Captains – What are their roles? How many do you name? Are they all upperclassmen? Do you have a leadership council? There are various options when it comes to leadership and each team has to find what works for them. This past season we decided to not name captains. There were captains in previous years, but none were returning this past season. We started the fall with 13 new team members, in addition to 19 returners, so there were many diverse personalities we were facing. One head coach at the university was finding success without named captains, so after much debate, we decided to give it a try.
To give the players the tools they needed for this to succeed, we worked with a mental skills coach in the fall, a graduate student that our players felt very comfortable with from the get-go. He met with the players individually, in small groups, and as a full team to get to know everyone and assess what the group needed most. In the individual sessions, the goal was to address personal barriers to success and develop strategies that could be applied in practice or game situations to regain focus or build confidence. The smaller group and full team sessions were more activity-based, relating to trusting each other, productive communication, goal setting, role setting and of course, leadership.
After months with a mental skills coach and a fall season without captains, we were optimistic for the spring. We believed our players had all the tools to feel confident guiding each other and thought every team member would feel empowered to lead and step up regardless of grade level. We were hopeful the players would take more ownership over the program, set their own goals and hold each other accountable. Ideally, we would see a few individuals rise up and become captains without the title.
What actually ended up happening was the younger and new players still wanted to look to the returners, and the veterans felt they couldn’t or shouldn’t lead without the title of captain. We ended up with 30 players looking left and right for leadership on the field and in huddles, so by default the coaches ended up taking on captain roles. This was sustainable to a degree, but when it came time for an on the field gut check, where leadership truly shines and takes the team to the next level, there was not a consistent voice to rally the troops. A coach can motivate only to a certain extent, but to truly succeed, the motivation and the desire to win has to come from the players. Someone on the field has to rise up and either through words, actions, or a combination of the two, set the tempo for the team.
Our season without captains highlighted for us just how important leadership is to a team’s success and how coaches have to make it a priority to identify, develop, and establish leadership early on. We expected it to develop organically within some of the players in a captain-free environment, but that was not the case. We found several players did not want to be leaders and sought specific players when in need of direction. In our team’s experience, captains, or at least identified go-to players, proved necessary.
Leadership is not one or two of your best players putting the team on their back and leading by example. There has to be a vocal presence to really guide teammates in times of need. While having no captains may not have been the answer for our team this season, we do believe the players gained a valuable experience seeing their absence. Our returning players know they have to step up and be the leading figures for a successful 2020 campaign, on and off the field, and have already started practicing their leadership skills in summer coaching jobs, internships, and with our incoming players.