Never too young to learn to lead


This weekend I was told (second hand) about the work a head coach at one of the London Universities American Football clubs is doing to improve the leadership of his team and it got me excited. These lads (and they are lads, 18-22 year old students) are getting great experiences playing as part of a team, making commitments to one another and building friendships that will last for years. But more than that they are learning about what it means to lead, both the good and bad and those skills will be invaluable as they make their way into the world of work.

This isn’t one of the big UK University American Football programmes – they haven’t won national championships or bowls and they only have one player there receiving a sports scholarship. None of their players have chosen to attend that college over another as a direct result of the American Football programme. (I know for many of you reading this the fact that there are scholarships and that coaches actively recruit students to join their teams will be a surprise but having been in Denmark with the GB U19’s team earlier this year I witnessed it first hand. Bright, talented young athletes being ‘recruited’ by some of the best programmes in the UK from around Europe is not new but it has become much more prevalent in recent years. Universities that easily attract some of the best and brightest in the country, have high benchmarks for entry are also building great teams and the sport in the UK – the recent success of the GB Student programme is testament to this.)

Anyway back to the point of this post. So this smallish programme in an inner city university wanted to build and grow and improve, they have a 30-40 man roster and a pretty solid coaching staff. They had a good committee and everything was ticking along ok – they weren’t smashing it but they got a fair few wins under their belts. However, the Head Coach wanted more. He wants a successful programme of course but he also wants the players to get the most that they can from being part of this team and to do that he needed leadership.

At the end of last season (the BUCS American Football Season is Sept – Mar roughly) he worked with this players and coaches to elect a leadership committee – not the club administrative committee but a group of players who’s role would be to act as Leaders for others on the team and help to influence the direction of the club and it’s growth. But he didn’t just stop there – he didn’t just have an election and appoint them he decided that he wanted to develop them too. Recognising that he wasn’t an expert in the area he did some research and went out and bought a book on leadership development that had a number of exercises for the reader to complete and then in the off season he shared a chapter and the exercise with the leadership committee each week and asked them to complete the activity. They did and they lapped it up. It was additional work for them all but in their weekly group meeting (Skype I think)they would talk about the skills they learned and how they would use them.

Let’s remember these are young men, young men at an inner city (not redbrick) university who like to play American Football. Not exactly the target audience for most leadership books.

I don’t know what the impact on the team is – I’m not close enough to them but I do know that the passionate head coach is thrilled with the way the players have responded and half way through the 2015/16 season the team are 5-0 with wins at home and away.

What I also know is that as well as the education these lads are receiving and the discipline and benefits of being part of a team, they are learning leadership at an age where the skills and behaviours will become second nature to them and that can only stand then in good stead for the workforce right?

The work being done at the University by the head coach and his team is a great example to other teams and organisations – let’s hope it is copied far and wide.