Why you should select team captains

What is the purpose of sport?


I interviewed Jack Clark a few months ago. Coach Clark is arguably the most famous rugby coach in America with more than 25 national championships under his belt. During our interview, he really disagreed with our premise on captains and believed we shouldn’t put much of an emphasis on them. In his words, he felt that “leadership was being hijacked” by placing such emphasis on this position. Many other coaches are starting to move away from the captaincy position. Many for good reasons. It has been a major pain point for most coaches who have decided to select captains to help influence and lead their teams. The following are some of the biggest reasons why coaches do not select team captains:


  1. “I don’t want anyone feeling as if they are special or above others.” - Mike Leech

  2. “I want everyone to be leaders on my team. You want to empower everyone to add leadership in their own authentic way.” - Brad Stevens

  3. “I do not want anyone to feel slighted, and thus, provide less effort than they should in the leadership role that they could play” - Coach

  4. “Sometimes I think that giving a title makes them act differently. It takes away the good qualities that they had in the first place.” - Coach


The very first thing I wrote in this piece is a question that should always be on the forefront of your mind as a coach. It will lead to certain values that will direct your decision making for lasting impact. It is something that I want you to think about as we think through these statements and issues that these coaches are making. For me, sports is a vehicle that provides real experiences in which we can learn about ourselves and about life and a way in which we can improve ourselves.


Many of you have probably had similar statements or stories related to these issues within your past coaching experiences. However, I want to examine each of these and point out where there might be some root issues in rationality based off of our understanding of leadership and influence. Firstly, Mike Leech was having some real pains with this position. After he had to kick one of his captains off the team, he said enough was enough. He decided he would have no captains and that the luckiest player on his team would go on the field for the coin toss (Which is the only responsibility that most coaches give to their captains by the way). One of the issues with the statement that he made, noted in point 1, is that you should be teaching the athletes that take these positions not to feel that way. One reason providing the captaincy experience is so important is because it provides a real leadership position that, when done correctly, can teach you that leadership is about service. If they don’t learn this now, then when will they? Probably when they take a real leadership position in the world as a manager or CEO and then do a terrible job leading their employees. This statement shows me that his program is not engaging, teaching, or influencing players properly in their development of future leaders. If you are not doing that, then what are you doing?


Secondly, Brad Stevens mentions a point that is becoming more and more popular in the sports world. Brad Stevens is my favorite coach. But, I think that taking this view, especially in college and below is not entirely accurate. Here is why: The selection of captains does not mean that others should or do not have leadership roles. In fact, if you are selecting captains, and you are promoting the idea that only they have the power to speak or influence, your team dynamic will fail. It does not have to be either way with this.


The third point is a real worry that I have seen play out many times. Let’s say that you have 8 great seniors that all have done the right thing over the last four years. That can be a difficult position to be in because all of them have some legitimate right to the captaincy position. Many times this situation come lead to failure in the team dynamic if you can only select 2-3 and leave the other 5-6 in a position where they might feel slighted. Although difficult as it can be, my thoughts on this are that this experience provides you with the perfect test to see where your athletes hearts are. If they want the captaincy so bad that they are willing to put in less effort towards the team if they are not picked, you have more things to worry about. It means that they are not all bought in to the team. It is also amazing what simple communication can do for this problem. 90 percent of this issue can be solved by just speaking to these players who you feel might feel slighted. Talk with them and continue to try and develop them.


The final point that influence many to not pick captains is one of the worst reasons. It goes back to the purpose of sports. If they do not learn leadership now, when will they? If this is a problem that you seem to be having, then you are not systematically developing, teaching and providing feedback in a way that is helping them understand what leadership is supposed to be. The onus falls on you as the coach to make sure that when your athletes leave your organization that they will understand key principles in life that will help them to live more fulfilled lives and improve the communities that they are in. If they



The following are three natural tendencies that should be understood in relation to the captaincy position:

  1. Bystander Effect

    1. The bystander effect is a social phenomenon where people are less likely to help others or to stop something they believe to be wrong because they think that the people around them will do it. The reason I feel that this phenomenon is important to note is because it happens quite frequently within teams. Selecting a captain provides a structural influence in your program that also acts as a social influence and puts a certain amount of ownership at least on one person who should never be constrained by this effect. Now, the goal is, of course, for all of your athletes on the team to feel empowered to say something. However, this is something that comes in time as you and your captains influence the culture of the team to empower the rest of the athletes to speak out and act.

  2. Pareto’s Principle

    1. This is another phenomenon that states that 20 percent of your input leads to 20 percent of your output. For example, 20 percent of the employees do 80 percent of the work, 80 percent of the world’s wealth is in 20 percent of the people. This is also true when it comes to teams and those who influence inside of it. 20 percent of your athletes do 80 percent of the influencing. This is a vital thing to understand. Regardless of your thoughts, it is basically fact that, if you have 20 players, 2-4 of your athletes are doing a majority of the influencing. This influencing is either positive or negative. So, it is critical that you get these top influencers on your team to influence positively. Providing the titles to these athletes are a way to place an emphasis on their roles on the team.

  3. 10-80-10 Rule

    1. This is something that organizational psychology has found to be true. In any organization, there are the top 10 percent who are your go-getters and leaders, 80 percent who go with the flow, and the bottom 10 percent who are negative and poor performers. There is always a battle that is happening between the top 10 and bottom 10 percent for the middle 80. What you need to understand is that your top ten percenters need help in winning over the middle 80 before your bottom ten percenters can influence them to their level.  

  4. Law of influence

    1. What is even more important to realize in this is that science says you can only directly influence 8 people. Many coaches want to say that they believe in wanting everyone to be a leader on their team. The truth is that all of them already are. Especially if you understand that leadership is influence which science also says that we try to influence at least 5-6 people every day. Leadership is a toolbox and every athlete on your team has certain tools (skills) that they can leverage to influence themselves and others. We all want each one of the to be the best person and leader they can be. However, it is importnat to realize that you can only DIRECTLY influence 8 people. It is important who you decide to pour into. You can’t do it all. But, what you can do is pour into the right people, your top influencers, so that they in turn can help you to create a culture and environment where an even greater influence can be exerted to create great leadership within the rest of your team. It is the rule that John Maxwell calls explosive growth - to multiply lead leaders.  


It is important that you understand a few things about culture. It all starts with you, but understand that your culture is what you allow. Not just what you allow but those in your team when you are not around. The athletes on the team will be the ones that really carry out the culture of your team. The most influential on your team (hopefully your captains) will be the ones whom your culture rests as they will be the ones that truly influence the rest of your team.


Understand the 6 aspects of influence. You focus on creating the reight environment, the social aspect will be taken care of by these athletes.


In conclusion, what is most important is to understand and have clarity on as a coach is what you see as the purpose of sport. For me, providing a captaincy experience is one of the most important things you can do for your team as experiences is how we truly grow and learn. Titles and power are something that these young athletes need to learn how to manage. If they don’t learn it now, then they will learn through failure when it really matters. There are great teams that do not pick captains and great teams that do. Most of the issues and concerns are presented when it comes to this argument are due to the fact that we as coaches are not managing this experience correctly!! We have to take ownership of this. You cannot have an athlete in your program for four years, never discuss leadership with them, reward your best player on the field with the title and expect great things to happen. This requires great thought and systematic development that should start when they first walk into your program. Stop leaving your biggest competitive advantage up to luck. Providing this leadership experience to certain athletes does not hijack leadership for your program. The only ones I see hijacking leadership at this point in time are coaches and parents who refuse to let go of control.


If you are interested in learning how to better systematically develop your leaders and provide the right opportunities for your team captains to grow in their leadership check out our new workbook for team captains: The Captain’s Playbook

Team Captains: How to Initiate and Lead Team Meetings

At The Captain's’ Coach. We believe that games and championships are won outside of the playing field. The game is far bigger than the X’s and O’s of the game. The discussions, ideas, strategies, cohesion, and events that happen off the field are crucial to influencing what happens on it.  This is one reason why I feel that it is important for team captains to lead their own meetings with some influential members of the team. It is something that should happen systematically in your program and the coach should have no real say in it other than helping develop the team captains to be able to run them effectively.

When I was in high school. Our baseball team was the number 1 team in the state. We were a public high school and had 13 D1 athletes on the team. It was going to be our year to win state. I was not much of a leader, but I cared so much about the team and was willing to do whatever it took to make sure we won. So, before the season started, I called a meeting with about 7-8 of our most influential players at Buffalo Wild Wings. It did not go very well at all. First off, I had it at Buffalo Wild Wings, so 99% of our time consisted of us just watching sports, eating, and goofing off. I had never really led anything before, for the most part, and running a meeting was certainly not one of the tasks I had ever done before. Although I had good ideas, I didn’t know how to start it or what to say. The intent was to figure out how we were going to lead our team this year and figure out who was going to be in charge of what. We had a lot of seniors that year and I had a feeling that we needed to figure some things out before the season so that it did not become a problem (power struggle). Regardless to say, about 5 minutes before we were about to leave someone asked me what we were going to talk about and I just kind of froze. It was about 10 years ago so it is hard to remember all of the details but I remember questioning myself on if what I was doing was right and asking myself what right I had to force anything to happen for the leadership of the team. Our team had all of the talent in the world. Yet, there was something missing. That missing link was me as the captain of the team and my inability to do what was necessary.

I think these meetings are vital for a team captain to be able to initiate and lead effectively. It can be difficult to do if you have never done something like this before. So, I have taken some time to walk you through some of the things that you should be thinking about when initiating the first meeting as a team captain. Every situation, team, and leader is different. You will have to utilize your wisdom to know how to go about it the right way. Let me start by discussing why these meetings matter…

Firstly, it shows a lot about the buy-in on a team, when you have select individuals who are willing to take the time and effort to try and problem-solve current issues and foresee and navigate through potential ones. Leading meetings amongst your peers can be a daunting tasks. We believe that your willingness to be vulnerable is directly related to how much buy-in you have within the team and its mission.

Secondly, this is an excellent experience to go through as a leader. It is not easy to present, communicate, and maybe even argue certain points. It takes a lot of skill and wisdom to navigate through. The more you do it, the better you will get, and it is a very useful skill to have.

Thirdly, many captains and athletes will skimp their duties and make excuses for why they aren’t reaching their goals but real leaders get outside of their comfort zone and collaborate with their teams.

There are three main steps to initiating the meeting: the planning phase, the execution phase, and the review phase. Each one brings with it different questions and issues.


Planning


The first question is what is the purpose of the meeting?

  • What is the one question/ issue that you want to have solved by the end of the meeting.

    • It is vital that you have this answer and figure out if it requires a meeting or not.

    • There are not much worse things than a 2 hour meeting that was a waste of everyone’s time and nothing gets accomplished.


Who all do you want to have there?

  • Too many people can be inefficient, too few and you might not get the true feel or opinion from the team.

  • If you are initiating the very first athlete-led team meeting I suggest that you keep it between 3-5 people.

  • What happens when others hear about it?

    • Will it affect relationships on the team if they were not invited?

  • Should you influence someone else who is more influential than you to initiate it?

    • Some individuals at a young age find their calling to lead. However, stepping on the feet of the current senior leaders can be a mistake. If you feel it needs to be done, it might be wise to influence another one of the leaders of the team so that you can both run it together. You certainly want to have someone on your side going into the meeting.


Where should it be at?

  • The location of the meeting is very influential to communicating what type of feel the meeting will have. If you want a serious one, find a classroom with a whiteboard. If you want a more relaxed setting, go to a restaurant or someone else's house.


When should it take place?

  • It can take place in-season, pre-season, before or after practice, after a win or loss. I would recommend that you do not hold meetings only after things are going poorly for your team. It should be consistent regardless if you are winning or losing. If you are losing, then there is great reason to have it. When you are winning, it is just as important because, as a team, you are just as vulnerable at both the highs and the lows.


How long will it be at a minimum?

  • This will depend on what you want to hit. Your initial meeting will set the stage for future ones. You should always try to keep it shorter rather than longer. It will all depend on what your situation is but your goal should be to make it productive. Keep going until you have lost that.


What are the questions that you want the group to try and problem-solve together?

  • Depending on the situation, I recommend focusing on 1-3 main questions or problems that you want to solve. If you have a whiteboard, write the question on there and it should help keep you on track as the collaboration goes haywire.


What resources do you need?

  • Do you need a white-board? Pen and paper?


Do you send out all of the information and expectations beforehand? Along with the questions?

  • If you are having meetings consistently with the leaders on your team, I would say that each meeting’s agenda should be sent out ahead of time so that people can begin to think on their answers and be able to defend their positions and thoughts they have on the issue.


What are some of the things that could go wrong from having this meeting?

  • Try to think about what bad things could happen from initiating the meeting? Project some sort of risk assessment by understanding your audience. Do the other leaders on your team have big egos? Get angry and slighted easily? Are they petty? Do they hold grudges? Utilizing the questions you are going to ask, try to foresee how the conversation might go and where it could possibly turn for the worst.


Execution


There is a high percentage that the meeting will go to an entirely different place than what the intent is. More questions will pop up, more problems, etc…

  • What is your plan when this happens? Will you just let it happen and see where it goes? For how long should you stay off topic?


What can you do to stop it from getting emotional? Is it possible that the meeting to get emotional (pride, anger?)


How is the meeting going to end?

  • Will it be an awkward ending?

  • Try to summarize what the consensus has been on the points of discussion.



Review


At the end, you could have a formal after action report. This is where you go around the room and ask for feedback on how the event went. 3 sustainments and 3 improvements need to be made.


If you don’t feel like its appropriate then just reflect on it yourself and figure out what went well, what went poorly, and why.


How to give a pre-game speech

The pre-game speech is all about energy. Energy is critical for a team to stay united, to perform at peak levels, and to defeat an opposing team. What you are essentially doing during the pre-game speech is infusing energy into your team. It is Newton’s first law of thermodynamics in motion. The language that you use, and the way that you present it to your team, has the power to literally heighten their energy, focus, and performance. The following are seven tips that will help you prepare and think differently about your approach to this aspect of the game.

Tip # 1:

The pre-game speech is necessary. Emotional and mental control is key to victories. To be clear, emotional control does not mean less emotion. “The calm before the storm” cliche that some teams use is a copout for about 95% of teams out there. Your job as the coach is to bring out their best. Language is powerful and directly connected with feeling, meaning, purpose. Language is POWERFUL. The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis suggests that our language literally affects a speakers world-view and cognition. The right words said the right way can infuse individuals with motivation, and energy to wake your team out of its slumber.

Tip #2

Pre-game speeches are an art. A theatrical performance. Rhythm, tempo, inflection... it all matters.

Tip #3

You have to connect. Remember that it’s not about you, you have to have other-consciousness to connect with others. Be in the room, look your team in the eyes, feel the emotion, power, energy that is created in moments like this and if you are only centered on yourself such as on your fear and insecurities, you are going to miss the true power that a speech can give.

Tip #4

Incorporate the team. Don’t be the pastor...people want to be a part of something, the goal is to get everyone else on the rhythm that you are on. Find your voice, say your part, and then get them involved in your rallying cry.

Tip #5

The fifth tip...don’t copy it. Make it an original. This is not a law but highly recommended. If people have heard it before it loses its effect and power. You definitely do not want to repeat speeches game after game unless it is some sort of a tradition that your team does.

Tip #6

The sixth tip...only certain people should give it. Make sure you are one of those people. If the team doesn’t respect you or what you have to say then spare yourself and the team the painful and embarrassing experience.

Tip #7

The seventh tip...practice, practice, practice and have a plan. Being a great speaker takes time  but being able to give a great pre-game speech is a very difficult skill to master. When I gave my pre-game speeches, I practices every single day leading up to the game. I was a terrible public speaker and would frequently blank on everything that I wanted to say. I created a ratio of 10:2. I practiced and memorized ten things I wanted to say so that I could always communicate at least two things to the team during my speech.

Check out our Book

Want to learn more? Check out our new book called The Captain’s Playbook to learn how to be the best leader you can be for your team. Watch the video below for a much more detailed breakdown of an actual pre-game speech: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Q3rRGOH_Ac&t=566s