In Part One, published last month, Starsia wrote about 10 principles of coaching and leadership. In this piece, he writes about the key leadership qualities for players.


"> Dom Starsia's Key Leadership Qualities for Players | USA Lacrosse Magazine


Dom Starsia won 375 games in his college coaching career at Brown and Virginia. The 2008 National Lacrosse Hall of Fame inductee won four national championships at Virginia.

Dom Starsia's Key Leadership Qualities for Players

National Lacrosse Hall of Fame coach Dom Starsia offers up his advice on leadership. In Part One, published last month, Starsia wrote about 10 principles of coaching and leadership. In this piece, he writes about the key leadership qualities for players.


he next chapter in our examination of the qualities of exceptional leadership lies in the area that directly affects our athletes. How do they influence one another? This is a more visceral canvass than the administrative component that involves the coaches. As we consider the development of leadership skills among players, what role does the question of nurture v. nature play? Are we born with a predisposition toward the qualities which distinguish outstanding leadership? Can they be taught? Is there a role for the concept of “10,000 hours” in the development of those qualities?

While I might prefer the dramatic announcement of some profound revelation or scientific breakthrough, as with most questions of this nature, the truth probably lies somewhere closer to the middle. The smoothest two-handed stickwork I have ever witnessed belonged to either Jeff Long or Steele Stanwick. I have heard all the stories of Steele, the wall in that garage on University Parkway and all the hours he put in pounding the ball. On the other hand, I could be banging the ball off that same wall till my hands bled and I would never develop that unconscious offhand. I am convinced that for both Jeff and Steele, at least some of that magical suppleness is a genetic gift. I believe our culture does a good job of identifying young people with special physical skills and channeling them in a well-suited direction.

However, it has become increasingly more difficult to identify and encourage in young people the subtle skills that will mature and blossom into exceptional leadership. I always dreamed I would someday be the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees, but long before I came to terms with my severe limitations, I was the one organizing the teams and picking the sides. Consider the last time you were aware of young people going to the field to “choose up.” Youth sports are so adult-organized these days, where/how would a young athlete begin to develop leadership skills?

I will come back to the requirement of fearlessness as a component of effective peer leadership, but how do kids develop that skill when parents and our modern culture seem so intent on removing all the risk from our upbringing; risk of injury, risk of failure, risk of risk, etc.? Having been around young people most of my adult life, the biggest change over 42 years may be an institutional reluctance to allow these same young participants to figure things out on their own. The world needs more real leaders but they are making the developmental process much more difficult to engineer.

"Fearlessness is that little kid who ran right into the tree chasing that pop up, the one to whom it would simply never occur not to take the open shot with the game on the line."

While I have always felt strongly that you cannot impose leadership from the top down, under the right, spontaneous circumstance, it can bubble up from below and carry a willing partner to transcendent heights.  When UVA won the national championship in 2011, we were not nearly as talented a team as many that had come before. Midway through the season we lost our best defenseman to injury, dismissed our two most talented players and took two hard, consecutive conference losses. It was a season about to spiral out of control. In the midst of those circumstances, a young man who simply refused to be discouraged, walked into my office and calmly notified me, “I know that was hard for you (the dismissals), we are ready to go.”

Bray Malphrus was not always a great leader in our program. Earlier in his career he was more interested in his own interpretation of the universe. By his senior year, however, he became much more invested in the welfare of the people around him and, of the team. He had not always been a great leader, but he became one.  His transformation provides an encouraging and inspired lesson, and you are likely not surprised to hear that he became a decorated Army Ranger.

I have mentioned fearlessness as one of the primary characteristics of exceptional leadership. It is more about fearlessness, rather than confidence. Fearlessness is more of an instinct, confidence can be an acquired taste. It often comes later or reluctantly to someone who lives/competes/succeeds in a challenging environment. But, fearlessness is that little kid who ran right into the tree chasing that pop up, the one to whom it would simply never occur not to take the open shot with the game on the line, the one whose body language is always exclaiming “watch me, this is how we roll” and who was willing to “choose up the teams.”  Fearlessness stands up in front of the team and sets an uncompromising agenda and then, walks in to the coach’s office with the same conviction. Fearlessness takes his standards to the edge of unreasonableness but, without going over the line.

The second characteristic of exceptional leadership is selflessness. This is explicitly not about being unselfish. All great athletes are competitively selfish. They want the ball, they unintentionally crave the dramatic, deciding moment and we applaud this instinct but, the leaders are unyielding about their own role with regards to the welfare of the team. They consistently demonstrate a willingness to do whatever it takes in order to create the conditions for success. Tim Whiteley, Virginia Class of 1996, never hesitated to play primarily in his offhand to facilitate an attack unit generally recognized as one of the game’s best ever, and led Virginia to three consecutive semifinal appearances. Tim’s selflessness may have been the team’s lynchpin for success and come at the cost of his legacy alongside his two Hall of Fame line mates (Doug Knight and Michael Watson).


True leaders are honest. I have always encouraged athletes to be supportive of their teammates, to talk with them in a positive tone. You can still accomplish this while telling your teammates the truth. It may still be a bitter pill to hand a peer, but teammates learn to trust and coaches come to respect those unwilling to compromise in this area. I might even advocate to those who aspire to be a team’s leader that if you cannot tell your teammates the truth, don’t accept a captaincy role. Your equivocation will invariably complicate too many organizational relationships. I was once asked about the common characteristics of teams that did not begin to reach their playing potential and my reply was that there was a lack of trust among the participants on those teams. I would suggest to coaches that a core value of any team should be the creation of an atmosphere of honesty throughout the program.

It is almost a requirement that your exceptional leaders are among the team’s very hardest workers. The inverse is clearly not necessarily the case but you cannot expect to lead if you don’t set the tone. The old adage that you especially like your chances if your hardest worker is also your best player is very true. A leader does not actually have to finish first in every exercise but his effort does. Chris Rotelli won the Tewaaraton Award and led Virginia to the 2003 national championship in the mud at Ravens Stadium. He may have actually won every run, at every distance, from September to May, in his senior year. He scored fewer goals in 2003 than in each of the previous two years, but he became a leader and a champion.

Self-discipline is a critical component for anyone who expects to lead. I believe you want to be with your teammates away from the field and locker room. However, you need to be a consistent voice of reason and cannot fall prey to serious substance abuse violations. You forfeit any sense of moral authority in an area of vital importance to the development of a college team.


Virginia's 2011 team overcame adversity during the season before beating Maryland to win the NCAA championship. Starsia credits defensement Bray Malphus stepping into a leadership role as transforming the team.

I am going to combine the final two categories because I see them as closely related. First and foremost, leaders need to walk the walk, they need to follow-through on what they are asking of their teammates, they need to be at the front of the line when the work is being done, and they need to be the ones who take the risks on and off the field. They need to be tough, with a tenacity and relentlessness of spirit. In my playing lifetime, that is who I always tried to be and I always thought that was enough. It is not.

I was raised that your actions spoke louder than your words. There is, however, another requirement of athletic leadership that now speaks directly to an emerging interpretation of toughness. You can be the strong silent type and you can be really tough and you can be a great player, but you cannot be an exceptional leader unless you are also a willing and compelling communicator. In his book “Toughness,” Jay Bilas talks about the toughness required to be a communicator on the basketball court. It is related to an unwavering personal commitment to place your teammate’s and the team’s welfare above your comfort level. It is a constant reminder to your teammates that you will be there for them in every circumstance, on and off the field. To be a truly effective leader, the right words need to be said.

If I was speaking to a group of young people and we were forging a blueprint for the rest of their entire athletic life, I would suggest that the overriding goal would be to develop into someone considered an exceptional leader by their peers. You could not get to that place without expanding your physical capabilities to their near limit. The journey will take you to all your other goals. To become that leader in a team sport setting, you will need a streak of fearlessness, a selfless consideration for your team and teammates, you need to be able to speak the truth to your peers, you need to be one of your program’s hardest workers, radiate self-discipline, be tough and engaged at all times. We stand in awe when examples of this behavior distinguish themselves in an athletic setting. Even more importantly, our world needs more true leaders.

Coming in Part Three, Developing Leaders.

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