Sport Psychology: Leadership (Part 2)

Gary and Nathan continue their conversation about leadership lessons from sports. They reflected on John Wooden’s leadership style with the historic UCLA Bruins basketball team a generation ago. Wooden modeled a tough and demanding style of leadership that was generally positive in tone and sparse in content. He focused on formative feedback about progress instead of excessive and premature orientation to outcomes. His interventions and commentary were succinct and occasional, and thus salient, instead of constant background noise that the nervous system naturally tends to tune out.

Gary related this to his work for the U.S. Army on good training for situations that require adaptability. That work revealed the importance of the experience of events on the order of tens of seconds to tens of minutes. He pointed out that these micro-experiences can be observed rigorously. An important class of micro-experiences is the participation of individuals in dialog during an event that requires teamwork, collective situation assessment and response planning, and adaptation in stride. Such events even can be measured with body-mounted sensors such as sociometric badges. As with work in education and sport psychology in the 1970s, a common theme is the balance of individual initiative and accountability in the salient social context of a team and a values-based organization.

Gary and Nathan re-emphasized that management style is context dependent. It is valuable, for example, when leaders guide subordinates to develop a balance of initiative and accountability. This can be an advantage with professional athletes who can use their exceptional subject matter expertise to adapt to changing or ambiguous situations with maturity of selfless team play and dominate teams with less maturity. Nathan and Gary talked about the thirteen-time NBA champion, Phil Jackson, as an example. From the perspective of science, it is noteworthy that one can observe on the scale of micro-experiences what makes Jackson’s leadership work when it is in play.

Gary and Nathan address practical constraints in sporting events and in the classroom. They discussed the role of maturity and self-efficacy of learners as well as transparency and consistency of teachers. They also addressed ostensibly difficult issues such as class size and student-to-teacher ratio. With regard to the latter, they talked about the critical role of students as de facto teaching assistants who rise to the occasion of leadership without authority. These opportunities for decentralized teaching are pervasive and relatively easy to manage at the level of micro-experiences. Formal roles are not required, and they need not persist beyond the moment.

Learning with and through peers is vastly more important than ameliorating high student-to-teacher ratios. In many situations, it provides experience with the type of learning that continues to occur outside of formal learning events. Arguably nothing is more important than learning to learn on the job and to learn from others during performance on the job. It helps one develop the skill of contributing to collective intelligence and benefiting from it. It helps individuals and teams apply learning and learn applications.

A collaborative environment for learning also provides a way to recognize one’s own assumptions and deal with uncertainty. Others can cover one’s back as it were. The sense that others are coping with uncertainty and providing a more complete set of perspectives on a situation helps reduce the anxiety that almost always attends uncertainty, especially in extremis. Reduction of anxiety can be transformational insofar as anxiety is a distraction that tends to reduce one’s observational acuity. Others thus can help one be more connected with a situation by being a better observer and a better learner. Individual adaptability and collective agility follow.

Listen to other episodes about Sport & Exercise

Listen to episodes from the first season, entitled "Science in the Wild."

Some Interesting Reads

Kolditz, T. A. (2010). In extremis leadership: Leading as if your life depended on it (Vol. 107). John Wiley & Sons.

Gallimore, R., & Tharp, R. (2004). What a coach can teach a teacher, 1975-2004: Reflections and reanalysis of John Wooden's teaching practices. Sport Psychologist, 18, 119-137.

Jackson, P., & Delehanty, H. (2006). Sacred hoops: Spiritual lessons of a hardwood warrior. Hyperion.


Gary Riccio

As a partner and as a consultant, I deliver value by identifying, aggregating, and developing previously undervalued assets--people and systems, internal and external, public and private, scientific and technical--for exceptional impact.