCC, CSCS, is Director of Strength and Conditioning for Olympic Sports at Michigan State University. He can be reached at: [email protected].

Not long ago, an athlete stopped by my office to talk. “My coach told me I have to lead more,” she said. “Coach says leaders know what to do and when to do it, and it’s my time to lead.” “That’s outstanding!” I replied emphatically.

But she seemed less excited about the idea than I was: “I’m not really sure what to do or when to do it,” she admitted. “Will you help me?”

As a strength and conditioning coach, my primary task is to train athletes from the neck down. However, like many in my profession, I recognize that today’s athletes are looking for more than just physical strength–they want to develop the intangible skills of leadership, communication, and motivation that will help them excel both in sports and in life. Because of the special nature of our relationship with athletes and the amount of time we spend together, strength coaches are in an ideal position to teach them.

I tell all the young people I work with that I cannot teach them specifically how to lead in every situation. But to encourage and cultivate their innate leadership skills, I use a unique approach to establishing a leadership corps on our teams here at Michigan State. I allow a select group of athletes to develop and test their leadership tools in the strength and conditioning environment, and I’m often proud to see them take what they’ve learned and apply it to all aspects of team leadership.


With the athlete who came to my office, I started by asking about her current definition of and thoughts on leadership. I believe listening without interruption is the most important and overlooked step in teaching. Especially with members of this “millennial generation,” their motivation level increases dramatically when they feel they’ve been listened to.

She defined leadership as the ability to influence. She thought the way to act like a leader was simply to work hard, and that those efforts would positively influence the people around her. I loved her definition of leadership and I complimented her on her conception of it–but I also had some questions.

I asked what happens if the other players aren’t watching. What if they aren’t noticing her efforts? What would she do? “I’m not sure,” she replied. “They’re my peers–what can I do?”

We agreed that if the team wasn’t following her role modeling, it would be difficult for her to be an effective leader. “Would you feel more confident asking people to follow your example if you knew two or three teammates had your back?” I asked. Without hesitation she said she would, and I replied: “Then that’s what we should do.”


I told this young lady what I tell everyone who’s interested in becoming a leader–it’s always easier when you don’t have to go it alone. With that in mind I regularly create leadership committees for individual teams as part of our strength and conditioning program. The idea behind these groups is that athletes need to feel accepted and supported by their peers, especially when taking the risk of holding themselves out as leaders. The committee becomes a major source of confidence for the leaders, and that can make all the difference in achieving effective leadership.

Choosing the right people can make or break a leadership committee. I select athletes who communicate well with me and each other, and who bring different skills to the table. Teams rarely have one person who can perform all the essential tasks of leading. I believe there are three unique tasks, so I look for a person to specialize in each of them: one who has a gift for confronting others when necessary, one who naturally inspires their teammates, and one with the ability to nurture.

I frequently observe athletes during workouts and whenever they’re around our facility to determine who can best fill each of these roles. Once I’ve chosen my trio, I invite them to my office for a series of meetings. At this time, I want to inspire them to join the leadership committee–I explain that I believe they have something special to offer their team beyond what they contribute on the field or court. I tell them the committee provides a platform of status from which to lead.

I’ll often start with a statement like this: “I personally respect all three of you. I think each of you understands where I’m coming from when I’m working with your team, even when I don’t express it perfectly. Do you agree?” They typically nod their heads–an early sign that I’ve chosen my prospective leaders wisely.

Then I talk about the skills I’ve noticed them display in the weightroom, particularly as it relates to leadership strengths and weaknesses. For my confrontation specialist, I might say, “I love that you can confront your teammates. It’s a valuable trait. Sometimes people need to hear the truth bluntly before they can acknowledge and deal with it. Your weakness, however, is that you can sometimes come across as insensitive. Some people take confrontation more personally than others and interpret it as negative criticism. I’d like to take your confrontation skills and combine them with the nurturing and inspiration these other leaders can provide.”

Each person in the group has to appreciate how the others’ abilities complement their own. I tell them their potential power lies in their collaboration. Each leadership moment requires them to decide which person’s strength best fits the situation. I tell them we’ll meet several more times to lay the groundwork for the group’s roles and responsibilities, and then I stop talking and just listen. I let them discuss the possibilities of combining their talents to lead the team, and if all goes well, our group is off and running.


In our next meeting, I make the group an offer they can’t refuse: I tell them that because of their maturity and leadership gifts, I’m willing to give them some power and influence over what their team does and how they do it. For instance, if the team starts feeling run down from training and needs a day off, I say I’ll grant it every time as long as it’s this group of leaders asking. If they want some reasonable changes to workouts, they’ve got it. I’ll even adjust our workout schedule if possible to suit their wishes–but only if the request comes from these leaders.

I promise them opportunities to weigh in on many decisions. I also offer them chances to share positive affirmations on what the team is doing well after our workouts.

I know this will give them credibility as leaders with their teammates, which is essential. As coaches, we sometimes forget how easy we have things when it comes to leading. All of my athletes have to listen to me, because I’m the Director of Strength and Conditioning for their sports. But these same athletes have to earn their leadership roles among their teammates, and giving them a reasonable amount of power and influence in the weightroom helps that to happen.

I always make sure this special status is visible to the full team. For instance, when everyone has arrived for a workout, I’ll take the committee aside for a few moments. Often, the result will be some tweaks to the workout plan that I know will be popular with all the athletes, and I make it clear the leadership committee was the driving force behind the changes.

Once I’ve explained all this, my leaders are usually pretty excited about their new role and eager to embrace it–which is just what I want. They may get up to leave my office, at which point I present the other half of the bargain: “All right then, here’s what I need in exchange. You didn’t think this was totally free, did you?”

Now I remind them of why I chose them to be team leaders in the first place. I saw each of them as having a special skill–as a confronter, an inspirer, or a nurturer–and I want to make sure they’re ready to fill that role whenever an individual or their entire team needs intervention. That’s the responsibility that comes with the reward.

I tell them they should band together when a teammate is out of line or not giving 100 percent. Maybe the confronter will lead off by approaching the person, stating the problem, and trying to learn why he or she isn’t in lockstep with the team. Then the nurturer will provide positive feedback and empathy to encourage the individual to make a change. Finally, the inspirer will find a way to hit the athlete’s motivational buttons and get them back on track. That, I say, would be powerful leadership.

Likewise, if a teammate has a problem with the way I challenge them during workouts or lifting sessions, I expect all three leaders to use their gifts to resolve the issue. Of course my door is always open to every athlete I work with, but I know the team leaders are usually in the best position to listen and intervene in these situations.

My mission here is twofold: By striking this bargain with the leaders, I’m setting them up to promote team harmony and a constructive, healthy approach to the work we do in training. At the same time, I know their role will present them with countless leadership moments, providing opportunities to learn and grow as they take the reins and guide their peers.


In a subsequent meeting I talk about another key aspect of leadership–setting a shining example. I want each person in the group to lead by exhibiting strength, toughness, and resilience, because athletes tend to follow people they perceive to be stronger than themselves.

I define mental toughness as the ability to positively work through challenges, obstacles, and confrontations. I tell the group their best trait is that they are great competitors who respond positively to all such challenges.

“I am absolutely going to confront you,” I say. “I’m going to use names, be straightforward, and challenge you to give your best every day. I hate when leaders don’t have the courage to use names. Some athletes respond to a coach’s lecture with, ‘I hope everyone else listened, because he wasn’t talking to me.’ Most times, that person is exactly who the coach was talking to. Leaders never fall into that trap.”

I tell them that even when they’re giving their best, I will still confront and challenge them beyond what I’ll do with their teammates. This will allow them to set a visible example of how to respond constructively to critical feedback. I want the entire team to see them remaining focused, poised, and positive.

“There will even be times when I unjustly confront you or put obstacles in front of you,” I continue. “I will do this for an important reason. Unfairness, bad breaks, and unexpected setbacks are a part of sports and life, and I want you to show your teammates the right way to deal with them–to stand tall with a granite jaw and steadfast focus, and to demonstrate dogged persistence. Your peers will learn invaluable lessons from you this way.” By now, the group is fired up and ready to start leading.

My last initial meetings with the leaders cover “paying forward” as a critical aspect of motivation. I ask the committee members to consistently look for ways to pay forward to their teammates–that is, to earn the loyalty they’ll eventually ask for in return. It means taking responsibility for their teammates’ failures and the things that go wrong, and deflecting the credit to teammates when things go right. It also means honoring each person’s need to feel important, and being selfless for the sake of their teammates’ growth.


Here’s an example I often use when teaching how skilled leaders motivate: Let’s say I bring you into a huge auditorium and take you up onto the stage. I walk away and open the curtains. In front of you is an audience of 10,000 people, and when they see you, they begin to applaud. In fact, they enthusiastically rise to their feet and cheer you with a boisterous ovation. They even begin chanting your name.

You’re being hailed like the biggest rock star on the planet. Would you want to come back to that stage? “Every day!” my athletes invariably reply. I then tell them that the weightroom is my stage, and what I’ve just described is exactly the environment I try to create for them.

Every time I catch them executing the important parts of our system correctly–whether it’s working hard and setting a great example as an athlete, or helping teammates stay positive and motivated during a tough workout–I’ll use as many different methods and messages as I can to convince them how great they are. I will shine my spotlight on them and praise them like rock stars. And in their own individual ways, using their leadership gifts and relying on their fellow leaders for support, I want them to do the same thing for each of their teammates.

Research shows that people who perceive great control within their environments are highly motivated. My team leaders feel a sense of control, and I want the resulting motivation to radiate through the entire facility.

The athlete’s internal perception of control can come in countless ways. When I want the team to run 20 hard sprints, I’ll let the leaders choose between 20 hard sprints or a five-mile trail run. They virtually always choose what I want because it beats the alternative, but they bring greater energy to the task because they take ownership of it. If their head coach says lifting must be finished by 8:00 a.m., I’ll let the leaders choose whether we start at 6:00 or 6:15–a subtle difference, but again, they feel a sense of control, and it shows.

Of course, I don’t want our leaders to be the only decision-makers on the team. I want them to talk to their teammates and decide together what they want to do, when they need a break, and how to help shape their workouts. But this select group has the power to lead those discussions and communicate the results to me, and just as I value their input, I emphasize that they must show they value their teammates’ input to promote maximum buy-in. Without earning good followers, they can’t be good leaders.

Inevitably, there are times when leaders and followers don’t see eye to eye. In those situations, my role is to ensure that the leader is on the right side of the conflict, and as long as they are, I will openly back them. But such problems rarely arise, and I believe that’s because I have set up the leaders with ample opportunities to earn the trust and respect of their peers.

The keys to all of this working are consistency and communication. Demonstrating consistent and predictable leadership encourages feelings of security and trust from followers. I strive to model strong, positive leadership myself, and I constantly evaluate whether the team leaders are fulfilling their duties.

Communication is vital for everything discussed in this article–open lines must exist between the leaders and me, followers and me, leaders and followers, and leaders with each other. I teach my leaders to listen without interruption or judgment, and to be clear, simple, and genuine when they speak. Clarity inspires trust. Simplicity provides a sense of certainty. Honesty means demonstrating through your words that you’re compassionate and you understand where the other person is coming from.

Of course, none of this is accomplished in a day or even a month. It takes great effort over a long period of time before a spark of interest turns into a blazing fire of leadership. The great news is that athletes are passionate about the mysterious nature of teamwork and how to harness it. They will follow your directions on how to lead if they see you as an effective leader yourself. Be relentlessly compassionate, communicative, and confronting, and they’ll go from uneasily knocking on your door to rocketing toward stardom as valued leaders for their teams.

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