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Women field hockey team before start of the game

This blog is the second installment in a series in collaboration with Queen’s University. As an assignment to build knowledge mobilization skills, Dr. Luc Martin, Associate Professor in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies, tasked students in his third year team dynamics course to write a SIRC blog. The top five were submitted to SIRC, and will be published over the next few months.  

Northouse (2011) defined leadership as“the behavioural processes through which one person influences another person, or a group of others, toward attaining a specific set of objectives or goals.” In other words, leadership is the process of purposefully influencing others. In sport, good leadership can improve athlete satisfaction and resilience, and build team confidence and cohesion—all outcomes that will contribute to better performance (Turnnidge & Côté, 2018).

There is a tendency to assume that leaders are “born with it,” but as you will learn in this blog, anyone can be a leader. It comes down to your behaviours, which is great, because that is something that everyone can control.

Who are our leaders?

In their review of literature relating to athlete leadership, Cotterill and Fransen (2016) explored three ways leadership can be categorized:

  • Leadership Roles: Leaders can occupy a range of roles on and off the field of play, including task leaders (who keep teammates focused), motivational leaders (who keep morale high), social leaders (who build team cohesion), and external leaders (who represent the team to the outside world). Once you consider the scope of these roles, it is not surprising that few leaders can undertake all of these roles at once. In fact, from a total of 4,500 athletes studied, only 2% fit all four categories (Fransen et al., 2014).
  • Formal vs. Informal Leadership: Leadership can also be categorized based on whether people are appointed (formal roles such as a team captain) or emerge as leaders informally (informal roles). Although formal team captains are critical (Cotterill et al., 2019), evidence supports the need for teams to have numerous informal leaders (Fransen et al., 2017).
  • Attributes vs. Behaviours: The final way to categorize leaders is to consider their attributes and behaviours. Attributes include age, experience, skill level, and seniority. According to a study by Fransen et al. (2019) at least 78% of athlete participants chose leaders based on attributes like these. However, what really differentiates leaders, are their behaviour(Cotterill & Fransen, 2016).

Leadership behaviours: The differentiating factor

Consider how behaviours have distinguished outstanding leaders like Christine Sinclair, Sydney Crosby, or Willie O’Ree. These individuals could all talk the talk, but also walk the walk—their behaviour reflected their words. Demonstrating great work ethic, showing care for teammates, being accountable, acting in ways that represent team norms, these are examples of behaviours that help athletes emerge as leaders within a team.

The fact that behaviours are the differentiating factor is good news for aspiring leaders! Since behaviour is what makes a good leader, this means leadership can be learned (Gould & Voelker, 2010). Athletes interested in developing their leadership skills can integrate the following practices into their interactions with teammates (Duguay et al., 2016):

  • It comes down to R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Remember that respect can look different to different people. Recognize your teammates as individuals and consider whether respect looks like being brutally honest when delivering feedback, or if the athlete values a different approach.
  • Reinforce positive group norms. This could be as simple as saying, “we work hard together,” leading by example to demonstrate what your team is all about, or linking individual goals to team goals in one-on-one conversations.
  • Switch it up. We humans are stimulated by surprises! Try a new drill, use a new icebreaker, or plan an outing that your team has never done before. Your extra effort will show you care and will hopefully influence your team to feel the same.
  • Don’t make all of the decisions alone. There is a reason why democracy works! It makes everyone feel like they are a part of something bigger. Encourage everyone to be a part of the decision-making process and make sure you listen to understand.
  • Reward the good and be supportive. Do not let good work go unnoticed. Affirm and encourage excellent performance by showing that you care with your words and actions. Invest in building interpersonal relationships beyond the day-to-day to create a more tight-knit environment.

Even if you do not think you’re a good leader today, take control of your behaviour and use these helpful tips to be the leader that you want to be tomorrow.  

About the Author(s)

Ampai Thammachack graduated in 2020 from the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen’s University. She is the founder of the Step Above Stigma Charity, the Co-Founder of the Glass Slipper Organization, and a Co-Founder of Lifted. Ampai will be pursuing her passion for mental health by completing the Pathy Foundation Fellowship in Fall 2020.


Cotterill, S., & Fransen, K. (2016). Athlete leadership in sport teams: Current understanding and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 9, 116-133.

Cotterill, S., Cheetham, R., & Fransen, K. (2019). Professional rugby coaches’ perceptions of the role of the team captain. The Sport Psychologist, 33, 276-284.

Duguay, A. M., Loughead, T. M. & Munroe-Chandler, K. J. (2016). The Development, Implementation, and Evaluation of an Athlete Leadership Development Program With Female Varsity Athletes. Human Kinetics Journal, 30(2), 154-166.

Fransen, K. Cotterill, S. T., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2019). Unpicking the Emperor’s New Clothes: Perceived Attributes of the Captain in Sports Teams. Frontiers in Psychology, 10(2212). doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02212.

Fransen, K., Haslam, S. A., Mallett, C. J., Steffens, N. K., Peters, K., & Boen, F. (2017). Is perceived athlete leadership quality related to team effectiveness? A comparison of three professional sports teams. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 20(8), 800-806.

Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G. & Boen, F. (2014). The myth of the team captain as principal leader: extending the athlete leadership classification within sport teams. Journal of Sport Sciences, 32(14), 1389-1397.

Gould, D., & Voelker, D. K. (2010). Youth sport leadership development: Leveraging the sports captaincy experience. Journal of sport psychology in action1(1), 1-14.

Northouse, P. G. (2011). Introduction to Leadership: Concepts and Practice. SAGE Publications.

Turnnidge, T., & Côté. J. (2018). Applying transformational leadership theory to coaching research in youth sport: A systematic literature review. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 16, 327-342.

The information presented in SIRC blogs and SIRCuit articles is accurate and reliable as of the date of publication. Developments that occur after the date of publication may impact the current accuracy of the information presented in a previously published blog or article.