Talent is often followed by attention while leadership is lonely. The ability to lead is not a universal skill but more and more I have discovered that vocal student leaders who are assertive, self-starters are becoming the unicorns of higher education and more notably, athletics.
Information put out to student-athletes through recruiting services is abundant and parents are willing to sell the house to acquire the latest tricks of the trade to be "seen" by a college coach. You can read the articles, pay thousands for services and tap the endless resources out there but the truth is, many of these services miss the mark in addressing what higher education is dealing with where leadership is concerned.
The Fearless Coach network fields dialogue from coaches across all sports in all divisions and levels and very few if any, are centering their conversations around a shortage of talent. However, the conversation about the lack of preparation for leadership is alive and robust. As a college coach, I am frequently up to my ears in prospective student-athletes who are described by their coaches and parents as those who "lead by example", are "non-confrontational" and "strive for perfection". The combination of these three attributes, especially for our young female student-athletes is slowly becoming the most blatant accessory to the murder of leadership in sports.
Very few understand what we as coaches wouldn't give for the recruit who leads by actually leading, isn't afraid to ruffle feathers when the team requires it and gets up off the ground to try again without proclaiming that the world is ending or they don't deserve their opportunities.
I cannot begin to express how much an entire generation of future college athletes moving through their academic and athletic careers in silence while doing their best avoid mistakes and consequences at all costs, is my nightmare. Moreover, the slow extinction of active student leadership has shifted team accountability and consequences from a split 50/50 responsibility of the team and coach to 90/10 where the coach bears the weight. This is just one other factor in the exhaustion of even our most seasoned coaches.
I have dedicated hundreds of hours to sifting through full color e-packets and videos of prospective student-athletes. Despite many prospects being voted MVP for Habitat for Humanity, volunteering at the animal shelter 10 hours a week and taking first place in the high school science fair, the majority still have poor methodology and lack of real-life practice in direct communication. The vast majority have recorded zero hours in holding teammates or peers accountable in a team setting and their coaches and parents continue to ignore a much needed emphasis on these key characteristics.
Grit has been replaced by "nice" and "leading by example" has become a savvier way to sell the athlete who is talented and self-focused, yet absent from the problem solving and many times uncomfortable or ill-equipped to infect the rest of the team with their most valuable traits.
Understandably for the admissions portion of the college process, the busy student schedule and endless activities are staples in the all-around resume but the high marks and perfect papers are also doing very little to remedy quiet classrooms and practices where coaches and professors can hear their voice echo when asking for feedback or prompting participation.
I have had numerous candidates who are varsity high school letter winners that take college credit courses yet are completely unfamiliar with the concept of anticipation or ability to adapt when their schedule changes slightly. Looking their own peers in the eyes and communicating directly what they need or are frustrated with is like asking them to speak another language. Urging athletes to shake off their mistakes and move on has become a much bigger chore than most outside our field realize. If athletes truly knew how much college coaches of today dislike the idea of perfection, they would be much happier in not being pressured to achieve it 24/7 or at the very least, crumble far less when mistakes are made.
My conversations with high school, club coaches and counselors in the last decade and more notably within the last 3 years, have been full of investigative reporting trying to get to the root of what an athlete may bring to my team beyond stats. In addition to "leads by example" being the most common, this phrase is also the one that causes my eyes to glaze over but let's be clear on two things.
1. Character is paramount and has the potential to make or break recruitment regardless of talent. This philosophy has been echoed in several of my other articles.
2. Being a "nice" player is a positive attribute and we all have our favorite silent leaders on our rosters.
However, the world of college athletics is starving for more proactive, independent and assertive student leaders, so what do we do to change this trend?
We start by educating parents, athletes, age grade and high school coaches in the process on what it is that coaches are struggling with and what it is our teams are lacking. There are several ways we can achieve this but it also means if you want to stop hearing only the sound of your own voice at practice or in the classroom and digging through your resumes to exhume an ounce leadership when you really need a pound, you will likely have some editing to do in your recruiting, admissions or hiring process.
Based on our network of Fearless Coaches here are the top 10 attributes most leaders are seeking in their athletes or students outside of accolades and stats.
I will not speak for all college coaches in what we look for but I will tell you that as a woman who coaches women, I am wholeheartedly disappointed most have not recognized how much this "leads by example" phrase has morphed from a definition of a hard working, quality-over-quantity communicator to a conveniently widespread label that unilaterally relieves the athlete of having to care or communicate with their team and coaches beyond their own performance.
Share this with a prospective student-athlete, parent or coach so we can all work together in developing athletes with leadership skills which will be far more useful later on than their insatiable list of accolades and activities.
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