Author: Dr. Randall Coeshott

Psychological Services for Sport, Health, and Life

Leadership is a fundamental ingredient to be a successful coach.  The quality of leadership can be classified simply as the ability to inspire others to achieve desired accomplishments. Perhaps having the greatest influence on the coach’s ability to influence his or her players is the leadership style of the coach, or the manner of providing direction and motivation for athletes.


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A common misperception in regards to leadership is a belief that leaders are born, not made.  In fact, more often than not, successful leaders have been found to display common behaviors that can be learned.  These common leadership behaviors can be classified in terms of managing decision making and determining what type of leadership behaviors are best depending on the situation.

                It’s often important to determine the appropriate leadership style for the situation.  One of two different approaches is warranted depending on the constraints of the situation.   You must decide whether the development of strong interpersonal relationships is important or accomplishing tasks and goals are more important.  When the development of relationships are deemed as being important to team success, a relational leadership style is called for, where coaches and athletes keep open lines of communication, maintain positive social interactions, and assure that everyone is involved and feeling good.  For example, such actions may be required when team cohesion needs to be built. 

On the other hand, at times relationships on the team may be well developed, or even less important, and meeting objectives may be more important, in these circumstances, a task oriented leadership style is more appropriate.  In these instances, focusing on having team members work to complete certain required tasks and objectives should be the focus of coaching efforts.  Effort should be directed towards performance refinement and productivity, rather than on creating good interpersonal relations.

                A key understanding of whether to employ either a task-oriented leadership style vs. a relationship-oriented leadership style goes beyond just a simple understanding as to whether or not accomplishing objectives or establishing relationships are important.  Key features of the team’s situation in terms of the favorableness can also provide insight into the most effective strategy of the two.  Favorableness refers to the extent to which the coach has control and influence over the coaching situation.  A task-oriented approach is more effective in very favorable or unfavorable situations.  For example, when a team is struggling or doing well, team relationships are either strained or well established, these circumstances suggest a focus on meeting goals and objectives is likely to be of more importance either because relationships are already favorable, or because relationships are so strained that focusing on them when a team is struggling is likely to be unproductive.  Moderately favorable situations or one’s in which the coach has been successful in getting team members to work toward accomplishing some goals, but is looking for something extra to get them over the “hump.”  A focus on building relationships in these situations is more likely to lead to leadership success as improved cohesion translates to improved performance.

                In terms of decision making, coaches have been found to commonly employ one of three leadership styles, an authoritarian style where the coach rules all, a democratic style where the coach and athlete are equal partners in decision making, or a delegative style where the coach takes a hands off approach and provides little or no direction to his athletes or team.  Coaches typically have a preference for one particular style; however no particular style ensures coaching success.  More importantly, effective leadership emerges when coaches apply the style most appropriate for the individual, situation, and team.  Furthermore, regardless of a preference for any one particular style, coaches can learn to employ any particular style to achieve leadership success.  The authoritarian approach is more appropriate in coaching situations favoring a task-oriented approach, while both the democratic and delegative styles are more appropriate in conditions requiring a more relationship-oriented approach.

                Having provided an overview of some considerations when implementing a leadership style, a few recommendations might be helpful to help coaches determine the most appropriate style for themselves and their athletes:

Teams with composed of highly skilled players are likely already focused on accomplishing goals and objectives so focusing on building relationships can be help improve the team’s performance.  Further, involvement in the decision making process for this group of athletes is likely to produce by-in to a team’s overall mission and goals.

Teams with less skilled players are likely to need more instruction and feedback, meaning that the task oriented approach is likely to be more effective in leading to coaching success.  Relationship building often requires more time and energy than permitted with less skilled athletes, a task-oriented approach is likely to be more efficient in getting team members to work towards accomplishing objectives and goals.