In the strength and conditioning world, leadership can be the difference between running a successful or unsuccessful program. When it comes to coaching young athletes in the weight room, the right type of leadership is even more important. Young athletes with no clear direction and lack of leadership run the risk of delaying their athletic and character development. It's important that we build self-reliant athletes and it is our job to help them learn how to train. That means teaching them how to set up for exercises, how to perform exercises properly, and developing a training culture in which young athletes can learn to take on a leadership roles and eventually coach their peers. After all, those who earn a spot playing for a college team, or even for a professional team will most likely need to be self-reliant and proactive to achieve long-term success in those settings. In my opinion, this can be best accomplished by implementing a transformational leadership style with some elements of transactional leadership.
What is Transformational Leadership?
The main goal of transformational leadership is to create a self-sustaining system of individuals. It aims to empower and inspire confidence. Transformational leaders utilize the concept of idealized influence by acting as appropriate role models, following a core set of ethical values, and leading by example through embodiment of their personal beliefs (Bourne et al. 2013). A transformational coach will strive to be a role model young athletes can look up to and emulate. Transformational coaches understand that failure is part of the development process, and will support athletes when they fail. This is imperative when dealing with youth athletes. No youth athlete is the “finished product.” Hence, failure must be utilised as a teaching tool.
What is Transactional leadership?
Transactional leadership is a reward and punishment-based approach to leading a team. In contrast to a transformational leader, a transactional leader may see failure as a negative component of learning and may even go as far as to punish or scold athletes who fail by way of management by expectation (Hu et al. 2016). Moreover, a transactional leader will aim to control the entire process, and would take immediate corrective action if a mistake is made, as opposed to developing leaders who are able to contribute with confidence and without fear of being reproached. Hu et al (2016) suggests that the strength of transactional leadership is that it produces results, as it is task focused and uses contingent rewards. However, In the strength and conditioning world, this could also lead to athlete dissatisfaction and exhaustion. Young athletes may become frustrated or lose interest in the sport.
How can we apply transformational leadership to youth athlete development?
Transformational leadership theory suggests there are two types of athletes: ego-oriented and mastery-oriented (Duda and Whitehead 1998). A mastery-orientated athlete is more likely to exhibit intrinsic motivation, which should enhance learning (Dorobantu and Biddle 1997). Consequently, a mastery-oriented focus can enhance self-determination (Ntoumands 2001) and facilitate autonomy of behavior (Brunel, 1999). Therefore, setting the right motivational climate is a must if the goal is to develop those qualities in young athletes.
Previous research suggests that task mastery orientated climates have a positive effect on intrinsic motivation, which may be enhanced by increasing perceived autonomy and competence. Young (2005) found that an “active application-oriented experience delivered by enthusiastic faculty, who provide high interaction, supportive feedback and clear goals that emphasize learning can increase intrinsic motivation and self-regulated learning.” This further strengthens the argument in favour of a transformational leadership style for coaching athletes.
It is of paramount importance that coaches not only look at the present, but that they also make an emotional investment in young athletes’ long term development. A transformational coach will aim to develop leaders who are not only good athletes, but also better people and better ambassadors for the sport they participate in (Hodge 2005). They must strive to inspire young athletes to achieve their goals and make them truly believe they can achieve anything they set their minds to, supporting the concept of inspirational motivation (Bass & Avolio 1995). If you are a coach and believe your only job is to make your athletes strong and fast, I suggest you think again. Coaches should strive to also build their athletes’ character, to help them improve as athletes and as human beings, because better people make better athletes. Teaching respect and discipline, and inspiring hope and self-confidence should be a priority for any youth coach.
Transactional leadership may be adequate in the beginning stages, but may not be optimal for long term development
Coaches must set appropriate standards for performance and attitude, which could be considered a feature of transactional leadership. This is especially important when coaching youth athletes, who have not yet gained the introspection and skills necessary to evaluate their own performance. Transactional coaching is also important at the beginning stages of learning to prevent injury and establish appropriate movement patterns - mistakes must be corrected immediately and exercises must be regressed or progressed appropriately according to skill level.
However, it can be argued that a strict transactional leadership style could cause young athletes to lose self-confidence as well as decrease satisfaction levels. In a study by Hu (2016), individuals in a surgical team led by a transformational leader had a more effective performance, higher job satisfaction, seemed to put in more effort, and overall had better outcomes than those led by transactional leaders. In addition, research indicates that transformational leadership can improve team behavior (Hu et al. 2016). In his book “Legacy”, author James Kerr wrote about one of the most successful sports teams in history, the All Blacks, New Zealand’s national rugby team. Kerr considers this team to be a perfect example of what transformational leadership can do for a group of athletes. According to Kerr, transformational leadership allowed the All Blacks to not only consistently be ranked first in the world, but it also led the team to completely change its culture, which ensured that leaders are continuously built by developing a climate that encouraged love and respect for the jersey and each other, compassion, self-reliance and delegation.
Transformational leaders also utilize the concept of idealized influence by acting as appropriate role models, following a core set of ethical values, and leading by example through embodiment of their personal beliefs (Bourne et al. 2013). A transformational coach will strive to be a role model young athletes can look up to and emulate. I believe that a youth coach’s job is to provide a positive environment in which young athletes can flourish and develop their leadership and athletic skills, with the goal of helping them become self-regulated learners. With that in mind, Hardy et al. (2010) suggests that “different transformational leadership behaviors might be important in different contexts.” As a coach I concur, especially when coaching in the private sector where face-to-face contact and consistency in attendance may be limited. I propose that a combination of transformational and transactional leadership styles, with a clear emphasis on a transformational approach, is most suitable when working with youth athletes. They are still learning about themselves as athletes as well as how to interact in different social settings. It is indisputable that they would greatly benefit in many ways from transformational leadership, in fact it is necessary to allow athletes to fully develop. However, transformational leadership alone has the potential to leave a gap in their learning, in my opinion. Particularly in the beginning stages of learning, young athletes need to be guided and need to learn discipline, which favours a transactional approach. Coaches must possess enough emotional intelligence and tact to be able to identify which athletes are ready to be given responsibility.
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