Beyond Winning: Teaching Leadership and Character through Youth Sports

Over the course of my 15-year career in athletics, I have seen a shift in the wrong direction in youth athletics. The focus on the individual, the pursuit of college scholarships, and prioritizing winning above all have become the driving forces for many youth sports organizations. I strongly believe that instead of focusing on the immediate rewards and recognition of winning, organizations should allocate more energy and resources to teaching life skills that will help student athletes succeed and thrive beyond sports. Teamwork, leadership, and resilience are the skills we should develop in our student athletes. I believe that positive education principles that are being practiced at schools like Shipley can improve the experience of our student athletes. We should be modeling to them that strong character is equally as important as ability.

Transformational vs. Transactional Leadership

A transactional leader looks to benefit from their exchanges with others. Unfortunately, the business of youth athletics has bred this as the predominant style utilized by coaches and sports organizations. In this scenario, I believe we are missing an opportunity.

Youth athletic coaches should instead be rooted in transformational leadership. A transformational leader makes authentic connections with their followers and helps them reach their full potential.

I have always believed that this is an area where we thrive at Shipley. Our coaches and teachers care deeply about our students and want them to succeed in all aspects of life.

Teaching Transformational Leadership

In late fall of the 2019-2020 school year, we gathered the captains from Shipley’s Upper School athletic teams for a leadership round table discussion. Our goal was to discover how we might best serve our athletes in developing their leadership abilities.

The captains identified these top five leadership characteristics:

  1. Love of the game
  2. Optimism
  3. Work Ethic
  4. Responsibility
  5. Social Intelligence

While some of the characteristics occur naturally in certain people, there are other skills which we can teach to help prepare student athletes for leadership roles. At Shipley, we accomplish this level of training and preparation through our positive education framework.

Letting Students Take the Lead

I practice some basic strategies to empower my student athletes during competition and practice. One strategy is having them peer coach each other through practices. I much prefer the players be proactive in correcting mistakes and asking one another questions concerning plays or drills.

My players often run timeouts and in-between quarter discussions.  I want our team to be a player-led team because I believe they take more responsibility and ownership that way.

By empowering my players to make decisions, instruct one another, and navigate the team dynamic, they are getting real-life leadership experience. It’s extremely valuable to their development as team members and leaders.

Clear Communication is Key

A major component of PERMA (Positive Emotions, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning, and Achievement) that I integrate into my coaching is cultivating positive relationships. Communication is the key to these healthy relationships. A coach needs to have open and clear communication with the team concerning individual roles and the direction of the team.

On my teams, we are in constant conversations about players’ roles. Who gets what shots? If player A is on the floor, what are her strengths and how can we best utilize them? We talk about this collectively and individually to best serve the direction of the team. We get tremendous buy-in from players on their specific roles when both sides understand exactly what is expected.

Building a Team through Trust

Coaches also need to invest time and energy into learning their players’ goals and motivations. In my experience, by developing this level of trust, an athlete’s potential for growth increases exponentially. Developing trust takes time.  This is the most important, but also most difficult task for coaches.

Players must know that you are invested in their best interests on the court, as well as in their lives off the floor. I try to get to know my players’ interests outside of basketball. For instance, I have a lot of multi-sport athletes on our team. Knowing their schedule and being flexible to help them accomplish their goals in other areas goes a long way in their active participation in basketball. 

This type of coaching and education is not occurring in a lot of athletic departments and youth organizations. At Shipley, we are passionate about our success in sports and equally value the life lessons our students learn through competition. I am proud to be part of an institution that values character in athletics and is striving to improve the experience of our student athletes. Go Gators!

About the Author

Sean Costello

Sean Costello has been the varsity Girls’ Basketball Coach at Shipley for 10 years. He is passionate about the integration of Positive Education principles in athletics. As a Shipley coach, he has compiled a record of 189-71, winning six Friends School League titles and four Pennsylvania Independent School State titles. Costello served as Assistant Coach at NCAA Division I schools Appalachian State University and Belmont University.  While at Belmont, the Bruins won the Ohio Valley Conference and qualified for the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament. Costello has also coached AAU basketball for The Philadelphia Belles and travel soccer for The Football Club of Philadelphia. As a player, he was a member of the 2000 Atlantic 10 Champion University of Rhode Island Soccer team.  He finished his collegiate career at The University of Scranton in 2004 as team captain, MVP, and 2nd Team All-League honors. He recently completed his Masters in Strategic Leadership with an Entreprenuer Certification from Rosemont College in 2019.