Leadership Styles In Sports Coaching

This post explains the three leadership styles and the different traits of leadership in coaching. We also explain how sports coaches can use these styles to improve their leadership and awareness. This post also forms part of our guide to sports coaching.

What Are The Three Sports Leadership Styles?

If you have ever studied or completed any coaching qualifications or leadership courses, you may have heard of three leadership styles. The different leadership styles used by sports coaches and leaders are:

  • Autocratic Leadership
  • Democratic Leadership
  • Laissez-Faire Leadership

You may also be interested in our articles on methods of practice and how coaches can bring their own team together to improve performance.

Lewin, Llippet & White (1939) studied different leadership traits and summarised this research by creating a Leadership Framework. This framework consisted of three different styles (Autocratic, Democratic & Laissez-Faire), each having different leadership traits.

This research has stood the test of time and even now, several major companies and coaching organisations continue to use this to an effect.

Some books, such as Sport Matters discusses the challenges sports leaders can face and what obstacles they may have to overcome. Emphasising the importance of understanding the different leadership styles in sports coaching.

Which Is The Best Leadership Style in Sports?

It should be noted that all leadership styles are adjustable and will be dependent on several factors. From our experience in sports coaching, leaders can change their leadership styles to suit the situation coaches find themselves in. Rarely have we used the Laissez-Faire approach. However, we have both used the Democratic and Autocratic Leadership styles when needed.

In the research itself, Lewin, Llippet & White (1939) decided that the best leadership style was the democratic leadership style. Too much autocratic leadership can lead to athletes and players deciding that they no longer wish to work with a coach and may begin to refuse to follow instructions.

Whereas, a Laissez-faire leader can potentially lead to teams not performing as they may become disorganised. This can have an effect of reducing a players’ motivation and determination.

A great book for those looking to read more on leadership and sport is “You Win in the Locker Room First”*. The books explain how you can build a winning team in business, sports and life.

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The Autocratic Leadership Style

The autocratic leadership style is seen as a leader who makes a decision and decides that is what is being done. Autocratic leadership does not take into account other people’s views or decisions and has the “this is what is happening” attitude.

Many professional coaches have shown this leadership style of the years with Alex Ferguson an example of this. Arguably one of the most successful sports managers, he gained fame for showing this leadership style during his career.

We recommend his autobiography as one of our best autobiographies on sports leadership. In his autobiography, he explains how he developed his leadership style and the impacts of this.

The Democratic Leadership Style

The democratic leadership style is when a leader determines what is needed to be done, explains this, seeks feedback from the team/players and then decides how to proceed.

Jurgen Kloop has shown on several of occasions the ability to use the democratic leadership style to a successful effect (some may argue otherwise). The ability to seek feedback from players can increase motivation and the “feel valued” aspect which in turn my increase motivation and improve performance.

Democratic Leadership Style

The Laissez-Faire Leadership Style

The Laissez-Faire Leadership Style is when a leader does not take an active approach. A laissez-faire leader may decide what needs to be done but will then seek advice from players/athletes and then enable athletes to make the decision.

This approach can often lead to teams making a poor decision based on personal preference and can impact directly only performance and progress. We have seen examples of teams talking over a coach when they are speaking to the team. This approach can be seen as a leader not demonstrating leadership and can easily lead to teams moving from the direction a coach has set out from the start.

How Can Understanding Leadership Styles Benefit You?

We recommend all sports coaches and leaders to understand their leadership traits. Leadership is about being able to get others to trust you, lead change and deciding the next steps. Therefore, by understanding the different leadership styles, you should be able to understand how you are leading and the impacts of this.

As a sports coach/leader, understanding your teams personality types (read more on this here) and the different leadership styles can have a major impact on team performance and athlete development. When observing other coaches, try to determine what traits they are using and their leadership style. Each sports coach will have their leadership traits. However, this does not necessarily mean they will always use the same leadership styles. This is all dependent on the situation a coach finds themselves in.

The current football manager of England, Gareth Southgate discusses his views on his coaching leadership in an article on the FA website. Equally, Jurgen Kloop – The Biography is a great book on how Jurgen Kloop’s Leadership style had influenced his success so far.

If a coach is developing and training a youth player, they are going to be using a different leadership style to that of a professional athlete.  


The three main leadership styles used by sports coaches and leaders are:

  • Autocratic Leadership
  • Democratic Leadership
  • Laissez-Faire Leadership

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This post is part of our guide to sports coaching. Other articles as part of our guide to sports coaching can be found here.

Other relevant articles you may find useful are:

New to sports coaching? Then you may want to check out our guide to sports coaching. Here you will be able to learn techniques and strategies that will excel your coaching career. Topics include Stages of LearningMethods of Training and Leadership Styles.

Further Information:

More can be found about Lewin, Llippet & White’s work (1939) using the reference below:

Lewin, K., LIippit, R. and White, R.K. (1939). Patterns of aggressive behaviour in experimentally created social climates. Journal of Social Psychology, 10, 271-301

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