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Leadership Tips From 3 of the Best Sports Coaches of All Time

September 29, 2017

leadership tips from 3 best sports coaches

There are few people in the world that have tasted true success as a leader. Especially in the professional sports industry. It is extremely competitive and often coaches will get one or two seasons - or less - at the highest level before they are swiftly replaced. Even coaches that make incredible progress with a team may not keep their jobs because they didn’t “win it all.” Take Tom Cable, for example. He took over as head coach for the Oakland Raiders, an NFL football team that had maintained a losing record for seven straight seasons. In his first season as head coach, he had a much better season and helped them go 8-8 with a number two-ranked pass defense and a number two-ranked run offense. The next year? Fired. So, what can we learn from those coaches who took on this incredible challenge and came out on top? I have identified one key quality associated with each of the following coaches to help us better understand what it takes to be a great leader.

John Wooden – Passion:

John Wooden won 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year period as head coach at UCLA.

It’s not easy to win one NCAA national championship, so 10 is pretty much impossible. How did he do it? In an article in Psychology Today, Ronald E. Riggio tells a story about when John Wooden came to speak to students at Claremont McKenna College while Riggio was the institute director. John Wooden commented that in his experience, he had had little exposure to Division III athletes, and observed that since they don’t have scholarship opportunities, they play for the love of the game. During the visit, Coach Wooden told Riggio, “I think if I had to do it all over again, I would coach Division III.” Wooden’s words provide a great lesson: he was so successful because he loved the game.

Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.

Vince Lombardi – Work Ethic:

Vince Lombardi coached the Green Bay Packers to win the first two Super Bowls and three more NFL Championships.

Many believe that Lombardi is not only the greatest football coach of all time but also the greatest sports coach of all time. All coaches have to start somewhere. Lombardi started as an assistant high school football coach and worked his way to eventually became an assistant coach for Army’s football team. Red Blaik was the head football coach at the time. Later, Lombardi would regard Blaik as the single greatest influence on his coaching career. What did one of the greatest coaches learn from his coach? Preparation and patience.

The only place success comes before work is in the dictionary.

Pat Summitt - Empowerment:

Pat Summitt coached the Tennessee Lady Vols basketball team. With Pat, the team won eight NCAA championships.

During her legacy at the University of Tennessee, Pat Summitt coached 161 players. Every single one of those players graduated from college. She went above and beyond the standard to solidify the success of each of her players both as players AND as people. To prove this, she kept in contact with former players through visits and phone calls to make sure they had a friend to lean on in case they were going through hard times. Most leaders will start praising themselves and looking inward after success. Summitt’s leadership was so remarkable because, during her 38-year successful tenure with Tennessee, she never stopped caring, serving, and loving the people around her. She kept her mind on others and made sure she had her players' best interests at heart. Candace Parker, who played for Summitt at Tennessee, said, “She has changed the way I look at life and the way all her players have.”

“I won 1,098 games, eight national championships, and coached in four different decades. But what I see are not the numbers. I see their faces.”

Though there are plenty of lessons to take from the lives of these three amazing leaders, I have narrowed it down to three leadership traits we can take from these coaches: passion, work ethic, and empowerment. All three of these leaders possessed each of these qualities which is evident when you see their results and hear the words of their players. If leadership at any level - in sports or not - is going to be truly successful, then these three qualities should be given priority.

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Trevor McGlochlin Trevor McGlochlin is a Research Consultant at PSI. He leads the Financial and Automotive verticals within R&D. He earned a Master of Science degree in Industrial and Organizational Psychology from Florida Institute of Technology. His areas of expertise include selection, employee turnover, organizational development, applied research, and statistical analyses. His analysis work is centered around validation, adverse impact, turnover analyses, assessment scoring, and other data analysis.