Developing Solid Team Leadership

You can have all the talent on your team, but without strong leadership, your team’s success is limited. I’ve seen a winning team lose a game and a solid team sink in ranking because of ineffective leadership. I’ve guest coached teams that have incredible talent, but struggle against their leadership. I’ve had many conversations with skaters who are dealing with team coaches that are not a good fit and don’t know how to deal. This is a tragic and delicate situation that is incredibly difficult to navigate. I think, with most situations, the problems stem from a lack of communication about what is expected of leadership and/or an inability to hold leadership accountable.

In order to set your team up for success, you need to have very clear, thorough job descriptions for your leadership. Anyone stepping into a role of team leadership should know EXACTLY what is expected of them before they take on that role. Additionally, I highly suggest “trying out” potential coaches before settling on one for your team. It’s SO important to know what you are looking for in a coach and to determine if potential coaches are the right fit for the team. I recognize that there isn’t exactly a huge population of coaches just jumping at the chance to coach your team. (Perhaps there will be more coaches in another decade or so when there are more retired skaters looking for an opportunity to stay in the game.) Many teams will take whatever warm body they can get. Regardless of how experienced (or inexperienced) your coach is, you NEED to be clear about what is expected of them, and, depending on their experience, be supportive throughout their learning curve.

Below are general job descriptions for a team coach, captains, and bench manager. Many teams designate different jobs to different positions, and you may find that this doesn’t specifically work for your team. However you choose to designate jobs, make sure that you are clear about your expectations. Try to avoid subjective language like "be respectful" (what the fuck does that actually mean??) and stick to more concrete language like "attend 90% of practices." Lay out your wish list for your team leadership and go from there. 

Team Coach Job Description

1. Work with team captains and/or entire team to determine the goals for the season.

2. Analyze and assess individual and team performance to determine strengths and weaknesses for further development. Measure and evaluate performance and provide individual and team-based feedback meant to challenge, inspire, and further development. Formal feedback should be given prior to each season and informal feedback whenever necessary.

3. Develop a progressive training curriculum that address the goals and needs of the team. Get all team members on point with basic game-play (defense, offense, switching between, jammer skills, etc), skating skills (speed control, efficient blocking, lateral movement, etc), endurance, and teamwork.

4. Meet with the team to discuss the training plan and bouting schedule. Ask team members to sign a team contract to show dedication to the season plan. (This is not meant to be overkill, but rather to get skaters to really think about their commitment and determine what they can dedicate to the team.)

5. Lead all team practices and prepare the team for the bouting season. This includes

  • ensuring a safe physical and emotional environment
  • being knowledgeable about game rules, game trends, fitness, injury, sports psychology, nutrition, and sports science
  • communicating instruction using clear, simple language
  • recognizing the various ways that skaters learn and incorporating those into training
  • inspiring confidence in players and encouraging them to train and perform to a high standard
  • analyzing game and practice performance (using footage whenever possible) to determine training needs

6. Determine bout rosters and lineups, working with team captains.

7. Coach at bouts and serve as the “A” captain.

  • Know when and how to call an official review.
  • Know when to call time-outs.
  • Effectively communicate to players during jams (when to call off the jam or to pass the star, what strategy to implement, when to speed up/slow down, etc.)

8. Coordinate with league training committee.


Team Captain Job Description

1. Be the voice of the team and the liaison between the team members and the coach.  

2. Coordinate team meetings and events.

3. Set up team polls.

4. Communicate team news and announcements to the league.

5. Be the “C” captain at bouts.

6. Work with coach(es) to develop game rosters and lineups.

7. Work with the team and coach to develop team goals, ethos, and expectations.


Team Bench Manager

1. Read lineups at games.

2. Determine who sits when a player is in the box (based on direction from coach).


Mandatory Requirements of ALL Team Leadership

1. Teach and model athletic and personal integrity.

2. Know the game of roller derby - how it's played - and basic game strategy.

3. Know the rules of roller derby and be the first to know about rule changes.

4. Know the skaters on the team - their strengths and weaknesses, positions played, styles of learning.

5. Exhibit strong communication skills.

6. Attend as many practices as possible.

7. Attend all bouts.

8. Be a positive force on and off the track.  

9. Adapt to the needs, interests, and goals of the team.


Again, I recognize that there aren’t a shit-ton of people who can meet these expectations. So what do you do? Well, you need to communicate what you are hoping for and discuss how you can help your coach acquire the skills expected of them. For instance, if your coach doesn’t know how to develop a curriculum, you can hire me to do that for you! (I mentor coaches throughout a season and help them develop training and deal with challenges.) If your coach can only make 50% of practices, perhaps you consider them for the bench manager position instead. If your coach is struggling with analyzing performance, get your brainy skaters to sit down with your coach and help them along OR (better yet) ask one of your brainy skaters to be responsible for this aspect and work with your coach. Spread out the duties and spend time training your coach, rather than removing responsibilities altogether.

The other thing, and this is a big one, is that you must remember that you are not (I assume) paying your full-time team coach. They are committing to a huge amount of work with no financial gain. I’m guessing they would not be doing so unless they are gaining something. Maybe they are doing it to make a loved one happy (their partner is on the team). Maybe they always dreamed of coaching a team and are living out some Bad News Bears/Mighty Ducks underdog fantasy. Maybe derby is their church. Maybe they just want to be part of a community. Whatever it is, they are devoting a huge amount of their lives to your team and you need to appreciate the fuck out of them. Also, they may not want to (or can’t) fulfill all the responsibilities. Again, I don’t think you should remove responsibilities, but you can have a realistic conversation about what your coach is able to do and how to spread out the duties. You should also be very honest about how the team will need to replace that coach if they find someone who can/will fulfill the job description. It’s tough to expect a lot out of someone you aren’t paying, so there's a fine balance in developing expectations that meet the team’s needs without asking too much. Talk it out!

Once you have set up your expectations and everyone is clear about their responsibilities, everything is golden! Right? Hardly. People are human. They make mistakes, they suck at communication, they take on too much, they don’t ask for help, they have egos. Shit happens and you might be in the uncomfortable position in which you need to hold someone accountable. This fucking blows. No one wants to confront someone about how they aren’t doing their job. I can’t really offer much advice on how to do this. My best suggestion is to show appreciation for the things the coach is doing for the team and, when discussing problem areas, focus your language on what the team needs and ask questions like “are you capable of meeting these needs right now?” Have this conversation sooner than later — the longer you wait, the worse shit gets and the harder it gets to talk about it.

So, that’s about all I have about team leadership. I’m curious to hear about your challenges and successes with team leadership. What has worked for your team? What have you struggled with and what advice can you offer to others who might be in your situation?