How do athletes learn skills such as leadership or conflict management? What do coaches and administrators need to know in fostering development of these skills?

A Fundamental Disconnect

Often there is a disconnect between how we impart these skills on athletes in contrast to how we teach the traditional skills specific to that sport.

Fallacy of the Two-Hour Workshop

Few coaches would expect the fundamentals of pass blocking, for example, to be learned in a two hour workshop and then be part of that athlete’s skill set. Yet, that is often the expectation for these supporting, neck-up competencies like leadership and conflict management. Life skills aren’t learned in a quick classroom session.

A Sample Conversation

At SCI, we often get calls from coaches and administrators that sound like this.

Coach: “We’re having some issues on our team. Can you come in and teach my athletes better conflict management?”

SCI” “Happy to help…”

Coach: “We have set aside two hours to have you come in this season and teach our team how to do this.”

SCI: “Well, that’s a start but few people can acquire much in the way of skills in two hours. Can I ask, how do you teach your athletes the skills they need for your sport?”

Coach: “Well, we review the key information they need and teach them it and then reinforce it at a number of practices throughout the season. We might film them so they can see how well or not well they are doing. Other teammates and coaches will give them feedback. We’ll give awards to those who really get it and spend some extra time with those who don’t. It takes time but it’s worth it.”

SCI: “Exactly.”

“I Get It”

After that conversation, most get it and understand the difference. Unfortunately, the conversation doesn’t always happen for many seeking to develop athletes on life skills such as leadership and conflict management.

What is so powerful about what Cornell is doing is that they get this and live this inconvenient truth about skill acquisition. It’s hard, requires reinforcement and practice, and organizational commitment.

Big Red Leadership Institute As A Model

Cornell Big Red

Our guest on SCI TV this week was Jen Baker, Director of the Big Red Leadership Institute at Cornell University. Leadership, like Conflict Management, is a big topic in college athletics given the close connection between these skills and success on and off the field.

Look at the commitment and understanding in their Mission and Vision:

Big Red Leadership Mission and Vision


The depth to which they sustain their program over the four years, using athletics as a laboratory, is a model for life skill development.  It’s what’s in our DNA at SCI. Depth matters.


Watch the SCI TV episode with Jen Baker to learn more about their leadership development program:

Author: Joshua Gordon