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The relationship between athletic participation and high school students' leadership ability.

Leadership development is important for society, as today's youth will be tomorrow's business and government decision-makers. One objective of the present study was to determine whether involvement in high school interscholastic athletics is related to leadership ability. Students who participate in athletics are exposed to leadership role models (e.g., coaches) and often are required to exercise some degree of leadership with their peers (e.g., team captains). Therefore, it was of interest to see if school athletes had greater leadership skills when compared with students who did not participate in interscholastic athletics. A second objective of the study was to explore gender differences in the leadership ability of high school athletes.

Leadership may be defined as the capacity to guide others in the achievement of a common goal. Decisiveness, determination, interpersonal and organizational aptitude, loyalty, self-efficacy, and self-discipline are considered some of the attributes of effective leaders. Athletics is an area that provides the opportunity to develop and display leadership qualities. Unfortunately, there is a dearth of empirical research examining the extent to which athletics plays a role in the development of leadership abilities.

Studies on leadership have identified personal as well as interpersonal characteristics. Summarizing the psychological literature, Hogan (1978) stated that "leaders generally can be found to be very social, intelligent, self-confident, and dominant. Furthermore, their knowledge and skills must be adequate to justify others following them" (p. 394). Hohmann, Hawker, and Hohmann (1982) identified sensitivity to others' needs, acceptance and use of others' contributions, tolerance for personal differences, and confidence in skills and knowledge as characteristics of strong leaders. Graustrom (1986) found that adolescent leaders, as compared with nonleaders, were dominant on both physical and psychological dimensions. Graustrom also noted that adolescent leaders were more active and aggressive, received more positive feedback from adults, and were dealt with by peers in a more positive manner.

In a study of 4,461 high school males, Snyder and Spreitzer (1992) explored the relationship of academics and athletics to social and behavioral characteristics. Results showed that those who held both scholar and athlete roles stood out in regard to positive attributes, including leadership. The athlete group scored lower than the scholar group, but significantly higher than the nonscholar and nonathlete groups. Snyder and Spreitzer concluded that athletic participation appears to increase the potential ability to lead.

Other studies indicate that athletes have significantly higher levels of self-esteem in conjunction with leadership (Ryan, 1989; Pascarella & Smart, 1991). Ryan reported results for a national sample of college students. Pascarella and Smart have pointed out that there is a lack of research in this area at the precollege level.

Widespread athletic participation among high school females is a fairly recent phenomenon. Much of the research in this area has dealt with female roles and resulting role conflict. Anthrop and Allison (1983) found that high school female athletes had little problem adjusting to the dual roles of female and athlete, although conflict arising from external sources remained high. Such conflict seems to be mediated by strong self-concept among these female athletes. In a later study, Goldberg and Chandler (1991) found that the female social status system was very complex: popularity was most important, with academics being a fast-growing second. Although there have been increasing numbers of females competing in sports, athletics has continued to be ranked low, perhaps because of stereotypical and often negative feedback from others.

Research on adolescent dominance, as summarized by Savin-Williams (1979), has shown that more dominant females are tougher, older, bigger, more popular, and the focus of attention. Additional findings have indicated that leaders are self-confident, mature, athletic, intelligent, and popular. The three variables that best predict group status are leadership, athletic ability, and physical maturation, respectively.

According to Monaco and Gaier (1992), females in mixed-sex groups are less likely to be group leaders "regardless of leadership style or dominance level" (p. 587). Females tend to try to find the best outcome for all, while males simply have a strong desire to win, reinforcing the conventional view of males as instrumental/autonomous and females as expressive/cooperative. Strong gains in female leadership were observed when they had experience with the task at hand. Monaco and Gaier concluded that females rely on outside support to achieve success, and they tend to have lower confidence and self-regard. In addition, females in mixed-sex groups find markedly less opportunity to exhibit leadership skills.

Thus, it appears that research on adolescent leadership is rather limited. This is especially true when examining its relationship to athletics, and female athletes in particular. Yet, there is some evidence to suggest that athletes possess stronger leadership skills than do nonathletes, and that male athletes have greater leadership skills than do female athletes. It may be that females are as competent in this area as males, but cultural factors hinder them from demonstrating leadership skills in social contexts (e.g., athletics).



The sample was drawn from a predominantly college-preparatory public high school in the western suburbs of Chicago. The school has an enrollment of over 1,000 students. Thirty athletes and 30 nonathletes were randomly selected from a sampling pool of 100 students (ranging in age from 15 to 18 years, with a mean age of 16.8 years). Students who had never participated in interscholastic athletics were identified as nonathletes, while those who had competed on an athletic team every year that they were enrolled at the school were identified as athletes. Both the athlete and nonathlete subsamples included 15 males and 15 females.


The leadership skills of the students were measured using the 50-item Leadership Ability Evaluation (LAE). The LAE is designed to measure leadership ability, behavior, and style for individuals from ninth grade through adulthood (Black, 1965). Each test item presents a leadership problem with four possible responses. The LAE takes approximately 15 minutes to complete.

The total score is recommended for determining leadership, and a mean reliability of .82 has been reported. Lower total scores indicate more effective leadership.


Freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors were administered the LAE in their English classes. An additional questionnaire gathered data regarding athletic participation. Parental consent was obtained for students under 18 years of age. Although the students were told that they were being assessed on leadership dimensions, they were not informed that athletic participation was a criterion variable.


The data were analyzed using independent t tests with a priori significance level of .10 (1-tail t test). Two hypotheses were investigated: (1) athletes would show significantly greater leadership ability than would nonathletes and (2) male athletes would show significantly greater leadership ability than would female athletes.

Table i shows the leadership scores for athletes and nonathletes. Athletes were found to have a significantly lower mean score (t = 1.936, df = 58, p [less than] .10); that is, greater leadership ability. Thus, the first hypothesis was confirmed.

Table 2 shows the leadership scores for male and female athletes. The difference in mean scores was not statistically significant (t = .86, df = 28, ns). Thus, the second hypothesis (that males would have greater leadership ability) was not confirmed.

Leadership Scores for Athletes and Nonathletes

 Mean: SD: df: t: Sig:

Athletes 12.28 3.58
Non athletes 13.79 2.21
Total 13.03 2.89 58 1.936 .10

Leadership Scores for Male and Female Athletes

 Mean: SD: df: t: Sig:

Males 14.01 2.41
Females 13.05 3.40
Total 13.53 2.90 28 .86 NS


The major finding of this study was that high school athletes did, in fact, outscore their nonathlete peers on the leadership ability measure. This is consistent with other research on the positive effects of adolescents' sports participation (Goldberg & Chandler, 1989; Snyder & Spreitzer, 1992). It adds further evidence to the theory that the types of personal and social behavior associated with athletic training and participation may indeed increase, or at least strengthen, high school students' leadership potential.

Interestingly, female athletes outscored male athletes on leadership ability (mean score for males = 14.01 and mean score for females = 13.05; lower LAE scores represent greater leadership ability), although the difference was not statistically significant. Therefore, the present research tends to contradict the assumption that females do not possess as great a capacity for leadership as do males.

These findings have important implications. It would seem prudent for educational policy-makers and administrators to reexamine any budget cuts that threaten extracurricular athletics at either the elementary or secondary school level. If developing leadership skills - and the psychological characteristics associated with leadership (see Hogan, 1978) - is indeed one of the goals of the educational system, and participation in sports fosters the acquisition of such skills, then maintaining athletic programs is strongly recommended. In particular, there is the possibility that athletics offers young women, as well as young men, the chance to improve leadership ability, speeding progress toward the achievement of societal equality.


Anthrop, J., & Allison, M. (1983). Role conflict and the high school female athlete. Research Quarterly, 54, 104-111.

Black, J. (1965). Leadership ability evaluation. In O. K. Buros (Ed.), The sixth mental measurements yearbook (pp. 133-135). Highland Park, NJ: Gryphon.

Coleman, J. (1961). The adolescent society: The social life of the teenager and its impact on education. New York: Free Press.

Goldberg, A., & Chandler, T. (1989). The role of athletics: The social world of high school adolescents. Youth and Society, 21, 238-250.

Goldberg, A., & Chandler, T. (1991). Sport participation among adolescent girls: Role conflict or multiple roles? Sex Roles, 25, 213-224.

Graustrom, K. (1986). Interactional dynamics between teen-age leaders and followers in the classroom. Journal of School Psychology, 24, 335-341.

Hogan, J. (1978). Personal dynamics of leadership. Journal of Research in Personality, 12, 390-395.

Hohmann, M., Hawker, D., & Hohmann, C. (1982). Group process and adolescent leadership development. Adolescence, 17(67), 613-620.

Monaco, N., & Gaier, E. (1992). Single-sex versus coeducational environment and achievement in adolescent females. Adolescence, 27(107), 579-594.

Pascarella, E. T., & Smart, J. C. (1991). Impact of intercollegiate athletic participation for African-American and Caucasian men: Some further evidence. Journal of College Student Development, 32, 123-133.

Ryan, F. (1989). Participation in intercollegiate athletics: Affective outcomes. Journal of College Student Development, 39, 122-128.

Savin-Williams, R. (1979). Dominance hierarchies in groups of early adolescents. Child Development, 50, 923-935.

Snyder, E., & Spreitzer, E. (1992). Scholars and athletes. Youth and Society, 23, 510-522.

Robert P. Dobosz, M.A., Counselor Education Program, Northeastern Illinois University.
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Author:Dobosz, Robert P.; Beaty, Lee A.
Date:Mar 22, 1999
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