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