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“How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”–King David, Psalm 133:1

What’s your definition of team? Key operative words come to mind: group, common goal, leadership, compliance, support, relationship. I’ve heard youth coaches say “there’s no ‘I’ in t-e-a-m.” There’s an implied submitting of personal mandates for the good of the whole. All individuals play a role to accomplish the goal; however, they do not lose their identity to the team. Rather they are valued, edified and connected. Each individual is essential to the overall “personality” of the team, like individual ingredients in a recipe. You cannot eliminate sugar in lieu of using more baking soda. The flavor would be utterly compromised.

The approach to decision making around goals is a defining characteristic for a team. In sports, ordinarily we think of leadership as the coach’s responsibility. According to, there are three main coaching styles: autocratic, democratic, and laissez faire. The first is where decisions are made at the top; the coach is keeper of the information he uses to lead. The second allows input from team members with “guidance” from the coach. The third is where the players themselves make decisions for the team. Some say coaching leadership should be fluid, using all three approaches at specific times. I see it more as a continuum of style as players progress in their sport and the stakes become higher, competition more intense.

In sports, a democratic leadership where the majority rules could be appropriate at the younger levels. For example, the PE coach asks the children: “How many want to play pickleball today?” With a show of hands, the decision is made. The laissez faire approach in sports would make sense during free play, or recess. Some kids want to play basketball, others tag, still others four-square. The autocratic approach is one more often associated with advanced levels of sports. The coach makes the majority of decisions for the team: when to practice, what to practice, whether to play zone or man-to-man. If a young athlete plays sports long enough, he will likely see all three leadership styles.

I have observed other strategies employed when a decision is pending. When I taught physical education, we conducted “ropes” classes. These are known as team-builders in which a group of individuals must work together to accomplish a goal. There is a facilitator whose role is to explain the parameters of the challenge, then steps back and allows the group to strategize. The challenge is designed so that each member must participate in order to succeed. A failed result is when the group allows the most vocal, dominant voice (the “squeaky wheel”) to make decisions for all. The desired result is when the group shares various ideas, and together comes to consensus in order to move the team toward its goal.

Children easily learn the other approaches to decision-making, but consensus is a skill that takes practice. I believe it is a skill that is sorely missing in society today. Instead of “it’s my way or the highway,” or subjugation by an autocratic leader, or even “majority rules,” consensus is agreement reached in a more sophisticated manner. We employed this technique by literally circling the group. With different ideas for approaching the goal, we took one at a time. The concept would be explained while others listened. Discussion usually followed. After a period of consideration we asked for a thumbs up, thumbs down, thumbs sideways vote. Obviously, thumbs up was agree, thumbs down was disagree. But thumbs sideways was more complex. It was not explicit agreement/disagreement, but rather one’s ability to move the group forward in spite of shades of disagreement. As long as there was dissent, we were stuck. Time was a factor and for some became the impetus to signal thumb sideways. Consensus does not mean complete agreement, unanimity. However, it allows progress toward a common goal.

Consensus requires mutual respect, valuing opinions of others, freedom of choice, and independent thinking. Youth sports is an area where this skill can be developed. Can you imagine the progress that could be made, the stalemates that could be avoided, if people employed this approach to decision making? If it works in sports, it could work in life. People just have to share a common goal.

Key Tips

  • Youth coaches vary their leadership style in ways that impact decision-making.
  • Consensus is a valuable strategy for making decisions which not only benefits teams meeting goals, but could make a positive impact on society as well.

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