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Youth Sports Coaches Need To Lead, Not Just Manage

Managers do things right; leaders do the right things

A good youth sports coach needs to be both a leader and a manager in order to be successful. The difference between the two is a subtle but important one:

  • Leaders establish a vision, set direction, and create the tone or culture of the team. Youth coaches who are leaders help players and parents better understand the context of on- and off-the-field events and how they align - or don't - with the goals and direction of the team. They keep the team on course towards success.  Baseball coach with team in pregame huddle
  • Managers execute a vision by focusing on the hundreds of tasks and decisions required to achieve success. A good manager pokes, prods, pushes and pulls the team in that already-determined direction, ensuring that individual and collective performance is what it needs to be. But without the vision of a leader - something clear and attainable  - managers can do a very efficient job of maintaining the status quo, but not an effective job of achieving meaningful goals.
Leadership gurus Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus perhaps summed up the difference best when they wrote 20 years ago that, "Managers do things right; leaders do the right things."

Overcoming inertia: better now, than later

A good youth coach must be both a leader and a manager to overcome the tremendous inertia that kids bring to a team; a collection of behaviors, habits, beliefs, habits, and expectations that aren't easy to overcome.  Because some may align with what the coach wants to achieve, while some may not, a coach who is a leader will reinforce those behaviors, habits, and beliefs that they want to see more of and, in a positive and productive way, change those things that don't fit their vision. But if the coach doesn't lead, he or she will end up managing to the vision of all their previous coaches, instead of their own.

For example, in order to correct a "hole" in the swing of one of my players, Brandon, I had to overcome a lot of inertia: he'd been taught to swing a certain way (or learned through trial and error himself) which prevented him from getting his hands through the hitting zone fast enough to get around on an inside fastball (in baseball parlance, the pitch tied him up). I had a choice: I could either manage around the problem or lead him to a new level of success by correcting the hole in his swing.

Inertia can take many forms, even something as seemingly unimportant as the way kids play catch in warming up before games and practices. On the first day of practice I inherited everything they'd been taught, seen, or believed about warming up. It was learned behavior that would be be tough to change, especially in one practice. But the longer I let it go and managed around it, the more inertia would make it even more difficult to change the bad habit later. So if, at the beginning of the season in March, I see players jacking around, throwing sidearm, looping the ball over a teammate's head, and then lazily walking after the dropped or overthrown balls, and yet do nothing, then I'll only have myself to blame when they are still warming up that way in June. While it's never too late to change something that isn't right, I think it's a lot less efficient and wastes a lot of time.  Three months is a long time to be doing something wrong. Consider how much improvement is possible in that area and other facets of the game if I as a coach address it immediately when I see it.

When I was an assistant coach I always deferred to the head coach and his vision. I followed his lead and managed to his vision. Now as the head coach, I'm the one setting the vision. I have to lead. I have to set expectations. I have to establish the tone, whether it's never arguing with umpires or throwing bats, always hustling on the field, running out grounders, you name it.  If I don't set in motion my own vision of what my team should be and how we should think and act, nobody will - at least not this year - and all I will end up doing is kicking the can down the road; handing off to the next coach a bunch of bad habits that he then has to spend time correcting before he can teach them something new. The answer, instead, is to correct them now.  In other words, to be a leader, not a manager.

A Perfect Season book coverAdapted from the book, A Perfect Season: A Coach's Journey to Learning, Competing, and Having Fun in Youth Baseball (Quiet Path 2010) by Dan Clemens. It is available at Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, and other bookstores, and is now available in Kindle and audiobook formats.

Dan Clemens is a leadership and communications consultant, and has been a youth coach for 10 years. Follow him on Twitter: @CoachClemens.

Posted February 3, 2012