Season Captain

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


As the Fall sports season continues we see certain squads emerge at the top in conference competition. Their ultimate success might well hinge on dynamics within the team that aren’t as apparent as a won-loss record to its fans. Indeed the grounds for success were likely laid many months prior to the season as off-season training and skill development sessions got underway.

Leadership is essential in any successful organization, and in team sports it takes on special significance. Unlike in the animal kingdom, however, the best leaders aren’t simply the dominant alpha male or female. It’s a bit more complicated than that.

The best captains are not simply the most athletic players, leading point scorers, or biggest athletes on the team. More important than physical characteristics and popular statistics are the less tangible factors. Penn State volleyball coach Russ Rose pointed out a few such qualities in the 2010 captain Alyssa D’Errico, who played a significant role in that program’s record-breaking 109 match winning streak: “Alyssa is one of the most committed leaders we've had in the program. She has her hand on the pulse of the team and mentors and monitors as well.”

Hockey highlights a captain’s significance with a big C on the front of the jersey. Among the players most often mentioned as the sport’s best captain ever is Mark Messier, who captained teams for all three franchises he played for during the course of his 25-year career, and led two of them to Stanley Cup Championships. When asked what made Messier so special, teammate after teammate cited the fact that he simply helped them become better, individually and as a unit.

Researchers and coaches over the years have reached a consensus on the common attributes of top captains. They are reflected in the following terms and phrases: Committed to the program, team-first attitude, leader by example, honest, passionate about the sport, driven, able to inspire others, dependable, mature, and emotionally strong. Little wonder, then, that the best captains always seem to come through at crunch time, in close games, against the toughest opposition, and in postseason competition.

Athletes that fail to live up to the challenge of captaincy, on the other hand, can badly damage an entire team and program. Defending Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers discovered this the hard way as quarterback and captain Ben Roethlisberger’s irresponsible actions off the field led to the team missing the 2009 playoffs entirely. When the QB committed yet another ethical if not legal violation, the league suspended him for four games and the team stripped him from his role as captain prior to the 2010 season.

How can a coach keep from making a poor choice of captain? Head coaches take the task on themselves, or make the decision in conjunction with their assistant coaches. Some solicit input from team leaders or have the entire team vote. Many have the team vote and only overrule their selection(s) if the choices are inconsistent with the background and qualities previously cited.

Others try to inject more objectivity into the matter. For example, former college and NBA coach Lee Rose developed an extensive player rating system that took into account more than 50 offensive and defensive performance factors to determine players’ overall contributions to the team. Each factor was weighted according to its significance, ranging in values from +3 to -5. The captains of Rose’s teams were the players that scored the most points in the prior season. Rose cites many advantages to this approach, including the merit-based election process that eliminates charges of bias and the early designation of a captain that allows that player to lead the team through the entire off-season. So how did that captain selection system work for him? Quite well, thank you. Melvin Watkins captained Rose’s UNC Charlotte 1977 team that made it all the way to the Final Four, obtained his BA degree in economics, and has since coached for 32 years, including his present position as Associate Head Coach at the University of Missouri.

Some coaches prefer multiple captains to share the responsibility. In football, coaches often name or put to vote the captaincy of the offensive, defensive, and special teams so that each unit will have a designated leader. Co-captains are a fine alternative if each of them possess the desired qualities, get along very well with each other, and are supportive of the coaching staff.

Captaincy is a very important consideration in team sports. For the young man or woman, it’s a great opportunity to grow as a person and leader. For the coach it’s a chance to mentor an important team member. And for the athletic program it’s a good litmus test as to how successful it is in developing student-athletes with leadership qualities that will serve them well far past their playing days.