Sports coach - only a brilliant strategist or also a leadership genius?


Close your eyes and give yourself ten seconds to think about a very successful sports coach and three of the qualities that make her or him stand out. You don't have to say those qualities out loud, but I believe that I'm not that much off here when I presume that two of the words that did pass through your mind were role model and motivator. 

For my MA thesis research in Tallinn University I had the pleasure to work with 25 elite teams in Estonia and their coaches. Among them were football, basketball, volleyball, handball and floorball players, total of 286 players and 24 coaches. 

One of the main constructs of the thesis was coaches' transformational leadership style, more precisely how it is perceived by coaches themselves and by players and how this perception affects team cohesion and fear of failure among players. 

Previous studies have found that transformational leadership in sports is associated with results(1), followers satisfaction(2), athletes effort(3) and task cohesion(4). 

Sounds like a wild dream of every single manager! The only question remains, where do these coaches grow? Let's look at...

... what kind of unicorn is this coach that scores high on transformational leadership scale and what are they made of?

Transformational leaders do not only influence their followers through convincing communication, they also ‘‘walk the talk’’. These leaders provide a model of appropriate and expected behavior and, in doing so, they take personal risks to show their conviction. In addition, transformational leaders encourage their subordinates to collaborate in their work and to jointly strive toward the same goal. They create a sense of identification among subordinates, which supports the acceptance of their vision. (5)

As you can see the concept comes from organizational psychology, but has been used with great success in the context of sports in the recent years. 

In my study I used a Transformational Leadership Inventory(7), freshly adopted in the Estonian context (6). Podsakoff et al., have identified six dimensions in their model:

  1. Articulating a vision - the coach is constantly looking for new opportunities, developing a vision for the future, knowing at the same time where the team is heading. He is inspiring and able to bring the team together to work towards the vision. 
  2. Providing an appropriate model - coach is being a role model through his work and actions, not through commands.
  3. Fostering the acceptance of group goals - behaviour on the part of the coach aimed at promoting cooperation among players and getting them to work together toward a common goal.
  4. Setting high performance expectations - coach sets performance oriented goals, that are clear and challenging and expects better performance from the players. 
  5. Providing individualized support - coach respects the players and is concerned about their personal feelings and needs.
  6. Offering intellectual stimulation - coach challenges players to re-examine some of their assumptions about their work and rethink how it can be performed.
So a transformational coach expresses a clear vision for the team, offers a working model that is in accordance with the vision and fosters common goals, at the same time taking into account every player as an individual. 

What do the players get from having a coach like that?

In short, they have a bigger respect and feel more trust towards their coach and are more willing to change their beliefs and attitudes and are motivated to do more than they are expected to do. Such a coach is a really good glue bringing everybody in the team together and acting like a one unit to do great things.

Two really practical questions that you might have right away:

  1. Any examples of coaches from your research that scored high? Nope, the study was anonymous. But what you can do is go through those six dimensions again and spend couple of minutes thinking about various coaches and see if you can come up with an example. I'll give you one who wasn't in my study - Jürgen Klopp. 

  2. How is the situation in Estonia? From where I stand, it looks bright. I had the pleasure of working with really many coaches who understand that team sports is not about "I tell you what to do and you do it" mentality, but about how to glue those incredible athletes into one group that has the same heartbeat and what it takes from a coach to do so. 

In couple of weeks the study goes live and then I will do a more detailed overview of the results. 

Stay tuned,

And remember, sharing is caring!


  1. Charbonneau, D., Barling, J., & Kelloway, K.E. (2001). Transformational leadership and sports performance: The mediating role of intrinsic motivation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 31, 1521–1534.

  2. Rowold, J. (2006). Transformational and transactional leadership in martial arts. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 18, 312–325.

  3. Arthur, C.A., Woodman, T., Ong, C.W., Hardy, L., & Ntoumanis, N. (2011). The role of athlete narcissism in moderating the relationship between coaches’ transformational leader behaviors and athlete motivation. Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 33, 3–19.

  4. Smith, M.J., Arthur, C.A., Hardy, J., Callow, N., & Williams, D. (2013). Transformational leadership and task cohesion in sport: The mediating role of intrateam communication. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 14, 249–257.

  5. Bass, B.M. (1999). Two decades of research and development in transformational leadership. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 8(1), 9-32.

  6. Kasemaa, A., Liik, K., & Meerits, A. (2016). Research report: The initial results of adopting the transformational - transactional leadership inventory in the Estonian context. Sõjateadlane (Estonian Journal of Military Studies), 1, 74–95.

  7. Podsakoff, P.M., MacKenzie, S.B., Moorman, R.H., Fetter, R. (1990). Transformational leader behaviors and their effects on followers' trust in leader, satisfaction, and organizational citizenship behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 1(2), 107-142.

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