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Leadership Lessons from a Terrible Sports Team Captain

Adapted from a letter I wrote to my daughter when she was elected captain of her high school lacrosse team.

First of all, congratulations on being named a team captain! You should be proud of yourself, and for good reason: your teammates and coaches see you as a leader. It’s a huge honor, and perhaps even a little humbling. So, take a second, stand up and take a bow.

I’ll be the first to admit it: I wasn't a particularly good team captain (and that's probably being a little generous...) Sure, I think I did some things well (solid on the field, good rapport with my teammates), but I was never able to figure out the intangible qualities that make a ‘meh’ team captain a great one.

One of my challenges is that I didn’t have a very good sense of what makes a good captain. Some people just know innately. They come with leadership qualities baked in. That isn’t me. Not by a longshot.

And so I’ve thought about it. A lot. Beginning with my own experiences as a captain, and continuing on through my work, coaching, parenting and reading, I’ve assembled a few ideas on what it means to be an effective team captain.

I hope you find these ideas and suggestions useful.

Show Up Early, Stay Late

This first rule for a team captain is probably the most straightforward (and, like most of the suggestions in this article, is also a great rule for everything else you do.) So much about being a captain is about setting a tone for your team. As a result, being the first to practice and the last to leave gives your teammates a highly visible and purposeful example for them to follow. If you’re committing more time than is required, they should be expected to as well. The extra time required to be early/stay late may create some added pressure on your time management, but it’s an integral first step for creating a culture of high expectations for your teammates.

More Work, Not Less

A little story: If you ever work (not play) for a baseball team, one of the things you’ll learn quickly is that doubleheaders are rough. As soon as the first game ends, there’s a mad scramble to clean up the stadium before the crowd for the second can be allowed in. It’s hard work, time is short, and people are cranky.

Red Sox Team President Sam Kennedy picking up trash.

The picture on the right was taken at Boston’s Fenway Park in between the two games of a doubleheader. The person in the white shirt is Sam Kennedy. Sam is the President of the team, the most senior executive of the entire organization. He’s out there with his sleeves rolled up, picking up trash alongside the team’s most junior employees.

As President of the team, Sam easily could have stayed up in his cozy office while keeping tabs on progress from there. Instead, he chose to leave his desk, roll up his sleeves, and lend a hand with the cleanup.

Too often when people rise to positions of authority inside an organization, they believe it exempts them from the sometimes menial tasks they didn’t previously enjoy. They believe their position of authority gives them the right to tell others what to do. This couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Good leaders understand that to create a healthy team, their visible actions are critical to success. For sports team captains, this means helping pick up the balls, making sure the water bottles are filled, and all the hundreds of other small things that make a practice or game possible are personally taken care of. When your teammates see you doing this, you’ll be setting a tone for the team.

So rather than directing the Freshmen to carry the goals off the field after practice, grab a corner and a bunch of teammates and do it yourself.

Which segues nicely into our next point…

Create Chemistry

Another story: I used to coach a girls lacrosse team, and we were pretty good. In the 3 years I was with the group, we came in 2nd in our region twice. The team was blessed with a lot of great athletes, but more importantly, they were all great friends. Everyone pulled for everyone. It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had coaching.

There was another team in our division that had a number of amazing players on it. Real Amazons. A few of them were better than anyone on our team. But we played them 8 times, and went 8-0 against them. That’s right, we never once lost to them. Yes, our girls were good, but so were the girls on this other team. So why were we so successful against them?

Then I started thinking about things I noticed when we were playing against them. For example, when they had the ball on offense, some girls would just not pass to other girls. Or when their coach called a timeout after we scored, no one walked with the goalie back to the huddle, and when she got there, she stood by herself. Once when a player dropped a pass, the passer stopped what she was doing in the middle of a game to criticize her.

That other team was totally devoid of chemistry. Cliques were everywhere, and were destroying their chances of success. All the team’s potential was wasted.

Not surprisingly, a captain plays a key role in helping create team chemistry. Make sure you’re not just playing and talking with your close friends and peers on the team. Reach out and connect with every player, particularly the new or junior ones who may be uncertain about their role on the team. By bridging gaps between different groups of players, the captain is able to help connect everyone and form a true team (rather than a group of people who happen to play the same sport together.)

In short, cliques destroy a team. Don’t stick to just your friend group. Move among everyone. Chat up the new players. Say hi to them as school. Warm up with a different group each practice.

Keep Your Cool

How do you react when the pressure is on? Or how about when a referee completely blows a call? How about when momentum starts to swing against you and your team?

Each of these situations is an “inflection point”. That is, each of these situations represent a singular moment that can create a shift in emotion or momentum for a team. And that shift can directly lead to a win or a loss.

As a leader, your team looks to you in these moments. Your reaction will set the tone for how your team responds in moments of adversity. If you fly off the handle or blame the referee or yell at a teammate for mishandling a pass, the team chemistry you’ve worked so hard to cultivate can disintegrate in an instant.

You can absolutely ask a referee for a clarification about a questionable call. That is your right as a captain. But be sure to do so in a calm, respectful manner and communicate the results back to your team. The message: “what’s past is past and there’s nothing we can do about it now. How we move forward together, as a team, in the face of this challenge is what will define us.”

Key point here: this doesn’t mean you’re expected to be a robot. But recognize the difference between playing with emotion or passion, and flying off the handle.

Between Coaches and the Team

Team captains occupy an interesting niche of space that exists between players and coaches. They’re definitely more than a typical player, but certainly aren’t quite a coach. So I suppose it’s safe to say that team captains have a foot in both worlds.

By straddling the gap that exists between players and coaches, team captains play an invaluable role in keeping a flow of information going between both groups. Coaches need captains to give them useful input regarding the emotional state of the team (are there cliques, are players unhappy, etc.), and players expect captains to look out for their interests (why they aren’t getting playing time, challenges with lingering injuries, etc.)

This role can sometimes present a delicate balancing act for a captain, because it can place them in difficult positions. Do you tell the coaches that the team is upset about a decision they made during a game? Or, do you tell a player that coaches are unhappy with his/her effort? These can be hard things to tell someone. In both cases, the easiest thing to do might be nothing and hoping a problem blows over. But doing nothing runs the risk of letting a problem fester. Doing so risks making someone temporarily unhappy, but potentially leads to necessary change.

Deal with Discord

Seasons are long, players are human, and conflict is inevitable. It might be between 2 teammates, a bunch of players, or even the players and the coaches, but rest assured it’s going to happen. It’s the captain’s job to recognize conflict and help address it.

This isn’t to say that dealing with conflict rests squarely on the shoulders of a team captain. There may be situations where you feel comfortable addressing an issue between two players on your own. In other cases, you might be uncertain of how to proceed. In these instances, your relationship with the coaches is key. Work closely with them to define the nature of the discord, and then figure out how you all together can address it.

But don’t delay. The longer an issue is allowed to take root, the more difficult it will be to eradicate it.

Also important: a captain can never, EVER complain, gripe, or otherwise sow discord in front of their teammates. This is an absolute, unbreakable commitment. Leaders who complain in front of their teammates (as a whole or smaller groups) are giving license for everyone else to do the same thing.

That doesn’t mean you can’t be upset or angry about something that happens during the season. You’re human, too. What’s essential, though, is that you find an appropriate outlet for giving voice to your frustration. Your coach. A coach from another sport. Your parents. A teacher. A friend you can trust to keep things in confidence. Any one of these sources can act as a sounding board for you to vent and constructively create solutions.

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