Sportopedia Glossary

Athlete Leadership

Athlete Leadership

Athlete Leadership in sport psychology generally refers to the leadership emanating from members of a sport team. Loughead, Hardy, and Eys (2006) defined athlete leadership as an athlete who occupies either a formal or informal leadership role within a team and influences team members toward the achievement of a common goal. The definition of athlete leadership inspired by the theoretical writings of Northouse (2016) viewed leadership as a process that occurs between leader and follower. In essence, athlete leadership is an interactive event that happens between teammates, and implies that the athlete leader affects, and is affected by teammates. That is, athlete leadership occurs when an athlete leader influences other teammates and is influenced by them. Athlete leadership occurs within a sport team setting. That is, sport teams are the context in which athlete leadership occurs. Further, athlete leadership entails working toward the attainment of team goals. Therefore, athlete leadership arises when team members are working toward common goal(s). Inherent in the definition of athlete leadership is the notion that several athletes are performing leadership.

Some athletes will fulfill a formal leadership role, such as captain or assistant captain while other athletes will emerge into an informal leadership role based on their interactions with teammates. Taken together, athlete leadership is a form of shared or distributed leadership among team members. Pearce and Conger (2003) defined shared leadership “as a dynamic, interactive influence process among individuals in groups for which the objective is to lead one another to the achievement of group or organizational goals or both” (p. 1). When athlete leadership is viewed in this way, it becomes available to all athletes on the team.


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

Northouse, P. G. (2016). Leadership: Theory and practice (7th ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Pearce, C. L., & Conger, J. A. (2003). Shared leadership: Reframing the hows and whys of leadership. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

***Contributed by Todd M. Loughead for Hackfort, D., Schinke, R. J., & Strauss, B. (Eds.). (2019). Dictionary of sport psychology: sport, exercise, and performing arts. Academic Press.