How to lead others so they can lead in their own lives

As instructors at Shugyo, we’re trying not only to be good leaders ourselves, but also to help our students to develop into good leaders in their own right. So, you may rightfully ask, what makes a good leader?


Leadership qualities have been at the centre of every locker room, boardroom, water cooler and dining table discussion this week. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s time to Google ‘Steve Smith’. Smith, holding arguably Australia’s foremost sporting leadership position as captain of the Australian cricket team, admitted to cheating during a Test match in South Africa.

The extreme reaction of Australia’s sporting public to this shock decision, shows how much we value sport in this country. But it also shows how much we value good leadership. Because when good leaders triumph, we put them on the highest pedestal. But when they fail, we’re more disappointed than our parents were when we didn’t set the table for dinner. We’re disappointed because when your 9-year-old daughter asks why he did it, we have no response. We expect better of our leaders. So the impact of a bad leader is hard felt.

What is the impact of a good leader? How do good leaders get athletes to reach their potential, or at the very least returning to training with enthusiasm?

The first and most obvious answer is: knowledge. If a coach knows their stuff, they usually earn instant respect. If the coach can describe to you how to kick harder and it works, you’ll usually note them down as a trusted information source.

But coaches can be knowledgeable and still fail to lead effectively. Think of a doctor. The best surgeon can have a comprehensive knowledge of medicine but still lack basic bedside manners. A good leader isn’t just someone who knows their skills.

No, a good leader needs a better definition. Instead of looking at the coach, let’s turn the key light to the athletes. After all, if a coach’s goal is to get the most out of his/her athletes, then a good measure is his or her impact on the students.

Research has found a direct link between psychological needs satisfaction and mental toughness in athletes(1). In layman terms, if an athlete feels that his basic psychological needs (like curiosity, enjoyment and belonging) are being satisfied, then he will be more motivated to improve.

Put simply, if a coach considers the group’s curiosity, enjoyment and sense of belonging in each session, he will see improvements in mental strength and physical capability.

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Let’s dive a little deeper.

An individual’s psychological needs, when it comes to sport, can be categorised in three main areas: autonomy, competence and relatedness.



The best kind of motivation comes from within. So coaches who offer choice (within boundaries) tend to get a better response from their athletes.

For example, in a taekwondo class, the instructor may ask students to complete 20 kicks in a row. The instructor can then set variables for different levels of skill and motivation. Level one might be the most basic kick, spreading the load between each leg to make it a little easier. The instructor may offer students who find that too easy the chance to do all 20 kicks on one leg. And finally, a third option may be presented, where students can do half the kicks on the ground and half the kicks jumping.


Competence breeds motivation breeds competence breeds motivation and so on. A coach who sets small goals in each session will give students a chance to build motivation from small achievements. Those small achievements form solid competence and voila, you have a successful coach-student relationship.

A coach must understand that students may not arrive at class motivated, but by achieving (even in a small way) during the session, they will leave more motivated for the next session. This then snowballs. Most people wait for motivation to hit them before they give things a go. A successful coach will help athletes understand that action and achievement breeds motivation, not the other way around. It’s human nature to think like this(2):


Motivation > Action > Achievement > REPEAT


When really people need to act first to find motivation to keep improving. Like this:


Action > Achievement > Motivation > REPEAT


A martial arts instructor or coach has a huge impact on the space where she conducts her training. If she has had a bad day and brings those negative vibes into the room, most people will be able to read it and the session is doomed.

The same can be said about the way the coach delivers instruction and runs activities. If the tone is tense and critical, the environment will not become autonomy-supportive and student’s motivation levels will diminish.

Imagine yourself on a family holiday as a kid. There was always one sibling or cousin who was great at starting games and getting everyone involved. Think about how they would go about it. Naturally there was a little bit of competition – who can throw the frisbee the furthest perhaps. They were also fantastic at giving encouragement and making sure everyone was included. That one cousin who tried to start a game of ping pong but put you down for a bad swing wouldn’t get your attention again.

You can see where I’m going with this. The coach needs to foster a supportive environment. Students/athletes must feel respected, cared for and needed by those around them. This is called community and is arguably the biggest driving force for our members returning to training, even in the coldest nights of July.



(1) – Mahoney et al, Motivational Antecedents of Mental Toughness, Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, 2014, 36, 281-292

(2) – Manson, Mark, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F**k, Harper Collins, 2017


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Comments 1

  1. A very well written article
    So true
    We as coaches / instructors really do need to lead by example and encourage at all levels

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