On Soccer and Student Leadership

Mike Weber

As my sons grew up, I had the joy of coaching them in soccer. As U9s, 10s and 11s, they attacked the game with the enthusiasm and energy needed to win. Through consistent coaching and practice, their ball-handling and strategic skills improved and their enjoyment increased. They became better soccer players by playing soccer. Practice and perseverance were pivotal in developing the skills and stamina they needed to excel in the sport they both loved.

So, you ask, what does this have to do with student leadership? Like soccer, to succeed at leadership one must become proficient at many skills. As educators and coaches it is easy to talk about strategies and teach skill sets that must be mastered, but it is in the application and practice that the skills becomes natural, easy and effective.

Here are five big ideas that I learned from coaching that will help develop excellent student leaders at your school.

  1. Learning is analog not digital. This means that students are not “born leaders”. Leadership skills develop over time. Students grow and improve as leaders as they master small skills and figure out ways to integrate these into their roles as leaders. They may be elected or appointed. You may give them titles and job descriptions. Still, it will require time and practice for them to become effective as student leaders. As a result, the most effective leadership development programs don't start after the election, they begin when a student first matriculates. Start early and Build a leadership feeder program.
  2. Leadership is a complex set of skills that can be developed. We often identify students as "natural-born leaders”. What really we see is that, because of different life experiences and/or personality types, one student is more comfortable and/or more adept in social situations. Our culture tends to define leadership as social awareness and the ability to be verbally active. i.e. If you can talk, you can lead. While each of your students comes in with different natural ability - in soccer some have better eye/hand coordination than others and in leadership some find it easier to speak up in a group - they all have the ability to learn and lead in different ways. Identify the skills sets needed to lead on your campus.
  3. Leadership development is inherently experiential. Soccer players get better by playing soccer. If you want to develop the skills of your student leaders, then you need to be willing to put them in situations where they can lead, and - by extension - sometimes fail. It is often through failure that we recognize the need for more training and the principals that will lead to significant growth. Provide students with diverse opportunities to exercise leadership skills.
  4. Your definition of leadership becomes their definition of leadership. You can talk the right game – “As a student leader, you can make a difference!” However, students are very intuitive and they will quickly pick up on "the real deal." The number one complaint I get from students is that the faculty of the school is sending them mixed messages about who the leaders are and what they are supposed to do. Strive for consistency throughout the community as to who the leaders are and what is expected of them. Develop a consistent school leadership model.
  5. The main responsibility of a leader is to influence populations. The quality of the leaders you develop will directly impact the atmosphere and health of your community. Take the time to listen to the students you work with and you will find that every school already has many leaders. They are the ones that define "cool". They set the standards of what is acceptable within each micro-community on campus. If you can empower them, develop their skills and help them to focus their energies on values that are consistent with the stated values of your school, they will bring and energy and excitement to the diverse groups that make up your community. Recognize that every community already has many leaders.

When coaching soccer, my ultimate goal was not necessarily to win. It was to help the girls and boys that I had the chance to work with to improve as players as well as mature in their attitudes on sportsmanship, teamwork and winning. My guess is that you feel the same way in developing your student leaders. Is it always easy? NO! But, the thrill in watching that awkward freshman boy or that shy freshman girl find his/her voice, develop a passion and then go on to make a significant difference in their communities and in the lives of their peers – priceless!

We need more great leaders!


Building the Skills of a Leader »

Mike Weber explains that leaders must become masters of a few skills and competent at many.

Emerging Trends in Student Leadership »

During her tenure as Head Master at The Lawrenceville School, Liz Duffy analyzed the trends in student leadership.

Seven Questions for a Purposeful Life »

Mike Weber highlights the importance of preparation, especially for leaders.