Developing the Person, Not Just the Athlete

To the athletes: How are you setting yourself up for success off the field?

To the coaches: How are you setting your athletes up for success off the field?

Developing individuals is not an easy course to take, but as coaches, we can give our athletes the tools they need to succeed in and out of sports. When I consult with athletes, I provide them with life skills; most, if not all, can be applied directly into sport, but most importantly, they are also directly applied to life and the development of the person. Our culture has a strong push for kids to be actively participating in sports from a young age, but what happens if they never develop the necessary skills when the time comes to leave their sport(s)?

Lisa Leslie, former WNBA player and Olympian, obtained her MBA after her career and became a sports analyst and commentator.


In the summer of 2016 when I was at IMG Academy as a Leadership Coach, my co-intern and I completed a project regarding professional and personal development within elite level organizations. We sought two things: first, to know if organizations had programs that worked with athletes in this way, and second, to understand how professional organizations implemented such programs. We contacted teams throughout the WNBA, the NBA, and the NFL, and it is safe to say that a lot of organizations were reluctant to speak with us. Of the handful of individuals we did speak with, we learned that certain organizations place a very high importance on developing their athletes in and out of sport. Some organizations refer to this type of development as player engagement, professional development, or leadership development.

To respect the individuals’s privacy and organizations’s privacy, names have been changed.

One individual, Nate, we spoke with worked for a WNBA team, the Colorado Mountains, described their professional development program as part of the culture. The culture of this team was threefold: to work hard with the team on the court, dedicate time to the community, and figure out the next step. The average career of a WNBA player is between 4 to 7 years. Then what?

The Colorado Mountains had a top down leadership style. The executive staff all the way down to the coaching staff knew they had to set up these women for success after basketball. But, how? The Mountains had someone sit down with the players individually on multiple occasions to ask about their passions, dreams, and goals outside of basketball. Then, through collaboration with the team, executives, and others within the organization, they sought to make those dreams a reality. Every person that was a part of the Mountain’s staff was used as a resource. The idea was to build on the network they already had to build a bigger network. If anyone knew of someone that could help, then the athlete would be placed in contact with him/her. Nate explained that there was a responsibility on the athletes to seek out potential connections, and if someone had a connection for a player, then it was on that player to reach out. Nate went on to say that the organization gives their players the tools and aids in developing those tools, and at some point, the player has to take those tools and build. The Mountains are not only concerned with how well they perform in season, they are focused on how the women that come through their team achieve success after they leave the court.

Nate told us that he had a player that was hoping to open an ice cream shop after her basketball career. The organization helped connect her with meeting business and financial advisers, entrepreneurs, and even real estate agents to help this athlete achieve her dream. Their goal was to better the person not just the athlete. Another individual, Laura, who worked with another WNBA team recalled how one of her players hoped to be a basketball announcer. That organization helped by bringing in a public speaking coach, someone to help with interview skills, and even career counselors that would help develop her resume and cover letter. The goal was a collaborative effort to best support and prepare the athlete.

From the multiple conversations we had, there are four main themes that arose from every single individual:

Leaders create leaders. No doubt about it. Those who are leaders on a team, in an organization, in the workplace, or even within a friend group, are the ones that influence the development of other leaders. Leaders cannot lead alone; they need support from others. Once leaders establish a core group that can aid them, they pass on that knowledge to emerging leaders to help teach the next wave.

Culture is hard work. Once a culture is determined it is up to the coaches and organization to implement that culture and aid his/her athletes accountability to the team. Some of the best teams have great cultures because the athletes know their individual role on the team, what they contribute to the team, and how their team will support them. Cultivating an effective culture requires work from the athletes and the coaches, but once it is implemented, the group dynamic will change for the better.

Adaptability. This theme was one of the strongest. Coaches and organizations ask that their players have the ability to adapt. They wanted to recruit players that were able to change positions if needed, be open to feedback, but most of all, be a sponge when it came time to learning. When I consult with athletes, I call it the “turn it around mentality” meaning that if something isn’t going your way, change your thinking. We are programmed to be negative thinkers, but we can reprogram our minds to think positively. If you choose to stay negative, then you aren’t adapting to the situation, you’re taking it as it is.

Defining success off the field. Often athletes get so focused on their success on the court, on the field, in the pool, etc. that they forget they can achieve success in other areas. Along with the development of life skills, athletes need to master ordinary things or the mechanics. Coaches are always perfecting the mechanics of their sport, so why not strengthening the mechanics of other areas in their lives, such as being a good student, being a leader in the community, and making good choices. As a coach and a consultant, I feel it is important to know your athletes. By knowing them, you can develop a better working relationship and understand them in a fuller way.

How are your actions helping your off-field skills?

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