Leadership Style Discovery in Performance Coaching, Guest Blog by Joe Giandonato, MS CSCS

Leadership Style Discovery in Performance Coaching


“Good coaching is based purely in leadership.” – John Wooden
John Wooden is among one of the winningest sports coaches of all time, amassing nearly 700 victories and 10 national championships throughout his 30 year career as a basketball coach. Wooden and his extraordinary leadership abilities are lauded and emulated by contemporaries in a variety of sports. Wooden’s leadership style, which will be discussed later in the work, can transcend any industry and any aspect of one’s life.

Leadership and its relationship to athletics

Someone doesn’t have to hold a prestigious head coaching position at a Division 1 university or be a C-level executive of a company to be a leader. Let’s face it; most people aren’t able to reach the upper-echelon of the coaching or business worlds, but that doesn’t mean the people who don’t make it, don’t need leadership skills. Many of us are coworkers, students, perhaps even parents. Some of us are teachers. Some of us may work as personal trainers or strength coaches, and a few of us may be athletes – participating in team sports or individual endeavors, such as powerlifting, strongman, or bodybuilding. Regardless of one’s occupation, responsibilities, passions, athletic background, and sport, some degree of leadership skills are required to succeed in this world. A strength and conditioning or fitness coach, will definitely need leadership skills, especially as they guide their athlete(s) or client(s) to their desired outcome, whether that’s securing a starting spot on their high school team’s varsity squad, or shedding 15 pounds for an upcoming reunion.

Aside from numbers in the wins column or improved performances during competition, it is difficult to gauge just how important coaching is to sports. Attributes such as ambition, competitiveness, and work ethic take center stage when it comes to success. Coaching effectiveness, much like the aforementioned attributes is just as important and as equally hard to quantify. Is a coach merely a manager, just overseeing one or more athletes, or are they integral to athletic success? What attributes or characteristics do successful coaches possess and what are some of their roles? Are coaches leaders, and if so, what leadership styles do they practice? All of these questions will be discussed in greater depth throughout this work.

Roles and Responsibilities of a Coach

Not only is a coach an expert in a particular area, they are also managers, friends, planners, and motivators.


Managers are viewed as an integral piece to the success of a person and/or an organization. Appointing the right manager is crucial and research indicates that there is a direct link between manager/coach behavior and athlete’s performance (Crust, 2006). A manager is charged with the responsibility of making decisions for the team or athlete and plays a fundamental role in the operation of a team. Managers also handle personnel matters, institute policy, and are responsible for skill development, fitness preparation, and public relations (Crust, 2006).

Coaches also work to build rapport with their athletes, sometimes befriending them. They may lend support to their athletes and provide them someone to confide in. Relationships shared among coaches and athletes will be further discussed in this work.


Coaches develop strategies to achieve desired results. They assess talent, organize and develop the content of practices and specific drills (Crust, 2006) and in the case of strength and conditioning and fitness coaches, design and implement periodized exercise programs to elicit continuous results (Baechle, 2008).


Coaches also serve as motivators to maximize and athlete’s full potential. Coaches utilize supportive behaviors, such as providing choices within specific rules within the sport, providing a rationale for tasks and limits, and acknowledging their athletes’ feelings (Mageau, 2003). These coaches impart their passion and energy for the sport in the athlete. Motivators have a strong drive to achieve and remain optimistic in the face of adversity (Goleman, 1998). This attitude is contagious as research has shown that these behaviors improve an athlete’s intrinsic motivation and self-determined types of extrinsic motivation (Mageau, 2003).

Developing your philosophy

One commonality in successful leaders is they all have philosophies – a system of beliefs that they firmly stand by. Possessing a clear cut philosophy prevents ill advised decisions from being made and irritating athletes or clients with ambiguity. Have a defined goal and a thoroughly mapped out plan of getting there. Having a concrete philosophy in place puts things in perspective. The philosophy of strength and conditioning coaches should put a premium on winning and developing athletes and the philosophy of personal trainers should include a commitment to empowering your clients and helping them get results they desire. A philosophy that is successful is one that achievement driven, measurable, brings out the best in individuals, thus fostering a winning attitude, is tailored to the needs and goals of the individuals, and is realistic. A philosophy must be established before one can consider choosing a leadership style.

Discovering your leadership style

There are numerous dimensions of leadership behaviors that a strength and conditioning or fitness coach can draw from, which are sensitive to the situation, sport and/or activity, and skill level of the athlete or fitness level of the client. Six behavior dimensions of leadership exist, which include: autocratic, democratic, positive feedback, social support, training and instruction, and situational consideration (Zhang, 1997).

Autocratic Leadership

Autocratic leadership limits the involvement of its participants in decisions. The use of commands and punishments are prevalent, as is the prescription of plans and methods for activities (Zhang, 1997). Here a coach or trainer will map out a plan with very little, if any, input from their athlete or client. The autocratic behavior dimension is a prime example of a coach or trainer giving their athlete or client what the coach or trainer thinks they need.

Democratic Leadership

Democratic leadership allows for the participation of athletes or clients in decisions and coaches are respectful of their rights (Zhang, 1997). Under this dimension, athletes or clients are allowed to set their own goals and are permitted to provide input about their training program. According to Coach Wooden, coaches should “consider the rights of others before [their] own feelings and the feelings of others before [their] own rights” (ESPN, 2010). This form of leadership engages the athletes or clients that they are working with, making them feel needed and important (Zhang, 1997).

Positive Feedback

Based upon a behaviorist approach is the next dimension, positive feedback, also known as positive reinforcement (Zhang, 1997). Coaches and personal trainers will compliment or reward their athletes or clients on their successes, which maintains motivational level (Mageau, 2003; Zhang, 1997). The athlete [or client] will be rewarded for a good performance or effort (Zhang, 1997).

Social Support

The dimension of social support, which is a humanistic style, satisfies the interpersonal needs of athletes or clients by remaining sensitive to them and helping them with their personal problems (Zhang, 1997). A high degree of emotional intelligence (Goleman, 1998), specifically empathy, or having the ability to understand the emotional makeup of people and treating them according to their emotional reactions, will be required to effectively carry out this dimension. (Zhang, 1997; Goleman, 1998).

Training and Instruction

Another dimension, training and instruction, is utilized to bolster the athlete’s or client’s skill set. Here a strength coach may help refine an athlete’s Olympic lifting technique, whereas a personal trainer may guide their client through some mobility drills or flexibility exercises they were just introduced to. This dimension focuses on explaining the techniques of the exercises, tactics of the drills, provides rationale as to why these new concepts are being implemented (Mageau, 2003) and clarifies training priorities to be worked upon (Zhang, 1997).

Situational Consideration
The last dimension is the situational consideration which is based upon the maturity of an athlete and their current skill level. Coaching style must be adapted to suit the level of the athletes. The situational consideration is based on the Situational Leadership theory (Hersey, 1977).

Situational Leadership

The theory, which was originally developed in the early 1960’s by organizational psychologists Paul Hersey and Kenneth Blanchard, while they were members of the Ohio University faculty, has continued to evolve and remains popular as it’s easy to understand, relatively simple to apply, and works with most people and work environments. Different leadership styles can be adopted depending on the situation (Hersey, 1977). These styles include: directing, coaching, supporting, and delegating.


In directing, leaders define the roles and tasks of the ‘follower’ defined by leaders. The followers are closely supervised and the leader makes all decisions. All communication is downstream, originating from the leader. Usually the individuals being directed possess low skill levels, but have a high level of commitment (Hersey, 1977). In sports, this style is employed with youth athletes and predominates with the novice personal training clientele in the fitness community.


The next style, coaching, is best used when individuals have slightly higher competence levels, but aren’t as committed (Hersey, 1977). Coaching, according to the model is a behavior that is of high directive (roles and tasks of the ‘follower’ are defined by leaders) and of high support (the leader gathers ideas and input from the followers before making decisions) (Hersey, 1977; Mageau, 2003). This style is best used when the athlete or client makes some progress, but their motivation begins to wane.


The supporting style, embodies a high supportive behavior, but is low directive as the follower has more control of decisions (Hersey, 1977). People that are led under this style have moderate to high levels of competence. This style is best used with intermediate athletes or clients, who need guidance to get to the next level.


Lastly, the delegating style is of low directive and support, as its constituents are competent and highly motivated (Hersey, 1977). Leaders are still involved with decisions, but to a far lesser degree. Leader involvement is decided by the follower. This style is best used when you’re working with an advanced athlete who may already be near or at the pinnacle of their game or the client who has shattered their previous fitness goals. The improvements made under this coaching style are comparatively miniscule, but much harder to attain. A coaches or trainers expertise is called upon in these instances to address these relatively small deficiencies to improve performance.

Transactional Leadership versus Transformational Leadership

Two common leadership theories exist – Transactional Leadership which is based upon the exchange of valued outcomes and behaviors among followers and leaders. Literature has shown that not all outcomes are equally reciprocated (Lievens, 1997; Judge, 2004) and that low quality exchanges could be detrimental to the morale of followers (Judge, 2004). The downfall with transactional leadership is that it only develops the followers’ extrinsic motivation largely due to the fact that it rewards them on outcomes. Conversely, transformational leadership improves stimulation and morale due to the four characteristics that it’s comprised: charisma, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration (Lievens, 1997). Research has shown that transformational leadership results in higher job satisfaction rates and performance (Judge, 2004).

Servant Leadership

Authors, executives, and coaches alike have been inspired by the leadership skills of Coach Wooden. Dozens of books and documentaries have chronicled Wooden’s legendary leadership abilities, which netted his UCLA teams a record 10 NCAA Basketball Championships. Wooden also authored nearly a dozen books on coaching and leadership development. His works reveal characteristics of a servant leader. Ten characteristics compose the servant leadership style, the most notable of them, which were traits of Coach Wooden include: conceptualization, stewardship, commitment to the growth of people, and building community (Joseph, 2005).


According to (Joseph, 2005), conceptualization is the servant leaders seeking to nurture their abilities to dream great dreams. Before his success at UCLA, Wooden was a marginally successful high school sports coach and briefly served as Indiana State University’s basketball coach. There’s no doubt that Wooden dreamt of successes that would compel him to rise through the coaching world and lead a team to a championship.


“Servant leaders’ first and foremost commitment is to serve the needs of others” (Joseph, 2005). Wooden undoubtedly put his team’s goals before his own, something that is uncommon today as coaches leapfrog from one position to the next. Wooden remained with UCLA for 28 seasons.

Commitment to the Growth of People

“Servant leaders are deeply committed to the personal, and spiritual growth of each and every individual within the institution” (Joseph, 2005). Wooden was someone who was committed to developing his players and assistant coaches. Many who played under him, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (formerly Lew Alcindor) wound up playing professionally. Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all time leading points scorer and a six time NBA champion (NBA, 2011).

Building Community

“Servant leaders seek to identify means of building community among those who work within a given institution” (Joseph, 2005). Think about what Wooden has done not only for the UCLA Bruins Basketball program, but what he’s done for UCLA and the sport of basketball. He’s an iconic figure that also revolutionized sport coaching and leadership theory.

Leadership styles, much like sport strategy and strength and conditioning and fitness programs, cannot be adopted with a one-size fits all approach. Research has indicated that a blend of leadership styles may also be effective (Judge, 2004), however, the success of one’s leadership depends on a multitude of factors, which may include the skill level of the leader and their followers and the goals of the team or the individual and the leader’s credibility.

Establishing Credibility

According to Kouzes (2008), “credibility is the foundation for leadership.” The leader must demonstrate values that prospective followers admire which motivate them to trust the leader (Kouzes, 2008). The followers must trust the leader enough to accompany them on a challenging journey, be it getting to postseason competition or surpassing a personal record on a lift. Seven characteristics that are required to gain and maintain credibility were outlined by renowned sport psychologist Gregory Dale (2005).


The old adage goes that people “don’t care what you know, until they know how much you care” and in sports coaching this holds especially true. (Dale, 2005) suggests that caring coaches take a genuine interest in the lives of their players, forging long-term relationships with them, and doing anything for them regardless of their talent (Dale, 2005). Wooden exemplified this characteristic as he was a servant leader.


Competent coaches have extensive knowledge and continue to sharpen their tools and add new ones as new research and trends emerge. These coaches most likely have the experience; they’ve “walked the walk” and have “been in the trenches”. They’ll also be the first to concede that they don’t know something, deferring an issue to another coach or expert. They’re also human enough to admit when they are wrong (Dale, 2005). Research has shown that a coach’s competency level can affect the athlete-coach relationship (Kajtna, 2009).


Coaches who are viewed as being credible have character. They follow up on promises, are honest with athletes and other coaches, especially as it pertains to their roles within a team (Dale, 2005) or organization, and embody a strong sense of integrity.


Credible coaches are also consistent. They are consistent in the way they administer punishment, how they handle themselves, and create an environment where their athletes know what to expect from them (Dale, 2005). It could be said that consistent coaches don’t deviate from their philosophy and core values.

Credible coaches also Communicate, are Committed, and are Confidence Builders (Dale, 2005). They’ll ensure that their positive and instructive comments outweigh the negative ones and will have a clear vision which they’ll communicate with their athletes. They’re also passionate, competitive, and inspiring. They’ll make their athletes feel valued and appreciated (Dale, 2005).


One key cog to the success of an athlete and their coach is the relationship that they share. Volumes of literature support the need for a good coach-athlete relationship to achieve goals (Trzaskoma-Biscerdy, 2007; Baechle, 2008; Bin Nazarudin, 2009; Ramzaninezhad, 2009; Zakrajsek, 2007). Coaches’ leadership styles have been shown to have a great effect on team success and athlete satisfaction (Bin Nazarudin, 2009). Team cohesion, also affected by the coach-athlete relationship, is a determinant in a team’s success (Ramzaninezhad, 2009; Zakrajsek, 2007). Additionally, the leadership behaviors of the athletic administration and head coaches impact the job satisfaction (Kuchler, 2008) and cohesion (Zakrajsek, 2007) of their subordinates. Research has indicated that effective leadership is required for a collegiate athletic program to be successful (Tucker, 2009).

Literature has indicated that the type of relationships that coaches and athletes share is based on the coaches leadership style which impacts performance (Kajtna, 2009; Carron, 1983; Trzaskoma-Biscredy, 2007; Turman, 2001; Zakrajsek, 2007). Preferences of leadership styles vary based upon gender (Grenier, 2005), the sport played and the level of competition (Beam, 2004). An athlete’s maturity (Carron, 1983; Turman, 2001) and skill level (Beam, 2004) may also affect leadership preference. It should be noted that athlete’s perceptions of their leaders and leadership preferences can change throughout the course of a season (Carron, 1983). Relationships shared among coaches and athletes can be impacted by personality disorders (Arthur, 2011), similarities and differences in passion (Lafreniere, 2008), success levels (Trzaskoma-Biscredy, 2007) and the task dependence and variability of the sport (Beam, 2004). As it pertains to the field of strength and conditioning, differing leadership styles were identified among collegiate and professional basketball strength coaches (Magnusen, 2010), although the fundamental strength training principles remained relatively similar (Simenz, 2005).


Literature, which includes accounts of history’s most successful coaches, that a variety of leadership styles can be effective. Instead of trying to find the leadership style that works for everyone and in any situation – a style that doesn’t exist, coaches should instead adapt their philosophy to the given situation, pulling from one or more theories at once to effectively lead people. Knowing when to apply leadership styles is of the utmost importance.


Leadership is an indispensable quality which can be developed with hard work. Leadership is a process, a lifelong journey, and is an around the clock responsibility. Leaders develop and hone talent, take action, take accountability for their mistakes, and share their successes with the team or individuals they’ve developed. Leaders are made, not hired, and no, they don’t clock out after a long day.

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Chris Merritt
Strength Coach/ B.S. Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University/ FMS/ Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist/ Certified Kettlebell Instructor/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance and Beyond Strength Performance NOVA
Chris Merritt
About the author

Strength Coach/ B.S. Kinesiology, Pennsylvania State University/ FMS/ Functional Range Conditioning Mobility Specialist/ Certified Kettlebell Instructor/ Owner of Beyond Strength Performance and Beyond Strength Performance NOVA
1 Response
  1. I believe strongly in the power of coaches as leaders to transform athletes into successful teams, especially in sports that depend heavily on the mental and emotional components like golf. That is why I decided to celebrate the career of Coach Catana Starks of Tennessee State University, the first black woman to coach a Division I college men’s golf team. Golf is a sport that requires precise execution of fine motor skills. Because of that, a golfer can perform significantly better or worse, based on the psychological make-up he or she brings to a challenge. Coaches who put into place the environment in which golfers are primed to be in the optimal mental and emotional frame of mind can make a huge difference, as Coach Starks did.

    I would also suggest that teaching individuals and teams to be resourceful in using more limited resources is integral to the mental toughness required for success. The movie Rocky IV, released in 1984, contrasted Rocky’s mental toughness, from his training regimen in the wilderness, with the mental and emotional vulnerability of the Soviet boxer, who was supported by the best resources of the Soviet government, including performance-enhancing drugs.

    Thank you for the platform you provide to celebrate great coaching leadership characteristics.

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