The spring season is here and that means captains are being chosen. It’s a stressful time for some. I have recently become intrigued with the role of a team captain after listening to an episode of Paul Rabil’s podcast, “Suiting Up”. Paul was having a conversation with Sam Walker. Walker wrote a book called The Captain Class which is about his pursuit to name the best teams in the world throughout history. His decades of research led him to a discovery that the top 16 teams in history were all connected in that they were led by one captain.
This characteristic was more meaningful than talent, coaching or money when it came to long term winning and the success of a team. I would highly suggest the podcast and this episode in particular.
I sat in my car in the parking garage at my office listening and thinking about the teams I’ve been a part of and the captains I have played with or coached. As the season gets closer, I wanted to share my thoughts and opinions.
After listening to the “Suiting Up” episode with Walker, the next one I listened to was an episode entitled “Traits of Successful Leaders”. Leadership on a team is essential and I don’t think it is coached at the youth or high school level well enough. I know that I wish I would have put more effort into talking with our captains about their role and what the team needed.
What makes a great captain? Simply put, it’s selflessness; a willingness to put ego aside in order to do what is best for the team. Walker suggests that a quick test that you can do as a coach is to bring in a player and tell him how great he is or how well he played. If the player seems uncomfortable and quickly deflects the praise to his teammates or other coaches, you have a potential captain. Other things to look out for might be someone who goes the extra mile to carry water, equipment or goes to the far end of the field during ball hunts at practice. It makes total sense, but too often we look at the most talented player on the team and say he should be the captain.
Take a look at the Chicago Bulls. The first six years Michael Jordan was on the team they were not very good. It wasn’t until Bill Cartwright was named captain that they became a dynasty. Bill was the captain they needed who could take the responsibilities from MJ and let him be the super star he was. Bill joined the team and began mentoring the younger players, carrying water for the team, and doing whatever he could for the team.
Although Sam Walker’s research shows that a single, humble captain is what made those top 16 teams the greatest ever, I’m not so sure a single captain would necessarily work at the high school level. I think it’s beneficial to have a variety of leaders who can bring different skills to the table. I’ve met a few high school kids with amazing leadership skills, but I think a team is better served having a few captains. It’s advantageous to have a few more guys with different strengths and utilize those strengths. As long as the captains are able to work together and not try to take away from each other, then that would be the a great situation.
The past two years I have been privileged to be included in a leadership weekend with Dulaney High School (MD) and the Bigger Faster Stronger program run by John and Laura Rowbotham. Each of the years I have been a part of the discussion, the conversation has turned to how to hold teammates accountable. It can be tricky sometimes to navigate how to address teammates who are not living up to expectations or putting in the effort on and off the field to make the team as good as possible. I would encourage coaches to have these conversations with the captains. There are a lot of issues that come up when you take the time to sit down and chat. I would encourage all coaches to take the opportunity to do so.
So heading into this season, who are the players who will put the team ahead of ego? Who is willing to go the extra mile or come off the bench if it better serves the team? I would look for these kinds of players and name them captains.
I would love to hear your feedback or thoughts. How does your team choose captains? Are there more important traits to look for? Share in the comments.