Leadership development in professional sport | AECC University College

Leadership development in professional sport

Sport team lineup


Leadership is a fundamental aspect of sport, particularly as it relates to the effectiveness of teams within sport environments (Cotterill & Fransen, 2016). In current conceptualisations of leadership in organisational settings, team leadership has been recognised as a distinct form of organisational leadership (Kozlowski et al., 2016). That is, team leadership can be viewed as any individual fulfilling a team’s leadership needs.

Athlete leadership has been defined more specifically as “an athlete, occupying a formal or informal role within a team, who influences a group of team members to achieve a common goal” (Loughead et al., 2006, p.144). Athlete leaders have been reported to positively influence team cohesion, athlete satisfaction, team identification, team confidence and the motivational climate within the team (Cotterill & Fransen, 2016).

Recent work has reported that the leadership needs of a sport team exceed the capabilities of one individual, and it is often multiple persons in the team who occupy the different leadership roles on and off the field (e.g., Duguay et al., 2019; Fransen et al., 2014). The leadership needs within a sports team can be met in a range of different ways by different individuals undertaking different roles including, coaches, team captains, and informal athlete leaders (Mertens et al., 2021).

However, while there has been an increasing focus on understanding leadership within sports teams, and athlete leadership in particular in recent years (Cotterill & Fransen, 2016), far less attention has been paid to approaches to the development of leadership within teams.



The aim of this PhD is to better understand current approaches to leadership development within professional sports teams. To assess their impact, and to make recommendations for future team leadership development programmes.


This programme of research will utilise a mix of both qualitative and quantitative approaches to best understand the measurable and perceived impact of different approaches to team leadership development. Specifically, qualitative studies adopting a phenomenological approach will be conducted to better understand the approaches to leadership development adopted at both professional and academy levels. Utilising these outcomes, a new approach to leadership development will be developed and applied in context as an intervention study.

A range of specific psychological and performance-focused factors will be measured pre/post intervention to seek to quantify the potential impact of the new programme.

Expected outcomes

To provide evidence to support or reject current approaches to team leadership development and to provide a range of recommendations for future best practice in the systematic development of leaders to provide leadership within sport teams.


It is envisaged that the outcomes from this programme of research will help to drive changes in approaches to team leadership, and team leader development in professional sports teams. In particular, to provide a greater focus to the development of leaders and leadership at different levels in professional sport. Explicitly helping sports academies to systematically development leadership and leader skills and abilities at different levels.


We have funding available via competition for fully-funded studentships or fee-waiver support for UK home students. Applicants are asked to make it clear as part of their application that they are applying for one of these funded opportunities. Decisions will be made based on the excellence of the candidate.

Self-funded students are also welcome to apply for this project. Self-funded students can be UK home students or international students.


Available to both UK and International students. 

Potential Supervisors
  • Stewart Cotterill, Professor of the Psychology of Human Performance, AECC University College, UK
  • Stephanie Tibbert, Lecturer in Sport & Exercise Psychology, AECC University College, UK

Cotterill, S. T., & Fransen, K. (2016). Leadership in team sports: Current understanding and future directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology. 9(1), 116-133. https://doi.org/10.1080/1750984X.2015.1124443

Duguay, A. M., Loughead, T. M., & Cook, J. M. (2019). Athlete leadership as a shared process: Using a social network approach to examine athlete leadership in competitive female youth soccer teams. The Sport Psychologist, 33(3), 189-202. https://doi.org/10.1123/tsp.2018-0019

Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2014). The myth of the team captain as principal leader: Extending the athlete leadership classification within sport teams. Journal of Sports Sciences, 32, 1389-1397. https://doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.891291

Kozlowski, S., Mak, S., & Chao, G. (2016). Team-centric leadership: An integrative review. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior, 3(1), 21-54. https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-orgpsych-041015-062429

Loughead, T. M., Hardy, J., & Eys, M. A. (2006). The nature of athlete leadership. Journal of Sport Behavior, 29, 142-158.

Mertens, N., Boen, F., Haslam, S. A., Steffens, N. K., Bruner, M. W., Barker, J., Slater, M., & Fransen, K. (2021). Harnessing the power of ‘us’: A randomized wait-list controlled trial of the 5R Shared Leadership Development Program (5RS) in basketball teams. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 54, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2021.101936

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