Home Leadership Five Key Character Traits of Effective Leaders In Sport
Five Key Character Traits of Effective Leaders In Sport

Five Key Character Traits of Effective Leaders In Sport


Coaching surely must be one of the most fickle professions there is. The rate of failure is enormous, and very few coaches succeed at the elite level.

Timing and public opinion is everything, and the end of season circus sees many moving on, uprooting their families and scrambling to fill the one or two positions available.

Despite the odds, some are able to carve out long, successful and prosperous careers. Surely opportunity, skill and strategy play a part, however there are other intangibles which influence long term success in sport.

This post outlines five character traits common to leaders who last. These can be cultivated, developed and applied by any leader in order to make knowledge more effective, and increase the odds of success, whatever your expertise.

Empathy: Gil Reyes

Photo by Bryan Haraway 2010 702-501-5956 www.pmphotographic.netBefore he met Gil Reyes, Andre Agassi was just like any other talented tennis brat, Inconsistent on the court, and prone to a mistakes and misbehavior off it.

Reyes, a well respected strength & conditioning coach from university of Nevada helped Agassi transformed himself into one of the best athletes of his era, and one of best ever in world tennis.

In the award winning biography ‘Open’ Agassi describes the moment Reyes won his trust, by offering him a level of commitment, and care he had never experienced before.

After a tournament in Scottsdale, while eating at a restaurant a group of men began publicly insulting Agassi about his appearance. Agassi recalls their taunts ‘Probably gay’ one said, ‘definitely a homo’ his buddy replied.

Reyes got up, walked over to the table and dared Agassi’s tormentors to challenge him. So menacing was he that the group fell silent and remained so as the pair left the diner.

Agassi was overcome with gratitude and thanked his new coach. Reyes assured him he would never need to thank him again; he then explained how important it was for him to see Agassi succeed.

The following excerpt summarises the speech that Agassi admits he regrets not recording, though he still remembers every word.

“Andre, I wont ever try to change you… But I know I can give you a blueprint and a structure to achieve what you want.

Ill be firm, but fair, I’ll lead, I’ll never push… Its on man, its on. You know what I’m saying? We’re in a fight and you can count on me until the last man is standing.

Somewhere up there is a star with your name on it, I might not be able to help you find it, but I’ve got pretty strong shoulders and you can stand on my shoulders while your looking for that star”.

When people do something for us, we want to do something for them. The chemical that drives this instinct is called Oxytocin. Oxytocin reinforces the bond and trust that develops between people as a result of an act of empathy.

Reyes knew the truth behind Ted Roosevelt’s famous quote: ‘people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’, and he made sure that he showed Agassi his intentions were pure.

In that moment Agassi realised he could play tennis for more than himself, and more than money. He had discovered the drive to make a mentor proud.

Vulnerability: Phil Jackson

87745978mw069-los-angeles-lPhil Jackson is the most successful coach in NBA history. Over nineteen years his teams won 11 titles, including two ‘three-peats’ with two Franchises. His winning margin and success in the playoffs is unrivalled in professional basketball.

During his career, Jackson coached some of the world’s most talented athletes. Juggling many high profile personalities within his teams, including Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.

After four years and three championships leading the LA Lakers, Jackson began to have problems with talented up and comer Kobe Bryant. Thought undeniably gifted, Bryant continually put himself before the team.

Bryant publicly criticised Jackson’s game plan, calling it boring, and regularly ignored instructions, showboating with one on one antics that frustrated teammates and disrespected his coach.

Tensions eventually reached boiling point when Jackson called for Bryant to be traded, the Lakers sided with their superstar and Jackson was forced to walk, conceding he and Bryant could not work together.

For Bryant and the Lakers, the following season was not a successful one. For the first time in eleven years, they missed the playoffs, Bryant got injured and the coach who replaced Jackson quit halfway through the season.

Jackson was reinstated as Lakers head coach the following season. With the balance of power now tipped in his favour, many expected Jackson to insist Bryant was finally traded out of his team.

Instead, Jackson worked to mend the relationship and find middle ground with Bryant who came to learn how his own unique gifts could be applied and expressed within the team’s game plan.

With Bryant and Jackson on the same page, the Lakers returned to the playoffs. After a first round defeat, Jackson spent three years rebuilding the team around his superstar Bryant, and the game plan that had seen him win nine NBA titles.

Four years after returning to the helm, the Lakers won another championship. And the following season they won another. Jackson now had eleven Championship rings, and Bryant had five.

Vulnerability is having the courage to show others we are not perfect. When Jackson walked back into the role of head coach it would have been easy to assume an heir of superiority, and demand compliance.

Instead, he recognised it was his responsibility to lead, and this is what he did. He did not hold a grudge; he worked with Bryant to find a common ground. Together, they found a way to lead the Lakers back to ultimate success.

Clarity: Craig Bellamy

craig-bellamy-to-saty-at-storm-628Craig Bellamy has led the Melbourne storm in Australia’s National Rugby League to finals appearances in each of the 12 years he has been in charge. And when his teams get there, they generally win.

Despite significant turnover due to salary cap squeezes, aggressive recruiting from rival teams, and harsh penalties for salary cap breaches, Bellamy’s teams have won four grand finals in five appearances.

Bellamy has been fortunate to lead some talented athletes, however the turnover and turmoil he has managed, means that his success cannot only be attributed to those at his disposal.

The culture that he has created is revered in Australian sport, but the program Bellamy runs and the way he manages it, is a largely under appreciated factor influencing his success.

In his book: Home truths, Bellamy talks about how he brings athletes into his program. His approach is to empower the players and keep his communication simple, clear and concise;

In essence his message is this:

Your good at this, we like that, and we need this from you. If you can do those things you’ll be an important part of the team.

If you can’t do this well, it will negatively impact the team. We have the resources to help you improve, but in the end it is your responsibility to achieve this.

There is a lot of talk about empowerment in sport, but in characteristic style Bellamy sums it up better than most:

They have to be responsible. It ties in with being motivated; when you give a footballer a certain job to do and he is responsible for doing that job within the team, it makes him accountable to his teammates. That’s empowerment.

Clarity is key to advancement, and Bellamy works to ensure his athletes are crystal clear as to what to do, how to do it, and who’s responsible. His teams are known for their discipline, consistency and cohesion.

No doubt this is because Bellamy makes sure there is none.

Resolution: John Wooden

john-wooden-01157545John Wooden is arguably the greatest coach of any sport to have ever lived. His record of 10 NCAA titles in thirteen years speaks for itself. Wooden led his UCLA Bruins to championship success seven years in a row.

The consistency of Wooden’s success is almost more impressive than the records themselves. College athletes graduate, this meant every year he lost his most experience players and coached a significantly different team.

Of course this is no different to any other college coach, but very few have created a culture of consistent success to the same degree as Wooden.   Clearly it was not just that he had talent, he knew how to mould it.

As a coach, Wooden only had three rules;

  1. Don’t be late
  2. No bad language
  3. No criticising teammates

Wooden was deadly serious about these rules, and stuck to his assertions. On one occasion Wooden left a player to make his own way, because he was late for the team bus. Wooden’s resolve didn’t only apply to his teams and athletes however, he was equally as consistent in relation to matters in his own life.

Before he took the job at the UCLA, he had applied for a coaching role at the university of Minnesota. He and his wife had wanted to remain in America’s Midwest, but because of poor weather, he did not recieve their offer until after he had accepted the coaching position at UCLA.

Despite the fact that he and his wife would have much preferred to take the job he had first applied for, he turned it down since he had already committed to UCLA, and as a matter of principle wished to remain true to his word. When Wooden said something, he meant it.

Athletes will often test the boundaries in order to gauge inconsistencies in what their coaches say and do. They do this not to break the rules, but to figure out how much they can trust and rely on those who lead them.

The coach who says one thing and does another, will not be as reliable as the coaches who is true to his word. The more consistent the coach, the more trust and authority he will earn from his athletes.

Wooden has been described as a disciplinarian by those who knew him, however he cultivated very strong bonds with his athletes. His tough love approach was just as much love as it was tough, and his athletes responded in kind.

Conviction: Graham Henry

Graham-Henry-New-Zealand--001Sir Graham Henry is one of the most successful rugby coaches in history. Maintaining an 83% success rate over forty years leading teams, he laid the foundations for one of the most successful dynasties in world sport.

After stints as head coach for Wales, and the British and Irish Lions, Henry returned home to Coach the all blacks for eight years, Though it wasn’t always smooth sailing, Henry eventually found his groove.

At the 2007 world cup, the All Blacks were beaten in the quarter-final by France and many thought Henry’s international coaching career was over. Four years later he led the All Blacks to world cup victory on home soil.

After his 2007 failure, Henry resolved to do things differently.

One of the concepts he championed was the idea that open, honest communication can improve a teams performance. Henry believed that when people prioritise harmony over honesty it can be hard to get to the truth.

Understanding what is really going on is key to making good decisions, Henry described the leadership ethos that set the stage for better communication:

We used to have a saying in the leadership group that went ‘enter the danger’, this meant talking about the difficult things, not sweeping them under the carpet’

Underlying this ethos is the idea that consensus is rare, and probably something to be cautious of. When everyone agrees and no one challenges assumptions, group think can lead teams to disaster.

While dissension is good for decisions making, Henry also understood that once a decision has been made, unity is of the highest priority. To ensure leaders presented a united front and acted with conviction he brought in one rule;

Disagree and commit.

It was acknowledged that not every decision would or could be the right one, however unity was crucial, Henry knew that if he was to demand unity on the field, his leadership must first model it for them off the field.

When leaders lack conviction, athletes begin to doubt their authority, question their directives, and fracture as a group, as people begin to compete for vacant leadership roles left unattended.

By creating an environment where better decisions could be made, and promoting conviction and unity among leaders, Henry and his leadership team guided the All Backs to sporting greatness.


 Athletes reflect their leaders. No matter how technically gifted a coaches understanding,  failing to model any of the five character traits described above, the consequences can be costly:

  • When leaders lack empathy, athletes become apathetic
  • When leaders lack vulnerability, athletes become defensive
  • When leaders lack clarity, athletes become needy
  • When leaders lack resolve, athletes challenge authority
  • When leaders lack conviction, athletes become uncertain

Conversely, when leaders display empathy, vulnerability, clarity, resolve and conviction, they develop stronger relationships with athletes who are more independent, motivated, teachable and cooperative.


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