Do you recall the last time you heard a player complain about how he was being used in the organization? The complaints are common enough, and include things such as not enough playing time, not used the right way, not appreciated by the coaches/organization…. Such complaints are frequent, occur at all levels, and often come from player’s support networks (teammates, parents, and other associates). These complaints may also come from others involved who feel as though they are not being given enough credit or opportunity. While at times there may be a legitimate beef for some of these individuals, more often than not the of the issue is tied to a lack of clarity on roles within the team.

Hopefully you quickly recognize the title of this article isn’t “Know Your Place”, as such a statement reflects being subservient to a hierarchy that can disregards one’s value. Instead, the focus is on being clear and up front about what roles are, and why they are important for the good of the whole; to help the team perform at its best to reach its goals. As such, it is important the organization define what the roles are, who will be fulfilling them, and why they (roles and people) are important.

When first defining roles, be sure to state the reason and purpose. Be able to articulate why a role is necessary. Whether you are talking about formal positions (on the field or on staff), or informal roles (for spirit and camaraderie), or support staff (boosters, drivers, etc.), it is important that all involved understand the function each serve. Doing so communicates the value each role has, and increases the willingness of individuals to fulfill their role, as well as respect the others involved. Here’s a simple test to see if the communication is going well; can an athlete accurately describe what his role is, how it serves the team, and why he is the one to be in that role?

Similarly, having realistic expectations of how roles are performed is important. Notice in the check question above, I did not ask if the athlete liked the role. Enjoyment is often a byproduct of positive outcomes from successful role completion. For individuals to be successful, they first need to feel as though they have the capability to meet expectations. For this to happen, it is best to align an individual’s skills and abilities in a way that works toward team objectives, and in a team setting, meshes well with the function of the roles of others. Putting someone in a position that is beyond her capability only promotes frustration and disappointment – especially from herself. The check test here; was the person chosen for the job because she already had the capability to meet the need the role seeks to fulfil? If not, circle back to defining the purpose of the role, and then re-evaluate who is being asked to step in.

Thus, picking the right person for the job is essential. Too often I have experienced situations in which a leader chose people to fulfill a role for the wrong reason. Either she wanted to keep someone busy, or she merely liked the personality and was attempting to find a way to keep that person involved. This is a set-up in futility, as neither the leader or the athlete will feel as though the outcome was worth the assignment. Instead, define the role first, and then either recruit or seek out those with specific talents that meet the role you want filled. Once such people are found, the next essential question is whether that person is willing and able to take the role on. The benchmark test here; does the person in the role feel as though they are being asked to utilize specific strengths for tasks that give him a sense of purpose to the team?

Finally, coaches (and other leaders) need to value the humans involved. Yes, the role is important to the team. Yes, the coach is committing himself to directing the team for success. No, not everyone will feel that the duties assigned outweigh other aspects of life. Value the individuals by respecting their time and commitment – during team time. Then allow and promote life beyond the court by giving them time to take care of other commitments that are important to each individual on a personal level. While involved in team time, greater role commitment can be promoted with clear feedback about how well the role is being fulfilled. Encouragement and recognition are powerful reinforcers. There also needs to be flexibility. Expect needs of the team and individual to change. Injuries, eligibility, personal crisis, and other situations may require that roles are altered or changed. To determine if the human factor is being respected, take time to evaluate if athletes can focus during practices and games, or if they are constantly distracted by off-field issues.

My hope is that the importance of roles is clearer. Developing defined roles that address specific needs gives precise understanding to all involved. Being sure that expectations are realistic and a match to the talents of individuals ensures greater commitment. Choosing people who are enthusiastic about the job being offered increases the likelihood that coaches and athletes feel satisfied with what is being required/offered. And being respectful about life beyond sport builds relationships that are reciprocal and rewarding. Should you find yourself wanting specific guidance in this area, why wait?  Make the call, bring in an expert.

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