Serialised Dissertation Pt. 3 – Literature Review (2)

Here’s Part 3 of my dissertation breakdown, which continues the literature review of leadership, and more specifically, where it lies within sport and sports research.

Be sure to check back each week for more information!


In considering whether leadership can be developed, Karragiani and Montgomery (2018) found that much of the research concerning leadership development has focused almost exclusively on adult leadership and there is a gap in the literature about how young leaders should be developed. There is some evidence from education however, which found that young people can/do learn to lead if leadership is intentionally developed through extracurricular activities (including sport) (Gould & Voelker, 2012). Yet, it does not simply come from participation in sport, it must be intentionally taught – as alluded to by Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018). Furthermore, Hoyte and Kennedy (2008) found that a research including that of Flanagan and Sherod (1998) indicated that leadership roles in youth politicism, social engagement and activism are developed through a dynamic process and that the adolescent period is one of flexibility and openness as youngsters have not become fixed in social roles and are more likely to be examining social issues and questioning the social order, which could be an ideal time developing behavioural traits including leadership. This research indicated that the experiences of youth during this stage of their lives are influential in determining their adult personalities and actions; thus, intervention toward leadership development during this key point in the lives of young people could be critical.

In a literature review, Turnnidge and Cote (2018) found that researchers have expressed concern, that the processes by which coaches can cultivate personal development in sport are not fully understood (Côté, Bruner, Erickson, Strachan, & Fraser-Thomas, 2010) and that since the majority of youth sport coaches are volunteers, coaches have received very little training relating to athlete development (Holt & Neely, 2011), with the vast majority of training received by these coaches tending to focus on practice design and skill development, rather than on the promotion of positive youth development-based outcomes (Evans, McGuckin, Gainforth, Bruner, & Côté 2015).

Limitations in characteristic development research are abundant, as Fransen (2020) shows That studies often look at athletes displaying behaviours rather than the quality of them doing it, making it tough to measure the competency of an athlete in these areas and in fact, much of the research also seems to focus only on the ‘strongest’ with each characteristic within a group, developing only those that are already the best. For example, in a study on identity leadership, McLaren et al (2021)’s study into identity leadership found that for all the captains may not be selected by peers as the best leader (as ratified by Fransen (2014)), selecting the best meant that they were given the biggest opportunity to develop that skill. This would suggest a bias in leadership development programmes as by selecting the best in each field is likely to offer more success, should a leadership development programme not be accessible to all people to develop the skill?

Defining characteristics which are being developed has been an issue too, as researchers have used varied language, definitions, and classifications of skills in their own research meaning that this field of life skills or personal development faces challenges as information is not easily transferred study to study. Dohme et al (2017) followed Wittgenstein (1958) and Lourenco (2001), in saying that this [varied language] can inhibit the ability of researchers and authors to effectively build upon, relate to, and critique each other, as well as hindering the likes of fellow practitioners or talent identification systems to understand and implement the findings of any research. This is compounded further, by Kuhn (1962) who found that language was only ever consistent across works if they shared an author.

Finally, Fransen (2020) also evidenced that studies have examined relatively small samples of leaders, and each is rarely diverse in terms of gender, competition level, and sports, as well as situational factors such as funding and resources (Gould and Voelker (2010)) meaning that there is no way to compare any variations in attributes across those fields at present, but it could be possible with a framework and structure that aligns some of these theories.



In the interests of theoretical clarity, it is important to define leadership. Northouse (2010) defines leadership as “a process whereby an individual influences a group of individuals to achieve a common goal” and similarly Greenberg and Baron (1997) suggest the same with the addition of support for other group members. This is a view which is somewhat ‘traditional’ of a leader and noted through the examples in the introduction, but there are still other ideas to consider.


A large part of understanding leadership is the perception of leadership and what it ‘looks like’ to different people and across different roles. Traditionally, or at least within the codification of sport, a ‘captain’ is seen as a de facto leader within a team.

Cotterill and Cheetham (2017) reported that the perception of many rugby coaches is that the captain is the ultimate leader on the field. They sought to investigate why this perception is held and reported that coaches envisaged a leader holding skills in man management, mental maturity, emotional control, resilience, and overall game knowledge – as well as holding the trust of their fellow players, acting in some situations as a social support. Based on their past experiences, the same group of coaches believed it was the role of a captain to lead by example, motivated and represented the other players although it was largely not understood how captains would overall be developed – a key line regarding the work this paper is proposing, in that coaches are able to recognise important characteristics of leaders but can also recognise that some coaches may develop these without realising they are developing leadership traits.

The specific roles of the captain can vary significantly from sport to sport, and across levels of performance (Cotterill & Cheetham, 2015). In some teams, where the team is largely coach-led, a captain may just be an emotional lead, a ceremonial position, or a role model, but in other sports such as cricket, the captains have greater responsibilities and make most decisions on the pitch (Cotterill & Cheetham, 2015). Cotterill and Fransen (2016) added that leaders are often found in a more central playing position (Glenn & Horn, 1993; Klonsky, 1991; Lee, Patridge, & Coburn, 1983, Melnick and Loy, 1996)), meaning that even team tactics are impacting the view of who or what a leaders could be in sport.

However, captains (or leaders) representing their teammates is valuable and links to a lot of research on leaders representing the values, behaviours, and diversity within a team. Loughead, Hardy and Eys (2006) defined athlete leadership as ‘an athlete, occupying a formal or informal role within a team, who influences a group of team members to achieve a common goal’ and in professional teams, Haddad (2020) believes that the most common leadership structure considered is of one task leader (in charge on the field) – this would likely be a traditional ‘captain’ but does not have to be, one social leader (relationship manager off the field), one motivational leader (a steer of emotion and motivation on and off field) and two external leaders (communicators to hierarchy and the outside world), though again they were perceived roles and informal.

McLaren et al (2021) acknowledge that research in sport has only framed leadership in the traditional sense does not capture the reality within sport teams as athlete leaders and following on from this, Fransen et al (2014) theorises that a leader may not be a designated role within the team. Results of their study established four leadership roles (adding motivational leaders to task, social and external) and that a large proportion of those in the study did not consider the captain to be the most important leader in the group. In fact, Gould and Voelker (2012) added that there is a need to educate young athletes around what leadership is, understanding that it is more than a ‘C’ on a shirt (or a captain’s armband in other sports) or being a group leader in class, along with more recognisable attributes such as being ‘the loudest’. The effectiveness of a true leader depends on interactions with other leaders, their followers, and the demands of different situations. The authors of these papers concluded that leadership can be spread throughout a team and in fact that the presence of more leadership roles within the team increased players’ and coaches’ confidence in the abilities of the team and was beneficial to their progress. In Fransen et al (2020), the roles of each type of leader and some key characteristics shown within them (see Figures 1 and Table 1).

Figure 1- Fransen’s Model Definitions

Key Characteristics of Roles (Fransen et al 2020) [Bold indicates distinguishing characteristics]
Task Leader Articulate Character Creative-intelligent Extraverted Inspirational Motivation Perceptive Problem-solving Promoting Teamwork Role ModellingMotivational Leader Articulate Inspirational Motivation Problem-solving Promoting Teamwork Role Modelling Self-confident Strong identity leadership Trustworthy
Social Leader Articulate Compassion Extraversion Identity leadership skills Inspirational Motivation Popularity Problem-solving Promoting Teamwork Responsible Role ModellingExternal Leader Articulate Confidence Identity leadership Inspirational Motivation Problem-solving Promoting Teamwork Respected Role Modelling  
Table 1 – Fransen’s Characteristics for Each Role

In relation to this, Fransen, Van Puyenbroeck, et al. (2015a) demonstrated that neither playing time, age, or sport experience, were the most important determinant of a player’s leadership quality, but rather, it was the extent to which teammates felt closely connected to their leader across all four categories. Cotterill and Fransen (2016) added that these informal leaders often act as the ‘cultural architects’ for the team and can change the mindset of others within the group. Team captains were only perceived as the best leader in half of the teams within this study, in the other half of the teams, the informal leaders took this role. About the specific leadership roles, the study findings demonstrated that in most of the teams, the captains were perceived as best task and external leader. However, on the motivational and the social leadership role, mainly informal leaders were perceived as the best leaders. Cotterill and Fransen (2016) added that across these roles a limited number of leaders may be beneficial, to avoid, for example, confusion with on pitch captains giving tactical instructions and ‘the more the better’ could apply when it comes to the likes of motivation and confidence.

The idea of confidence is supported by Price and Weiss (2013) who added that team members associate leadership behaviours with peers who are confident in their own abilities, and keenness to seek out a challenge as well as being liked by others and behaving in ways that are behaviourally appropriate for the group, with Fransen et al (2016) stating that effective leaders are able to create a shared sense of ‘we’ and ‘us’ within the team, which is again backed by McLaren et al (2021) and Hoption, Phelan and Barling (2007) who state that a transformational leader does not only direct the team but considers themselves a part of the team, recognising the contribution of everybody.

There is an abundance of leadership literature focused on behaviour and empathy towards teammates. For example, Hogg (2001) defined leadership as a group process generated by social categorisation and processes aligned with social identity, becoming a representative of a group and its values. Moreover, additional research has evidenced that diversity in leadership groups leads to greater knowledge sharing, better decisions, increased creativity, and an ultimately better group performance (Burke et al. (2006); Ceri-Booms et al. (2017); Hoch et al. (2013)). This work demonstrated that behaviourally, these specific leadership styles are primarily person-centred, focused on empathy, motivation, support, and role models with a primary focus on the well-being and development of team members, much like the leadership roles from Fransen et al. (2014).

Finally, Loughead et al (2014) noted that leadership is not necessarily fixed and there can be a turnover in leadership throughout the course of a season as some athletes will come to the fore, perhaps new athletes learning about the group and so to an extent it can change to meet the needs of the group at any given time. It could, however, also remain stable throughout a season with a more settled group. So, what does this look like in a youth setting?


My current understanding of the literature is that there have been many studies of leadership (i.e., what leaders do) but not necessarily of how leaders are developed, particularly not in abundance in a youth sport setting. Gould and Voelker (2010) believe that sport appears as one of the most underutilised avenues for developing sporting and life leadership in young people despite sport, in most cultures, being an activity, that young people are highly motivated by  and for coaches, according to Huysmans et al (2018), leadership appears to be under-recognised, in that many coaches appear to be frustrated with leadership on their teams, but few appear to proactively develop these skills in their athletes.

To reference work by Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018), my expectation is that coaches may impact upon these skills and behaviours implicitly, but not deliberately when it is the deliberate action which will prove the most beneficial in this field according to that same paper. There is also a real possibility that if asked, coaches could be honest in admitting that they currently are not considering how they are developing leaders, be it through their own personal understanding of leadership through experience (see Cotterill and Cheetham 2017) or possibly not seeing it as a priority which through experience I feel could be the case. Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018) also note that another factor is whether the development of leadership is intended for the benefit of performance or life, understanding their aims to ensure the maximum output of their efforts is achieved.

Taking from the world of business, the expression ‘Deliberately Developmental Organisations’ is used by Kegan and Lahey (2015). From this Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018) note that in these areas, coaches moved along a ‘continuum of explicitness’ in a way to impact the development of individuals at different times across a range of very explicit to completely implicit interventions, including the atmosphere, culture and environment set by the coach. There is more evidence here that coaches can, and do, play a role in developing leadership, yet as noted by Duguay (2020), there is limited research suggesting specifically how. This is supported by Bucci et al. (2012) Cotterill et al. (2019) and Cheetham (2017) and provides initial evidence that coaches are facilitating the development of athlete leadership in their teams (specifically shared leadership). However, these studies did not specifically explore the methods coaches used to develop it and instead examined perceptions of athlete leadership or the roles of team captains. This therefore indicates a gap in the literature which this research intends to fill, by exploring the methods of leadership development that are currently being utilised in elite youth sport.

Firstly, there are many examples within this section of literature focusing on the manipulation of the environment impacting leadership development. Duguay (2020) writes that ‘successful’ coaches in this study looked to create a positive environment and allowed space for leadership, in particular shared leadership to develop. This often looked like less division between athletes and coaches as well as hierarchy within the teams. For example, coaches would discuss tactical plans with players for their input, senior players would ‘serve’ junior players to remove these rankings, practices which could be viewed as the opposite of a more traditional ‘hazing’ or ‘rookie-roles’ for new players like carrying bags. McClaren et al (2021) also adds that social situations remain a fertile ground for prosocial and antisocial interactions between team members given they fall within the broader social environment of a sport team and are therefore open to the same influences as during training/competition.

More of a collective or group form of leadership leads the reading to ‘shared leadership’. According to Duguay et al. (2020) and Duguay et al. (2019) shared athlete leadership is a team-level phenomenon where athletes engage in a collaborative leadership process. D’Innocenzo et al. (2016) and Wang et al. (2014) have both identified a shift in professional sport towards this practice, mirroring practice in business and school organisations. In review of this, Zhu et al. (2018) found three commonalities across various ideas of shared leadership theories. These were a need for lateral influence (influencing those around you without a formal leadership role), the idea of this being an emergent team phenomenon (best as a process for growth in teams) and the simplicity of leadership roles and influence being shared across a team. From this perspective, shared leadership challenges the ‘traditional’ views of leadership relying on an individual and so the challenge for coaches is to develop different leadership characteristics for varied leadership roles. A range of research has argued several papers such as this model can shape and direct a high number of team outcomes including motivation and effort towards team goals, resilience in setbacks, team cohesion, role clarity and importantly teams’ satisfaction, confidence, and cohesion (Fransen et al. (2017); Manz et al. (2013); Price and Weiss (2011); Morgan et al. (2013)). Fransen et al. (2020) also link this method to athlete well-being, highlighting further benefits of a shared leadership model.

In practice and to realise the potential benefits of this approach, Cohen et al. (2013) identified that ideally, 19% of athletes would take up a formal leadership role in a team with 66% of leadership coming from informal roles like these groups, though there is a belief that when it comes to leadership ‘the more the merrier’ (Neubert, 1999, 30: 635-646). Haddad (2020) also outlines those coaches must be willing to provide genuine empowerment, supported by Gould and Voekler (2010) who in a study of high school captains found that real leadership opportunities did not occur enough and so the captains were often ill prepared to handle them. The demands placed on leadership members must also be carefully matched to their capacity, linking to Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018) in that coaches must be deliberate with their development methods and supported by Hellison and Walsh (2002) in that programme leads need to respect the individuality of potential leaders and be defined with the athlete leader in question (Gould and Voelker, 2012).

One final model to consider is the use of role modelling and experiences of leadership. The work of Cotterill and Cheetham (2017) that many rugby coaches perceived the captain as the ultimate leader on the field, a view which can be attributed to the lived experience of these coaches with leaders they have played or worked with. Within these experiences, there were references to a leadership group structure and the environment which captains were able to create through their behaviours, which links to Fransen’s (2014) model of varied leadership roles. However, much like most of the research so far, the interviewees in Cotterill and Cheetham’s research acknowledged that there was no real clarity as to how to select or appoint captains, though did support Haslam et al. (2011) in that Captains (and therefore, leaders) are viewed as more effective when the group see these individuals as ‘one of us.

In summary of this section, Table 2 below outlines some key strategies in leadership development literature which these authors suggest are important to develop leadership in athletes at this level.

Define, discuss (with the athlete), and Understand WhyGould and Voelker (2010); Gould and Voelker (2012); Huysmans et al (2018); Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018)
Deliberate DevelopmentGould and Voelker (2012); Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018)
Engagement with ParentsWright and Cote (2003)
Engaging with Older PeersWright and Cote (2003)
Genuine Care (from Coach)Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018); McLaren (2021)
High Expectations and Challenge (from Coach)Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018); Wright and Cote (2003)
Implicit and Explicit DevelopmentKegan and Lahey (2015); Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018)
Leadership Groups (Shared Leadership/Peer Engagement)Cohen et al. (2013); D’Innocenzo et al. (2016); Duguay et al (2019); Duguay (2020); Fransen et al (2014); Fransen et al. (2017); Fransen et al. (2020); Haslam et al. (2011); Hoption, Phelan and Barling (2007); Manz et al. (2013); Morgan et al. (2013); Price and Weiss (2011); Neubert (1999); Wang et al. (2014); Zhu et al. (2018)
Match to Leadership Ability and IndividualityGould and Voelker (2010); Gould and Voelker (2012); Hellison and Walsh (2002); Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018)
Positive EnvironmentDuguay (2020); McClaren et al (2021)
Provide Genuine Leadership OpportunitiesDuguay (2020); Haddad (2020); Huysmans et al (2018); Gould and Voekler (2010); Lara-Bercial and McKenna (2018)
Role ModellingCotterill and Cheetham (2017); Huysmans et al (2018)
Use of Captaincy RoleHuysmans et al (2018)
Table 2 – Strategies from Leadership Development Literature

The next feature will review literature review and demonstrate the working model that will be used to refer to in the rest of this piece.

Don’t Stop Here

More To Explore

Serialised Dissertation Pt. 8 – Discussion

Here’s Part 8 of my dissertation breakdown, which begins to review what we’ve looked at so far. Be sure to check back next week for the final instalment! DISCUSSION TRAITS AND CHARACTERISTICS In interesting element within these strategies is to