Ask any coach before a season begins about what their team needs to be successful in the upcoming season and you will get a consistent list of answers. Commitment, hard work, and coachability would be just a few of them. One trait that will show up on every coach's list is leadership. Coaches know that having a dependable set of leaders can help with communication, motivating, and even handling day to day activities if the coach is needed elsewhere. What most coaches are referring to when they say leadership is Vertical Leadership. Vertical Leadership is based on a status or ranking on the team such as the selection of captains or the simple fact of being a returning senior. These roles on a team can be important to team harmony but they are not the only type of leadership that can elevate a team to better performance.
Besides Vertical Leadership, another approach coaches and athletes should consider exploring is Horizontal Leadership. Horizontal Leadership is the ability to have people follow you when there is no prearranged reason for them to do so. There is no label of captain or years of experience present. What is present is a set of behaviors by the athletes that benefit the team. Horizontal leaders are present during all stages of practice and game day, helping everything move in a direction that benefits the team.
The beauty of Horizontal Leadership is that it can come from anywhere. It can come from first-time team members, returners that were not quite popular enough to be a captain, quite tone-setters, or are even two-sport athletes that give full effort to two teams. They can be found on offense, defense, the new players, classroom, and travel days. What are some of the traits that horizontal leaders show? The athlete that shows up early, is warmed up and is ready when the whistle blows. The athlete has a kind word for a teammate who is having a rough day. Horizontal Leadership can set the tone of practice, meetings, or a game. It also helps create a team dynamic that does not just make everyone accountable to the coach or captains, but to one another. Their actions and words help reinforce the messages that are being shared by the coach or Vertical Leaders. They don't have to wait for directions before they get ready to practice, they show up to practice ready to go.
When a team displays Vertical and Horizontal Leadership, it makes them very hard to beat. Consistent Horizontal Leadership supports a strong team dynamic and makes communication within the team more productive. Horizontal Leaders, based on their effort, have proven that they want the team to be better and are doing their part. Coaches that remind their athletes that Horizontal Leadership can come from anywhere while creating opportunities for it, may discover some of those other things they are looking for in a successful season won't be so hard to find.