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Characteristics Of A Successful Division I Athlete-Specific Leadership Program

By Thomas G. Wyatt PhD

Sports are often given credit for teaching life lessons and skills such as teamwork and leadership. Are these skills learned by simply being on a team or must they be intentionally taught? The existence of so many athlete-specific leadership development programs suggest they are worthy of research to determine their success.


Voight and Hickey (2016), in their foundational study, observed an increase in the adoption of leadership development initiatives across NCAA Division I athletic departments. They identified 62 athletic departments that housed a do-it-yourself (DIY) leadership academy, a leadership development program specifically for their student-athletes. While they analyzed Division I university athletic departments for their use of in-house leadership academies or programs designed to develop personal and team leadership, they did not assess effectiveness in teaching leadership. To explore this aspect, I chose a small sample of four Northeastern Division I athletic departments with existing athlete leadership development programs (ALDPs). I interviewed the program facilitator, typically an Assistant Athletic Director, to explore how he or she measured the outcomes of these programs and if tracking athletes in leadership positions occurred as an outcome of the program.


Three themes regarding effectiveness of athlete leadership programs emerged from my study. First, a cultural assumption that athletes learn leadership through sport participation existed. Second, ALDPs have an existing measurement process in place. And, finally, a lack of consistency exists concerning how ALDPs track effectiveness.


Cultural Assumption


It is a common worldview in American culture that athletes learn positive skills and character attributes through their participation in sport. These general benefits of athletic participation include: promoting societal values, having integrity, building character, and developing life-skills (Coakley, 2008). It has also been found that athlete behavior in social settings has proven to be contrary to this worldview, especially on college campuses. This perspective is reinforced by NCAA research on drug and alcohol abuse and use on campuses. The NCAA conducted a study that spanned from 2005-2009 and found that 83.1% of student athletes indicated drinking alcohol in the last 12 months, with 22.6% indicating use of marijuana within the last 12 months (NCAA, 2014).


The stark contrast between what is assumed by our culture to what is actually happening with athletes on campus should be the real goal of what athlete leadership programs are designed to accomplish. Leadership skills are necessary to help change behaviors that otherwise could be detrimental to the well-being of student-athletes.


Dr. Brian Hainline, the NCAA’s Chief Medical officer, stated, “As more media coverage, commentary and public scrutiny are devoted to what student-athletes do off the field, along with the accompanying pressures to perform (and win games) on the field, student-athletes are inundated with factors that may affect their health and wellness.”


Research shows a tremendous amount of cultural pressure placed on athletes to perform on the field, while simultaneously functioning as someone to whom children can emulate, may manifest itself through unhealthy life choices. A successful leadership development program for athletes can provide the training for the leadership skills that are necessary for those moments when the pressure requires a leader or leaders on a team who can identify, and empathize, with fellow teammates and lead by example.


Measurement Processes


In order to really assess whether the leadership program is working, a university should pick a measurement tool and stick with it throughout an athlete’s participation in the program. With more than 100 instruments measuring individual and organizational leadership found in the literature, no shortage of potential options exist. Originally conceived by Chelladurai and Saleh in 1980, the Leadership Scale for Sport (LSS) is one such measure which could be used. The LSS consists of a training and instruction factor measured alongside decision factors, both autocratic and democratic, and motivational factors such as social support and positive feedback. Interview subjects, however, believed the focus of their programs was to build a much broader sense of leadership. This calls for a leadership theory that may not necessarily require a sport specific measurement tool.


One ALDP program facilitator stated, “Right now we just don’t have the bandwidth to do this, but if we were able to ask a student as a freshman to senior, ‘What is your level of feeling part of a community?’ or, ‘What is your level of satisfaction with your overall experience?’ or, ‘How have your behaviors changed in these components or these competencies?’ You know, whatever it might be. That to me would be a way of measuring.”


Tracking Effectiveness


The findings of the study revealed that these athlete leadership development programs are perceived to be effective but are not measured in any formal way, suggesting there is no data to support its effectiveness. According to one program facilitator:


“Truly, I don’t have any data for you. I don’t survey. They fill out if they’re a part of the leadership institute on a student athlete survey that we do, but we don’t survey after every session. The biggest feedback that we hear is that I have talked about it for 20 minutes in an interview about why I chose to be a part of it, what I’ve learned from it, and it helped me get the job. Do you know what I mean? That’s what I’m hearing. That it’s on their resume, and it’s translating into being able to talk about leadership.” 


Some student-athletes perceive being part of the leadership program as a resume builder, suggesting a tangible benefit for participation. Many athletes self-identify as leaders and choose to participate. So a question remains as to consistency regarding who is included in ALDPs. Some programs will accept any student who wishes to be part of the program, while others have a selection process involving the head coach. Athletes who participate in the programs are not always the captains of their respective teams nor are they always selected by the coach. 


Selection process. Three of the leadership development programs used coach recommendations as a selection process for admittance into the ALDP. One program admitted all of the applicants for the program. The fourth program, ALDP, had the unique offering of non-credit coursework for all incoming freshman and sophomores. 


One facilitator believed an application process created a level of investment on the part of the athlete. “It’s an opportunity for our sophomores, juniors, seniors, and fifth years. And we have an application process. And that’s just because we want them to commit to doing it, so that we know how many people we’re providing opportunities, I have taken on anyone. Usually we have about 100 to 110, 115 apply.”


Another facilitator affirmed this stating, “Again, we don’t, like, keep record of how they do, but the idea is not if you do this personally today, but should a leader act in this way? And they don’t really connect it all the way across in many cases. Some of them do, of course, which typically are our better leaders that we know of. But on the whole, they really separate it.”


The focus of an athlete leadership development program should be a multi-faceted collaboration with selected athletes, along with trained coaches who attend leadership workshops. 




The bottom line is athlete leadership development programs are a good idea. They have the potential to teach athletes leadership skills that can make them better leaders on the field and in their communities. A program’s structure should be based on sound leadership theory. One such theory which applies well to athletes is authentic leadership theory. The traits of an authentic leader, as defined by Avolio and Gardner (2005), include possession of self-awareness; transparency; ethical and moral reasoning; and balanced processing in their leadership style. The authors treated authentic leadership as a root construct and foundation that serves as a point of departure for other forms of leadership (e.g. situational or transformational leadership). I believe authentic leaders, by definition, are in alignment with the desired qualities of a leader on the field of play. As Fry and Whittington (2005) argued, authentic leaders are characterized as hopeful, optimistic, resilient, and transparent. These leaders are described as moral/ethical, future-oriented individuals who make the development of others a priority. By being true to their own values and acting in ways that are consistent with those values, authentic leaders develop their associates into leaders themselves.


As if it were not challenging enough for coaches on the field or court, the challenge of connecting life lessons to student-athletes adds to the burden for some coaches. This is where some coaches may lose sight of the real purpose of sport participation, which is, through competition and being part of a team, young men and women are exposed to aspects of being human that sport provides.


If the focus on developing leadership traits were equal to that of winning by both the athlete and institution, there would be a greater chance of an athlete demonstrating leadership and making better life choices for themselves. For example, athletes may find themselves at an off-campus, non-university sponsored event, such as a party. A teammate with leadership training may recognize a situation where someone needs to “step-up,” be a leader, and decide that the right thing needs to be done to avoid detrimental consequences. These life choices have the potential for both short term and long-term results that can lead to positive associations with collegiate athletic programs and successful skills for the athlete to build upon well into their careers. A very small percentage of college athletes become professionals at their sports. Athlete leadership programs have the potential to develop these athletes into strong leaders in their careers, communities and families. A win no matter how you are keeping score. 




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