Working with Young Leaders: Lessons Learned the Hard Way

       One of the parts of my job I love the most as a high school mental performance coach is getting to work with young leaders.  Their interest and efforts to grow in their roles can be inspiring.  A couple of years ago our athletic department started a student-athlete council as a way to teach a small group a bit about leadership and allow them to have a voice in their experiences.  That group has evolved, in both size and content, into what we now call The Captain Class.  The Captain Class name comes from a book by Sam Walker on the traits of the best captains in sports history.  What I love about the traits is they're based on Sam's years of research and devoid of the usual leadership fluff like, "Great leaders are always positive!"  Actually, no they aren't.  Nobody's always positive.  The traits also have a long list of potential connections with sport psychology.  Those are what spark our sessions together.  Our school's Captain Class is selected through nominations from each of our teams' head coaches.  For most teams, we try to select one senior who will be a captain and one underclassman who coaches think could develop into a captain.  We get together monthly at lunch with a mixture of lessons, pizza, and open forums.  We also visit local elementary schools.  Although technically our athletic director, assistant athletic director, and myself teach the sessions, our Captain Class members teach us probably more than we teach them.  It's that teaching that inspired me to get back to writing with this blog.  I want to share a few lessons I've learned in working with young leaders.  These lessons have been learned the hard way.  For the sake of time and not wanting to publicly share the stories accompanied by the lessons, I've chosen to keep the lessons short.  Here they are:

*The best kid you've ever taught/coached is still a kid and still human.  They're not going to be perfect, and we shouldn't expect them to be.  We also need to do more to help them realize they don't need to be.

*Shame on us if we purposely guilt a kid for having interest and/or responsibilities outside of whatever we're in charge of.  That's an us problem, not a them problem.

*Being a great kid doesn't automatically prepare you as a leader.  It's not enough to just throw kids into leadership roles.  We need to balance the throwing in with guidance that has substance.

*Along those lines, your best player or the person who's the best at whatever your group does shouldn't automatically be chosen for a major leadership role.  We've all seen the, "When your best player is your hardest worker," type of quotes, and that's special when you have it.  All too often, however, we overvalue the importance of on field role when choosing a leader and try to force fit the most talented into a leadership role.

*We need to provide opportunities for the "next tier" kid to grow as a leader and rise to the top.  It doesn't need to be such a select group.  If we think they can learn and improve, which is kind of the point of education, we need to help them see and rise to what they could be.

*When we do pick the same small group to do everything we don't just rob the next group.  We risk burning out that same small group.  They shouldn't be expected to do everything.  That expectation can have long lasting, negative impact.

*We need to pay attention beyond what they're saying.  They've been trained well and don't want to let you down.  "I'm fine" can be accompanied by behavior that screams, "I'm not fine!"

I say I've learned these lessons the hard way because each comes with stories of situations where I feel like I've failed a kid or group of kids.  It certainly wasn't my intention at the time, but with a new perspective comes the responsibility to do and be better for the next group to come along.  Also there is the realization that another group of lessons learned will undoubtedly come with more experience over time.  That's kind of how growth works.  Anyhow, I hope your reading of this has allowed you to do some sort of mixture of rethinking and commiserating.  Until next time!

- Coach Ehrlich

(Pictured above is most of our Captain Class for 2018-2019)


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