In 1959, American sociologists John French and Bertram Raven published a seminal article dividing power into five categories: Legitimate power came with the job description of holding a certain position in an organizational hierarchy. Power could also come from having expertise, the ability to dole out punishment or rewards, and the cultivation of social relations (what French and Raven call referent power).
The six years I have spent trying to step-parent have taught me that there is a big difference between having legitimate power and having power because I give my step-daughter an iPhone 4s or summarily cut off texting privileges. Truth be told, I have resorted to what French and Raven call coercive power every now and then, but I view doing so as a last resort because it reflects my failure to cultivate more constructive forms of power. I say constructive because I get my way, and I would like to think I use coercion for only the most just reasons, but this form of exercise presupposes that I have otherwise failed to convince her to behave differently. I have ended up settling for compliance and in the process undermined whatever legitimate power comes with being a step parent.
It strikes me that coaches fall somewhere between being parents and step parents. Like the latter, they usually have the power to meet out rewards and punishments; most importantly, they get to decide who plays and who sits. But that power will not be seen as legitimate unless it is accompanied by some combination of expertise and referent power. The coach who is only armed with carrots and sticks can compel players to follow his orders, but he will never engender the kind of commitment that is necessary to foster the environment to have a team that wins consistently.
On many occasions I have tried to explain to my daughter that I have three weapons available to get her to do household chores. I can use negative or positive reinforcement, she can trust my judgment, or we can talk about the issue until we reach a consensus about what the house should look like and what is fair to ask of all of us. I would be lying if I said that she prefers the third option, but the very gesture of offering it goes a long way towards improving our relationship and legitimating my power as a parent.
Coaches are probably in a better position than step parents. Players are usually better disposed towards them (though there is always the possibility that their loyalty is with the previous coach), but that legitimate power has to be backed up by either expertise of referent power.
Expertise has gotten many a socially awkward or unskilled, or otherwise impersonal coach over the hump. Paul Brown, Tom Landry, Dean Smith, and Bill Belichick spring to mind. But the younger the player, the more referent skills matter: the exercise of this form of power can take the form of charisma, loyalty, enthusiasm, integrity, compassion, empathy, or having a good sense of humor, to name just some. It does not mean being extraverted; it means finding a way to connect to the players on a personal level.
Finding a way to do this is the key to transforming compliance into commitment. Just as most kids know that they should do chores, most players understand that someone has to sit, and that that someone may very well be them. But it is a lot easier to swallow that medicine if you believe your coach has a compass that isn’t solely aimed at winning and the basis of his power is more than rewards or coercion.