Captains in Training

What do you do when you want to send all your team captains to a leadership seminar? This author simply hosted one at his own school.

By Dan Cardone

Dan Cardone is the Athletic Director at North Hills High School, in Pittsburgh, Pa. He is a frequent contributor to Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.3, April/May 2004,

In some aspects, the role of team captain is very clear. They represent the squad at the coin toss, they often lead the warmup drills, and they are expected to be positive examples to their teammates.

However, beyond those basics, the finer points of their role often remain a mystery to them. "I know I’m not supposed to be a tattle-tale, but if someone on my team is abusing drugs or alcohol, am I supposed to tell the coach? If my teammates aren’t practicing as hard as they could, am I supposed to be the person to motivate them?"

In response, we started a team captain training seminar here at North Hills High School. Modeled on the leadership seminars that many state associations and the NFHS have implemented, it provides guidance to not just one or two athletes at the school, but every single captain of every team, including the band and cheerleading squads.

My goal for the seminars is to help our captains understand leadership and clarify the things that make each of these captains someone special. I want each of our captains to see that they possess unique qualities that set them apart from their peers and understand that they can use those qualities to become effective leaders.

At our school, some captains are chosen because they are more vocal and more outgoing than their counterparts. Others are chosen because they have demonstrated a level of maturity and a readiness to take on additional responsibility. Regardless of how different they are from each other, they all need to start thinking of themselves as leaders. No matter how they approach their position, they need to find the leadership style that will work best for them as individuals. The seminar is designed to help them explore what kind of leader they want to be—on and off the field.

Our first step in planning the seminars was to think about what we wanted to accomplish and develop a focus that would have the greatest impact on our student leaders. We decided on three goals:

• To help them discover what being a leader means, through discussions with each other and the inspiration of outside speakers.

• To give them specific direction on sportsmanship and preventing hazing.

• To show them how leadership can extend beyond the playing field and into community service.

We held three seminars this first year, one for each season, which included a mix of brainstorming sessions, open discussions, and presentations by guest speakers. We conducted the fall seminar on a morning in the summer, the winter seminar on a Saturday morning, and the spring seminar after school. We held the two-hour seminars in a large group instruction area, with our students seated in a semi-circle. Twenty student leaders attended each seminar, which included two to four student-athletes chosen by their coaches to represent each team, and two to four students from the North Hills band and cheerleading squads.

From the start, we thought it was important to include student leaders from band and cheerleading. I wanted to foster a sense of camaraderie between these two groups. Members of the band invest a great deal of time preparing for our games, riding the same distances, and making the same sacrifices—often with little recognition from our student-athletes. The same is true for our cheerleaders, who practice daily, paint signs, and work hard to foster school spirit.

We wanted to highlight their efforts and build a community where all our student leaders could support each other. So we used the seminars to make our athletes, cheerleaders, and musicians interact. The result was that they came to the realization that they have a lot more in common than they originally thought. The talents of some people may lie in music and others in athletics, but they are all here for the same reason: to develop those abilities and do the best job they can. Together they face the same challenge of learning to lead.

We start our leadership seminars with a five-minute introductory videotape provided by the NFHS on the value of high school athletics. As the athletic director, I speak for another five to 10 minutes, outlining what our students can expect from the seminar and my purpose in trying to help them define and understand their roles as leaders.

After that, we begin a 30-minute brainstorming session by asking, "What qualities are needed to be a leader?" Then we ask follow-up questions that lead to a discussion on the role of team captains. We talk about how leadership is the ability to influence the actions of others in a positive way and ask each other questions to continue the discussion.

Sample questions include:
• What is the role of team captain in your opinion?
• How are captains chosen on your squad or team?
• What does your coach expect from team captains?
• Why do you think you are a leader?
• What kind of leader are you?
• What qualities define good leadership?
• What kind of responsibilities do you have on the field? Off the field?
• What makes your role difficult?
• Why is leadership important to how a team functions?

Next, we conduct an exercise where the students have to put their leadership skills into practice. We put students from different sports together as a team and ask them to strategize on raising food items for our community service project. They are also asked to come up with a team name. It may sound simple, but our students are forced to challenge themselves and each other in order to get their task done. At the same time, they’re observing the different ways their peers take charge of a group. They are seeing what works and those things that do not work.

At this point, we often have our guest speakers talk about their own leadership qualities, and how those qualities have shaped their career paths. We had a sportswriter talk about his interaction with high school athletes, some of whom became professional athletes. And because we felt it was important to provide positive female role models, we invited the head rowing coach at a local university, who talked about her career path as a female athlete and now as an intercollegiate coach.

Our guest speakers talk for 20 minutes each, giving practical examples of what they think good leadership is and is not. The seminars give us a chance to bring in people who have been successful in their lives and can tell our student-athletes, "I remember when I was in high school and sitting where you are sitting right now, and that experience has helped me become a leader in my profession."

After our discussion on the role of the leader, we talk about the power of leadership. We talk a lot about how great leaders show respect to others and how our student-athletes can exemplify respect in two ways: through great sportsmanship and by preventing hazing.

Teaching respect and defining sportsmanship are important parts of the leadership seminar. Too many of our student-athletes are getting the wrong messages by observing inappropriate behavior from the collegiate and professional ranks. There are athletes who taunt and engage in other unsportsmanlike conduct, and that has filtered down to us.

We use the seminars to show our captains the proper perspective on interscholastic athletics, and a fundamental part of that is showing respect to your opponents. Treating people well is an important part of who we are at North Hills, and we do not want to lose sight of that. We make sure our student-athletes understand that they represent our school, and that our community sees respect as an important value.

At our winter seminar, we had an NFL official who resides in our community come in as a guest speaker. He talked about sportsmanship and why he thinks it is important. He cited the names of some professional athletes who are good role models. They understand that treating an official well is part of having a healthy perspective on the game.

So we ask our student-athletes to think about what kind of impression they are making: "How do you handle success? Do you carry yourself well, and tell your opponent that they gave a good effort? When you lose, do you handle it with grace?"

We then take the topic of respect to the next level by talking about hazing and harassment. Our coaches have talked to their athletes about these subjects, but taking the discussion straight to the captains adds impact. In our seminars, counselors who are well-trained in handling hazing and harassment go over our school district policy. They also educate our students about the myths and facts of hazing.

At the last seminar, the counselor started off by asking our students, "If you think there is no hazing or harassment in your school district, raise your hand." That was an attention-getter.

We want our captains to know that harassment is wrong, and if they see it going on, they should go to their coach, athletic director, or principal. We tell them, "There is a circle of silence surrounding harassment that has to be broken. If you see it going on, you have an obligation as a captain to bring it forth."

It is an important message for them to hear. When there are experts underlining our message, the students really listen. Now they understand that if the freshmen and sophomores on the varsity squad are feeling intimidated, it is the responsibility of the team leaders to make them feel comfortable. By taking them under their wing and making them feel they are a part of the team, the captains can set a tone that discourages harassment.

Each part of the seminar builds on the part that came before it. Once they understand what it means to be a leader, they can see the importance of demonstrating respect and good sportsmanship for their teammates. From there, we ask them to carry that kind of respect into the community, and we make sure they put those ideas into action by having them organize a community service project.

Athletes are naturally competitive, so we divided our teams into groups and began a competition to see who could collect the most food for the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank. To help convey that message, we brought a speaker in from the food bank who talked about community, hunger, and what the food bank does with its donations.

In the fall food drive, we paired our band with the football team, and had them compete against the cheerleaders and soccer, tennis, cross country, volleyball, and golf teams. In the winter, we put the varsity cheerleaders together with the swimming/diving and wrestling teams, which competed against the basketball teams and the j.v. cheerleaders. It’s a good way to make sure our captains keep interacting with the new people they met—but more than that, it is a way to create new bonds among all our student-athletes.

After the first seminar, the fall teams collected over 1,000 pounds of food donations. Our winter teams collected another 400 pounds of food. This culminated at a community pep rally where attendees were asked to bring a donation of food. We introduced our winter teams along with performances by the cheerleaders and pep band. We also played games like tug of war, the limbo, clothes exchange relay, and a field goal or foul shooting contest.

The community service project encourages our students to be leaders while helping those who are less fortunate than they are. They may only bring in a couple of cans of food, but if they can motivate the students around them, they can really make a difference for people who don’t have the means to take care of themselves. It goes back to respect—showing a fundamental appreciation for people everywhere and deciding to make a difference in someone else’s life.

I’ve seen a lot of good coming out of the seminars. We have been able to show our student-athletes that they have qualities that set them apart from other people. We publicly acknowledge their roles as leaders in front of the whole community at the pep rallies.

The relationship between our teams, cheerleaders, and band has remained very positive. I have seen the football team go over to the sidelines after a win and hold their helmets up to the band.

Our coaches have also appreciated the seminars. They’ve told me it has helped them think about better defining the role of their captains. Instead of just saying, "You are a captain," they are more clear in defining duties and responsibilities. Our student leaders tell me that they think what we are doing is worthwhile, and that we should keep doing it.

I hope to expand the seminars to include other schools in our area. As athletic directors, I think we all have a responsibility in the development of our student-athletes. There are a lot of life lessons learned in athletics that cannot be taught in the classroom. When we see leadership qualities in our students, we now have the means to foster those positive attributes.

Whether one is a coach, sport official, athlete, or fan, we are all part of the puzzle that makes athletics such a positive endeavor. We all need to continually educate our students and emphasize the responsibility we have in promoting leadership, sportsmanship, and community service.

One key to running an effective leadership seminar is listening closely to your student-athletes. Here are the impressions of three North Hills students who have attended this year’s leadership seminars.

Tressa Koch
Co-captain, Basketball
The seminar was beneficial and a lot of fun. As a senior, I learned it was important to make sure everyone on your team gets treated the same, to be careful not to slight anyone, and to always have a positive attitude. As leaders, we set the standards for everyone else. That really taught me that whatever I do, people are watching, and my actions need to keep spreading a positive message.

Before the seminar, I’d never really thought about being a leader. It was really neat to talk about it, and to become aware that as a leader, I’m in charge of the team, and the rest of the team is going to be watching me, to do what I do. So I’ve tried to become a very positive leader, to make everyone feel they’re special, and if they do something wrong, it’s no big deal.

We talked a lot about giving everyone mutual respect and treating others as you would like to be treated. Mr. Cardone showed us that our actions need to convey respect and good sportsmanship. I say more positive things now than I did before the seminar, and it’s helped bring a positive atmosphere to the whole team. Whether we win or lose, everyone on the court encourages everyone else. If you make a mistake, no one says it’s your fault, and that attitude starts with our leaders.

Amy Regan
Captain, Cheerleading Squad
The seminar showed me that being a captain means more than just telling your squad what to do. You have to motivate the people around you, get them spirited for the game, and let them know they’re doing a good job. You have to find positive, constructive ways to let people know what they need to work on.

Before the seminar, I was shy about telling people what they needed to do. Now, I’m confident that I really know what I’m doing, and that the rest of the squad needs to listen to me.

Angie Wargo
Co-captain, Basketball and Soccer
Last year, the chemistry was not very good on our basketball team. This year, our three co-captains worked really hard to pull the team together. The qualities we discussed in the seminar helped make a positive experience for the team. There hasn’t been yelling on the court, as there was in the past. Everyone just seems to have more patience with each other, and our coaches have been very positive and that helps reinforce our positions as co-captains.

Since the seminar, I’ve taken more responsibility as a leader. The seminar helped enlighten me that if we carry that positive attitude, the underclassmen will follow. Taking the seminar made me excited about the season, because I knew that if I really focused on being a good leader, I could make a real difference for the team.
— Kenny Berkowitz