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Leading through Crisis: Concepts, Behaviors and what Youth Sports Leaders can learn from the NBA

by Jeff Dale


Over the last few weeks, high school athletic directors and leaders of all kinds of youth sports leagues have been thrust into leadership spotlights and decision-making in a times of crisis with very real outcomes for kids.  It’s not difficult to feel the sadness, frustration and disappointment of a high school senior whose Spring sport has been postponed or cancelled. That athlete has been working toward this season of teamwork, competition, fun and achievement for years—and now it’s at risk or lost altogether.  

And kids of all ages across the country are faced with unprecedented confinement right when they should be taking to the fields, pitches, diamonds and tracks in the warm spring sunshine.  Coaches and parents suffer similar emotions on behalf of their kids and, let’s face it, for themselves.  

Ultimately, this is public health crisis the likes of which we have not seen.  So beyond disappointment, leaders must deal with government direction that is changing by the day, and other demanding elements of communication, logistics, financial management and more.  

Concepts for Youth and High School Sports Leaders

Certain behaviors, concepts and characteristics can help leaders as they seek to do their best for their communities.  In a Facebook Live session with PCA National Advisory Board Member & Cleveland Cavaliers Assistant Coach Lindsay Gottlieb, she said that leaders, “first and foremost, must be there for their people.  Be steady and consistent. Leaders must be a steadying presence for others.”

  • Steady & Consistent – Others will look to leaders for their reactions, emotions and the ‘tone’ of their leadership.  Leaders should strive to be a steadying presence for others in communication and attitude.   
  • Thoughtful & Frequent Communication – demonstrates that leaders are following the situation closely, and adjusting responses as needed.  It reassures your community that you are confronting the crisis.  

Gottlieb also pointed to the need to be transparent.  “The more information you can share and the more honesty you can bring to the situation—the more you aid their coping mechanisms…of possible outcomes,” she said.

  • Transparency – Leaders in crisis focus on providing as much concise and accurate information about the circumstances as possible. 
  • Honesty – Being honest with your own feelings, and honest about the difficulty your community faces and communicate those things as clearly as possible.

Gottlieb also pointed to Adam Silver in responding to a question about crisis leadership.  “I won’t be surprised if he comes up with an interesting twist for the players,” she said. “Great leadership is about taking hard times and using them to open your mind to new solutions.”

  • Creativity – Consider new ideas for keeping your community connected during the interim, and flexible options for making the most of what remains of the season if and when the crisis passes.

When the NBA suspended play on March 11th, it quickly became one of the critical turning points of the crisis for the United States as other collegiate and professional sports organization followed suit—including the men’s and women’s NCAA tournaments, the NHL season, MLB spring training and the Masters.  

PCA National Advisory Board Member and Coach of the Golden State Warriors Steve Kerr commented on this critical step, “It took some time for everyone to come to grips with this.  But the NBA coming to a halt helped a lot of people come to grips. It was one of the tipping points where society knew who serious this was.

 If you happened to catch Adam Silver’s explanation of his decision and subsequent decisions he has made, you will see his calm yet optimistic style of communicating.  “I’m optimistic by nature, and I want to believe that we’re going to be able to salvage at least some portions of this season,” Silver said in a recent interview.  

  • ‘Bounded’ Optimism – demonstrating an optimistic confidence that is balanced by realism is a helpful leadership trait in times of crisis. 

Adam Silver has navigated the choppy waters of a multi-billion dollar global business, with a range of constituents from dozens of team owners, to a thriving players’ union, to global media partners and interests.  He succeeds, in part, by understanding the perspectives of these stakeholders and speaking to their needs.

Youth and high school sports leaders also can benefit by considering the varying perspectives of coaches, parents and athletes.  While our kids are frustrated and hurt by the unfair nature of a faceless virus, parents may feel stress of working from home with restless kids despite uncertainties with their own job and career.  Coaches may be faced with the loss of an opportunity to coach the best team they’ve had in years. Recognizing these different emotions of your constituents, and communicating that back to those people is an effective skill for leaders.   

  • Empathy for different constituents – Consider the different stress scenarios for all of your community members—coaches, parents and young athletes—and reflect those back through your communications and interactions. 

Given so much of the current situation remains unknown, leaders will continue to carry this burden as they navigate decisions without complete information.  Leaders need to recognize their own stress levels and make sure to attend to them. It’s time to commit to the concept of focusing on only what you can control, and taking time to attend to your own health and well-being through sleep, nutrition and exercise.  

  • Don’t Ignore Your Own Needs – Leaders can only be at their best by ensuring they are aware of their own stress amidst the chaotic environments.  Take time needed for your own well-being. 

Leadership is ultimately about making a positive difference in the lives of your community.  Leading in good times is not easy, but it is significantly easier than when times are difficult.  Re-frame this opportunity to consider your own traits and characteristics and see if any of the above ideas can help add to your leadership style during this unique and challenging crisis.   

Jeff joined PCA in July 2012 as PCA-Colorado Chapter Executive Director.  He was promoted to Director of Field Operations in 2014, and in 2017 was promoted to National Director of Field Operations, managing Chapter operational efficiency and performance accountability. In 2018, he was again promoted to Vice President, Chapter Operations, where he manages the operations for PCA-Colorado, PCA-Sacramento, PCA-Central Texas, PCA-North Texas, and PCA-Houston.