Harnessing the Joy of Referent Power A Heartfelt Path to Success in Sports

To be honest, I haven’t heard much about referent power in my sports psychology circles. 

That’s a bit surprising because, as you will discover below, it is a pretty powerful thing for leaders in all contexts, not just sports. 

If you want to be an effective coach or team captain, referent power is essential. 

athlete screaming in the rain having referent power

What is Referent Power?

Referent power is that charismatic magnetism that draws people towards you. 

It’s like having a gravitational pull that stems from admiration, respect, and the desire to be associated with you. 

This power emanates from the personal qualities you possess, the connections you make, and the influence you wield over others. 

It’s the reason why we often follow the lead of those we admire or look up to.

Referent power is characterized by attraction and inspiration. 

In sport, when you hear athletes say they would run through a brick wall for their coach, that is often a sign of referent power. 

Given the adversity frequently experienced in competition and over a long season, referent power can make for a great ally.

How is Referent Power Useful?

Referent power can have a profound impact on performance, leading to increased wins. 

Here’s how:

Influence and Motivation:

Referent power is a potent tool for influencing and motivating individuals

When athletes look up to you and admire your qualities, they’re more likely to internalize your values and adopt your work ethic. 

Your words of encouragement and guidance hold greater weight, driving teammates to push their limits and give their best effort on the field. 

Team Cohesion:

In sports, a cohesive team is critical for success. 

Referent power fosters a sense of unity and camaraderie among team members. 

They respect and value your opinion, leading to smoother interactions, effective communication, and a shared commitment to achieving common goals.

Positive Environment:

A positive and uplifting environment enhances peak performance. 

Referent power radiates positivity, creating a culture where everyone feels valued and supported. 

Athletes are more likely to thrive in an atmosphere where their contributions are recognized and celebrated.


Leaders who possess referent power are natural role models. 

Teammates willingly follow their lead due to the admiration and respect they have for them. 

This type of leadership makes it easier to implement strategies, make critical decisions, and maintain a cohesive team.

Conflict Resolution:

When conflicts arise, your referent power can be a game-changer. 

Team members trust your judgment and are more likely to listen to your perspective. 

Your calming influence and ability to mediate disputes can help find common ground and maintain a harmonious team environment. 

Under pressure, they will follow your focus from the conflict back to the game and what needs to be done.

Personal Development:

Embracing referent power encourages your personal growth and development

Knowing that others look up to you may inspire you to meet that challenge and work to improve yourself. 

This commitment to self-improvement not only benefits you but also sets a great example for those around you.

Enhanced Communication:

With referent power, your communication becomes more impactful. 

Teammates listen more attentively to your insights and advice. 

This improved communication fosters understanding, ensures that your ideas are heard, and contributes to effective teamwork.

Enhanced Teamwork:

Unlike coercive power that can lead to resistance and defiance, referent power reduces opposition. 

Athletes willingly cooperate and align their efforts with your vision because they believe in your capabilities and intentions.

man on top of a hill holding his arms up in victory

Developing Your Referent Power: 10 Proven Ways

  1. Be competent: Maybe the most important way to develop referent power is to be competent. 

You have to “walk the talk” and demonstrate your capabilities with actions and results to earn respect. 

Work on your skills and be great at what you do in the areas you want to lead. 

Demonstrate your expertise through your work ethic, accomplishments, and knowledge.

  1. Lead by Example: Displaying unwavering dedication and hard work not only sets a high standard for others but also creates a tangible model for them to follow. 

When teammates witness your commitment firsthand, they’re more likely to emulate your efforts, fostering a culture of excellence within the team.

  1. Embrace Humility: Humility is a powerful tool within referent power that endears you to your peers. 

Acknowledging your own weaknesses and showing a willingness to learn from others sends a message that you value everyone’s contributions. Thus earning you genuine respect and admiration.

  1. Effective Communication: Mastering the art of effective communication allows you to convey your thoughts and ideas in a clear, relatable manner. 

When you can articulate your vision, strategies, and objectives persuasively, others are more likely to rally behind your initiatives.

  1. Empathy and Listening: Developing empathy and actively listening to your teammates’ concerns, ideas, and aspirations creates a sense of camaraderie and trust, significantly boosting your referent power. 

When others feel heard and understood, they’re more inclined to view you as a relatable figure and a leader they can confide in.

  1. Consistency: Consistency builds reliability and fosters familiarity. 

By consistently showing up, giving your best, and supporting your team through thick and thin, you establish yourself as a constant presence and a reliable source of guidance and inspiration.

  1. Mentorship: Sharing your knowledge and experience through mentorship not only benefits those you guide but also solidifies your position as a respected figure within the sports community. 

Your willingness to invest time and effort in helping others succeed enhances your influence and referent power. 

A senior taking an underclassmen under his wing or a veteran helping a rookie demonstrates how you care about their success. 

It draws them closer to you and improves the performance of the team as a whole. 

  1. Positive Attitude: Maintaining a positive, focused attitude, even in challenging situations, radiates optimism and resilience. 

Your ability to keep spirits high and motivate others during tough times demonstrates your emotional strength and encourages a similar mindset among your teammates.

  1. Lifelong Learning: Committing to continuous learning and improvement showcases your dedication to growth and excellence. 

Your pursuit of knowledge not only enhances your personal development but also positions you as a knowledgeable authority others can turn to for guidance, increasing your referent power.

  1. Community Engagement: Engaging with the community beyond the field demonstrates your commitment to making a positive impact beyond your immediate team. 

Involvement in charity events, social initiatives, and community service projects showcases your character and strengthens your influence among fans and peers alike. 

Situations Requiring This New Found Power in Sports

During team-building retreats, your referent power shines as you lead team bonding activities and inspire camaraderie. 

Your ability to foster trust and unity becomes essential in setting a positive tone for the season ahead.

Your influential presence becomes a game-changer as you deliver motivational speeches before important matches, or rallies the team at half-time for increased effort and pushing through pain. 

The passion and conviction you convey can ignite a fire within the team and enhance their performance.

When teammates are sidelined due to injuries, your referent power helps maintain their morale and determination. 

Your encouragement and empathy enhances their motivation to work hard and consistently through a long recovery.

Your ability to inspire commitment and dedication becomes crucial during intense training periods

Players get tired in training camp, for example, and the urge to slow down and rest is real when coaches challenge you to keep playing at a high level despite the fatigue. 

Your presence alone can encourage teammates to push their limits, resulting in improved performance and teamwork.

Your role as a source of emotional support becomes prominent when the team faces setbacks or losses

No one likes to lose, but you have the opportunity with referent power to help teammates maintain their objectivity and learn from their mistakes. 

Objectively asking what mistakes were made and inspiring a work ethic to correct them leads to improvement.

As new members join the team, your referent power aids in their integration. 

Your welcoming attitude and willingness to offer guidance facilitate a smooth transition, ensuring that new players feel valued and supported.

Facing the media and addressing fans with poise and confidence highlights your influential stature. 

Your ability to represent the team effectively in public platforms reflects positively on your leadership and the team’s overall image.

As your sports career comes to a close, your referent power leaves a lasting legacy

Your influence continues to inspire future athletes, motivating them to follow in your footsteps and carry forward the values you embodied. 

Notice how you feel about the sports figures below… 

What qualities draw you in to admire them?

hand holding yellow and green lightning

Three Sport Examples of Referent Power: 

Mike “Coach K” Krzyzewski

After a bronze medal in the 2004 Olympics, USA Basketball needed a leader to unify an all-star cast of NBA players. 

“First thing that surprised me about Coach K was that he didn’t give a f— about my resume, but he always did it with respect,” LeBron James said. 

“I’ve always gotten the best out of myself playing for someone that holds everybody accountable.” 

Carmelo Anthony added, “Coach K is a motivator. And that’s what he did.” 

Krzyzewski inspired the team with talks by soldiers to communicate the idea that their performance on the court wasn’t just about the score, but also about representing their nation. 

Doug Collins, who played in the controversial last-second loss to the Soviet Union in the final of the 1972 Games, encouraged them to avoid the heartbreak of losing while representing the U.S. 

Coach K  also had them listen to Marvin Gaye’s soulful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner as inspiration to hear the song at the end of the 2008 Beijing Olympics. 

After a hard fought victory over Spain, the entire “Redeem Team” took off their gold medals and piled them on Krzyzewski’s neck, affirming their respect and admiration for him, a clear sign of his referent power. 

Mike Tomlin

As if the stress of the pandemic was not enough when NFL players gathered virtually for their 2020 preseason preparation, the death of George Floyed sparked outrage in the country with calls for social justice. 

Players were frustrated, angry, disappointed and looking for a way to make a change and have their voices be heard. 

They needed guidance, direction, and leadership. Head Coach Mike Tomlin of the Pittsburgh Steelers provided players and staff exactly what they needed. 

On their first Zoom meeting after the death of Floyd, Tomlin centered the conversation around Black Lives Matter, with players and coaches all being given the opportunity to talk, to share their emotions, and to share what was on their mind enhancing his referent power. 

“He showed us he cared about what was going on in the world, not just because of the skin color he is, but just world peace in general,” said WR James Washington. 

“It was guys venting, saying what they wanted to get off their chest. 

We all listened to each other because we are brothers. 

For a lot of guys to come out and say stuff about their experiences it really helped, and it helped ease the emotion in the room … 

It shows in his mind there is more to life than just football. 

When he showed us that, as players, we respected him even more. He is always looking out for everyone’s well-being, no matter if you are on the team or not, and we want to do everything for him.”

Jeanie Buss 

Jeanie Buss is one of the most influential women in sports as the controlling owner and president of the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers with a championship title. 

Her referent power comes from her collaborative leadership style.

“It’s important to me to have teamwork, to build consensus, to have everybody on the same page, and even if there’s disagreement, to get an understanding of why. 

That’s my style of dealing with things.” she said. 

Majority owner and Governor of the Boston Celtics highlights her referent power when he said, “Jeanie has always had that special spark. People want her to do well. 

They’re happy when she succeeds. 

They know she’s earned it — and I mean the ‘earned it’ part. 

She’s respected unequivocally among the league, by the owners, by the players. 

She’s got steel in her veins.”


Referent power is a captivating force that can propel you to new heights in the world of sports.

Its ability to inspire, motivate, and unite makes it a valuable asset for any athlete or sports professional. 

By consciously developing your referent power and strategically employing it in various situations, you can become a true influencer and leader in your sports community. Improve both your performance and the performance of those around you. 

I’d love to help you do this inside Success Stories Membership. Information isn’t enough, and in fact we can be overwhelmed by it. This is why I created the membership – to walk alongside you and help you make progress. Check out how I can do that here


  1. https://www.dukechronicle.com/article/2022/10/duke-mens-basketball-netflix-the-redeem-team-mike-krzyzewski-lebron-james
  1. https://www.steelers.com/news/players-would-run-through-a-brick-wall-for-tomlin
  1. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/2003567-jeanie-buss-has-supreme-power-to-change-the-lakers-what-will-she-do-and-when 
  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/07/12/sports/basketball/lakers-jeanie-buss.html