Starsia: Keys to identifying and developing team leaders
Starsia: Keys to identifying and developing team leaders
BY DOM STARSIA
Former UVa men's lacrosse coach Dom Starsia (center).
Daily Progress file photo
When I began my coaching career in the fall of 1974, the first adjustment was the unexpected challenge of learning to articulate the things that I had always been able to do instinctively as a player.
How did I anticipate a play unfolding? Why was I able to find the open man in the clearing game? It took considerable time for me to figure out what I had been doing in order to teach it to others.
As I have thought about this topic of leadership (and others), I find myself going through a similar exercise. I have been blessed throughout my career with some outstanding captains and leaders. Without any conspicuous intention, I believe we created an environment for these individuals to flourish.
I have heard Eric Kapitulik, a former Navy SEAL and director of The Program, answer the question, “How many captains should you have on a team?” with an emphatic, “One.” His strong belief is that there can only be one uninterrupted voice on a squadron or team.
I have disagreed with Kapitulik respectfully but openly. There are too many peripheral issues with college students to drop all that responsibility on one person.
In the military, it is life and death. The mission is clear. There can be no equivocation in the group response. People might die.
In college, there are all kinds of incidental matters involved in putting a team together — study hall attendance, academic performance, locker room culture, administrative responsibilities, behavior off the field, effort on the field, etc.
Here is the way I see it now: You can have and might need multiple captains (and that can vary by situation), but there is only one true leader. As I have looked back on all the teams in my career, when we have that one person standing up above all the others, we have a chance for something special.
I was on the phone with Penn coach Mike Murphy recently discussing all the variables that interact with the development of leadership for college students. He felt strongly that the most important piece of information he needed was the “how to” in teaching leadership skills to his players. I was tempted to Google it. I am sure there are countless books on the subject. The academies designate an entire curriculum just to this topic. I’ll leave those options to you. But for the purposes of this article, we are going to go with one man’s gut instinct and the first-hand experience of having survived 42 years of working with college lacrosse players.
Set an example
First and foremost, a coach needs to be a role model for his players. This is the most important responsibility for someone who aspires to lead and influence others.
Identify potential leaders
Secondly, you need to identify the players who demonstrate the qualities of leadership. I would begin that process early in a young man’s career. Sometimes it is obvious when they simply walk through the door. More often than not, however, there are telltale signs early that still need to be developed. The same way that we assess and work with players on different skills and strengths, we identify those with leadership potential and devise a plan to nurture those attributes.
What are we looking for? Is someone a hard worker? Does he steadily improve throughout the year in the weight room, on conditioning tests and in the classroom? Does he demonstrate a resilient spirit? Do his teammates respond to him in a positive way? Is his competitiveness and tenacity in practice respected by his teammates? Is there an early, spontaneous example of him standing up to his teammates?
I go back and forth a little on this one, but I don’t think you need to tell the player(s) what your long-range intention (leadership development) is immediately after identifying him (them). Some may not progress in this area and drift away, and I believe there is real merit to others thinking they figured it out for themselves.
The roots are deeper when there are some spontaneous developments and demonstrations of leadership. You will also find the results are more profound.
Cultivate a program of openness and honesty. Encourage these selected players to come in your office individually or in small groups to talk with you and with each other.
Keep the meetings on a regular schedule, like the first Monday of each month. Well-intentioned ideas often get away from us.
You don’t need a hard agenda, but having some topics in mind will keep things moving. Let them know that everything is on the table.
Make the conversations personal and meaningful. You can talk about the circumstances that define leadership.
Send them relevant articles about examples of leadership. Suggest books to read. Are they intrigued by the information? Do they follow up?
The players need to know they can come in and talk with you. They may be clumsy and the meetings a little awkward at first, but no worries, they are finding their way — their leadership sea legs. It is human nature for it to take a while before you are both comfortable getting to know each other, and as coaches, our own unease and adaptation to each individual is part of the fascination in our profession. Telling someone that you do not know all the answers is an intimate way to gain his trust. If players come to appreciate the complex organization of a team and the myriad challenges facing coaches, they will be more likely to stand up for you in moments of stress.
Give it time
In the another recent article, I wrote about the roles that Bray Malphrus and Chris Rotelli played on Virginia’s championship teams in 2011 and 2003, respectively.
In Bray’s case, early in his career, he wanted black-and-white answers to every situation that came up at the defensive end of the field. I could sense his frustration when I would tell him that it simply does not work that way.
“This is a fluid game,” I’d say. “You are going to have to react and figure it out on the fly.”
He did not want to hear it.
In turn, I think Chris was startled when my reaction to his being selected first-team All-ACC in 2001 was, “You have so much more to offer us.” He may have been disappointed at my lack of effusive praise for his 35-point all-conference performance.
In both instances, we talked for years before they fully put the team and their teammates performances before their own. They weren’t selfish or immature — just the opposite, in fact — but their eyes opened to the vast possibilities of their own roles.
Bray led the lowest-seeded team with the most losses to an unlikely NCAA championship. And while Chris scored fewer goals than in his sophomore season, his 25-goal, 25-assist senior campaign was the first by a midfielder in ACC history. (Chris also became the first lacrosse player to be selected the ACC Male Athlete of the Year.) Both of those teams had other excellent captains and leaders, but Bray and Chris singularly stood out.
Provide opportunities for leaders to emerge
Following a subpar exhibition performance in the fall of 1998, our staff decided to make every remaining activity until the end of the semester a competitive exercise. We divided the team up, assigned captains, kept score and standings and played for an overall informal championship. Weight-room work, conditioning runs, basketball and soccer games and touch football that almost required equipment were among the events.
We created an environment for our leaders to assume responsibility, to interact and impact their teammates. I am hesitant to draw a straight line from process to result, but we captured Virginia’s first national championship in 27 years that spring.
Engage team leaders in discussions of discipline
It is important for a team to recognize that the final responsibility for disciplinary action lies with the head coach. You do not want players blaming each other or assistant coaches even in situations that clearly require punishment. Unequivocally, the offending player, his teammates, parents and administrators should know the head coach makes the final call.
However, getting the team leaders involved in a discussion of the situation and consequences will be a gesture of trust and respect. How would they handle this particular situation? It will also help them to understand that there are larger issues at play than their own comfort level or that of a teammate. They will begin to acknowledge their own status in the program and that the coach has confidence in their ability to handle some tight spots.
Connect leaders with leaders
You have identified the players in your program that may have these special qualities. Now, identify people in your community, your institution, alums, former players, etc., who you know have these qualities. Call this latter group, maybe out of the blue, and arrange to have them meet with one of these players individually.
I do not think you will have any trouble getting them to agree. True leaders want to share. You hope that the meeting creates a synergy, a spark, that they say things to each other the rest of us cannot hear.
Get out of the way
Finally, arrange an extended period of time when the team participates in meaningful activities that do not include the coaches. Whether it is a break in the middle of the offseason or the last week of the fall semester, designate it as Captains Week. No specific planning by the coaches, no sneak peeks — let the leaders run the show.
Afterward, you can sit and talk about what it was like, what they might have done differently, what were the headaches. Whatever they may be missing from the guidance of coaches may be made up for in an increased sense of initiative and responsibility.
I have been thinking about leadership for some time now, but it occurs to me that I never consciously thought to teach leadership. I was raised and educated in an environment that advocated for personal responsibility and individual initiative. It was an unintentional coaching priority to create an atmosphere for the blossoming of leadership, and I was blessed to have a number of young men step into these roles.
I acknowledge now that leadership is a learned skill that must be identified and nurtured. Be patient. Be open. Be firm. Be fair. The young man with those genuine leadership roots may be ready to emerge at the critically decisive moment and have the most profound influence on those around him.
I will leave you with an affirming quote from Vince Lombardi: “Leaders aren’t born, they are made. And they are made just like everything else, through hard work. And that’s the price we’ll have to pay to achieve that goal, or any goal.”