Servant leadership in sports coaching

The day before the start of a new season is always a good time to reflect on what we might do differently. This is my summary of a paper on the concept of servant leadership; an approach to coaching adapted from management research.

The paper is: Rieke, M., Hammersteiner, J. and Chase, M. (2008) Servant leadership in Sport: A New Paradigm for Effective Coach Behaviour. International Journal of Sports Science and Coaching. 3(2). 227-239

The concept of ‘servant leadership’ was developed by Robert Greenleaf in the late-70s. The concept challenges the traditional hierarchical and autocratic models of leadership and advocates a newer one based on teamwork and community, joint decision-making, ethical and caring behaviour, and a focus on personal development. This paper examines how coaches who were perceived by their players as having ‘servant leader’ characteristics impacted on the players’ perceptions of their own mental skills, motivation, satisfaction, and performance. It’s an important paper as it is the first (and possibly only) one that takes a rigourous statistical approach to these issues.

Servant-leader coaches put their players’ needs, aspirations and interests above their own. Their first motive is to serve rather than lead. In a servant leader environment, players are given clear job descriptions and the role of the coach is to help the players fulfil those roles. This is not anarchy, players are responsible for executing their roles effectively and if they don’t, sanctions will be applied. The end result, theoretically, is an environment where relationships are cultivated, everyone is valued, standards are upheld, and performance enhanced.

The authors have developed what they claim is a mathematically sound model of servant leadership that measures a number of dimensions: power and pride, serving others, empowering and developing others, participatory leadership, courageous leadership, inspiring leadership and visionary leadership.

The study involved 195 basketball players aged 15-19 who attended a summer camp at Washington University. They took a number of psychometric tests that measured levels of intrinsic motivation, satisfaction, task and ego orientation, use of mental skills (e.g. mental toughness), and perceptions of performance.

Servant leader coaches, i.e. those who emphasize trust/inclusivity, humility, and a service orientation enhanced the satisfaction of their players. The players who perceived their coaches as being servant leaders felt better treated and that they got better coaching and instruction.

Servant leader coaches produced athletes with more intrinsic motivation. These athletes are more likely to feel inspired and empowered and therefore achieve higher levels of motivation. The authors suggest coaches who were more encouraging and who provided constructive feedback following poor performances produced players who felt more successful and competent, preferred to be challenged, demonstrated more effort, and who greatly enjoyed their sport experience.

Many coaches believe that an autocratic coaching style is a necessity in order to instil mental toughness and promote the growth of mental skills in their athletes. This study suggests otherwise and that the ‘keys’ to promoting mental toughness lie in the coach’s ability to produce an environment which emphasizes trust and inclusion, humility and service. This results are congruent with another study by one of the authors that suggested the servant leadership style of coaching produced players who were better able to cope with adversity, were more coachable, concentrated better, handled pressure better, and were freer from worry than athletes with non-servant leader style coaches.

The results also showed a correlation between servant leadership and performance. There was a significant positive correlation between the trust/inclusion measure and the service measure with the athletes’ perception of team performance and in actual seasonal wins. There was also a significant negative correlation between trust/inclusion and the number of losses. These results show, quite simply, that servant leader coaches in this sample win more games than non-servant leaders. This is the first peer-reviewed statistical confirmation of this effect.

The authors suggest these findings should act as a reassurance for coaches to continue to ‘do the right thing’. They quote Stoll and Beller:

We must reconsider how the win-at-all-costs attitude that permeates virtually every aspect of our athletic programs affects the moral character and development of participants. While teaching the will to win does not have to be eliminated, coaches…must re-evaluate their philosophy regarding the importance of winning as it relates to character development, particularly when the participants are children and young adults.

The servant leader coaches in this study were also the most successful suggesting that ‘winning at all costs’ behaviours are not necessary, nor desirable, for winning outcomes. Coaches who emphasized trust/inclusion, humility and service are more likely to help their teams win.

Finally, the results showed that players preferred coaches who scored higher on the trust/inclusion and service measures. The authors suggest coaches should foster an environment of trust inclusion and service and that these results were congruent with the thoughts of Westre who suggests that modern athletes are no longer satisfied with autocratic leadership and top-down hierarchical structures. Modern athletes want coaches who seek their input regarding decisions related to the team, provide positive feedback and recognition, exhibit sincere sensitivity to the needs of the athletes both in and out of the sport, and generally demonstrate a people-centred attitude.

In summary then, the results suggest that players who perceive their coach to be a ‘servant leader’ also display higher intrinsic motivation, are more satisfied with their sport experience, are mentally tougher, and seem to perform better.


Stoll, S. and Beller, J., Do Sports Build Character? In: Gerdy, J. ed., Sports in School: The Future of an Institution, Teachers College Press, New York, 2000, 18-31.

Westre, K.R., Servant Leadership in Sport, Unpublished Doctoral Dissertation, Gonzaga University, 2003.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s