The Leading Edge

Not all good leaders are born that way. By setting clear expectations, providing the tools needed to lead, and maintaining open communication, you can develop stronger captains and a better team.

By R.J. Anderson

R.J. Anderson is an Assistant Editor at Coaching Management. He can be reached at

Coaching Management, 13.4, April 2005,

They can be signal-callers, role models, and the mouthpiece for your team. They are likely the best barometers of your team's frame of mind. And when they do their jobs well, they are extensions of you on the field and in the locker room.

With so much emphasis placed on character and team building, it is important to acknowledge and utilize those voices that resonate deepest within your team. Yet, it is not enough to simply appoint those young men as captains. They need to be given the guidance and tools that show them how to lead.

"We preach leadership, but very few of us teach it," says Jeff Janssen, author of The Team Captain's Leadership Manual and co-developer of the Carolina Leadership Academy. "Many coaches assume that their guys know what it means to be a leader, but a lot of players don't have that understanding. Coaches need to give those leaders some practical skills for communicating with teammates, working through conflicts, and refocusing the team when things are looking bleak."

While some coaches will argue that leadership is innate and needs only to be tapped into, there's little doubt that by defining roles, developing leadership skills, and empowering their captains, coaches can get more out of their leaders, both on the field and off. So how can you, as a coach, help your captains realize their full leadership potential?

Position Description
Before beginning to groom captains, a coach must first define the role. After all, the young men put into leadership positions must understand what is expected of them.

There are as many ways to utilize captains as there are coaches. But one constant among good coaches is that they know what they want from their team leaders.

Some coaches see the captain's role as being a character model. "I want a captain who's able to be one of the guys, but who holds himself accountable and to a higher standard," says Jeff Chandler, who recently retired as Head Coach at East Lake High School in Sammamish, Wash. "He needs to have the respect of his peers and be able to hold them accountable. As a result, the players perform better because they don't want to let their leader down."

The roles typically assigned to team captains range from the mundane to the subtle. "Coaches should talk to captains about things as basic as leading the team during practice drills," says Janssen. "More complex responsibilities include setting the mental and emotional tone of the team. They have to be the people who are enthusiastic, the people who still have some hope after a two- or three-game losing streak. And sometimes captains need to talk to a struggling teammate to find out what's going on and what will get them back on track.

"Their role is also to keep their coaches informed. This is a delicate issue because there are some things that coaches need to know about, but captains also have to maintain their teammates' trust and confidentiality," Janssen adds. "But it should be made clear that the captain's job is to be loyal to the coaches, while at the same time making sure their teammates understand where the coaches are coming from."

Throughout the season many coaches count on their captains to frequently take the team's temperature. To accomplish this, Janssen developed what he calls the Captains' Weekly Monitoring Sheet. "It's a simple one-page form which forces the leaders to take a look at where they think the team is during that week and communicate what they see to the coach," he says. "Are the guys focused or are they distracted? Are they fresh or fatigued? Are they confident or are they starting to wonder a little bit because they've lost a few in a row?"

Coaches should realize that multiple roles may require multiple people. Don McPherson, Executive Director of the Sports Leadership Institute at Adelphi University noticed that when he was a captain at Syracuse University in 1988. "We had three captains, and each one of us was very different from the next," says McPherson. "One guy was hard-nosed, another guy was the liaison between coaches and players, and I was basically the face of the team-the guy who represented the team publicly and gave the quote for the paper.

"I think consistency is the most important quality of being a captain," adds McPherson, who was a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy during Syracuse's undefeated run in 1988. "That means consistency on and off the field in how they conduct themselves."

Priming the Pump
Once a coach has determined what he wants out of his captains, he can begin the process of getting it. Few captains come to a team as natural born leaders, which leaves it up to the coaches to teach them how to do it.

Janssen's book features a 10-week plan in which captains and coaches read a chapter each week. Chapters include information on communicating with coaches, constructively confronting less-disciplined teammates, refocusing the team when it becomes distracted, and holding teammates accountable and to higher standards. "We ask that coaches and players dedicate anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour to sitting down together each week and making sure that the captains are getting what the coach wants them to understand," says Janssen.

Chandler used ideas from Janssen's book the past two seasons and believes the process should begin during the offseason. "I gave our team leaders a copy of the book, and from June to August we went through it a chapter at a time," says Chandler. "I asked them to read each chapter and answer the questions at the end, and then we met for an hour a week to discuss it. The more we talked, the more they started to understand what I was after."

Janssen's book isn't the only way to facilitate this learning process. David Elson, Head Coach at Western Kentucky University says, "Back in December, I gave the seniors the book, The 21 Indispensable Qualities of a Leader, by John C. Maxwell, and told them, 'I want you to read this, and we're going to cover four or five of those qualities each time we sit down.' And I want them to talk in the meetings. It isn't a lecture from me, but rather a group discussion about leadership."

The exact topic of the discussion is less important than simply having one. "As much as players want and need discipline," McPherson says, "they also need guidance and recognition in terms of a coach saying, 'I see that you're struggling. I was a young leader once, here's what I went through.' There's not much leaders won't do for a coach if they know that coach truly cares about them."

Since many student-athletes learn better by doing than by listening to a lecture, Janssen recommends that coaches look to activities that teach leadership basics. One method he recommends is ropes courses that require someone to step up as a vocal leader to solve problems. These activities can be done with captains only or tailored to incorporate the entire team.

Another tactic that Janssen uses at the Carolina Leadership Academy-a program that instructs captains and potential captains for every University of North Carolina team-is to encourage participants to interview other leaders in the community such as a school principal, another team's coach, a police officer, or any other person in a leadership position. The point of the exercise is to let captains see that leadership impacts many different areas of life, while also helping them build a network of people they can learn from.

A Team Approach
Just as most football practices include both individual and group instruction, some coaches use a two-pronged approach to develop leadership. In addition to working closely with their captains, these coaches also form groups often called "leadership councils" to both spread the leadership duties and introduce potential captains to leadership concepts.

John Bunting, Head Coach at the University of North Carolina, is integrating lessons learned from the Carolina Leadership Academy with his existing philosophies on structuring leadership. By employing a leadership council of 10 to 12 handpicked players, as well as three to five captains who are elected by the team, Bunting makes sure that the pieces are in place to both provide direction and a collective voice for the team. He notes that after being elected as captains, which takes place at the end of preseason training, players are not allowed to be on the leadership council in order to keep the two entities separate. In most cases though, the captains are players who have served on the council in previous years.

"The leadership council is there to give me feedback on the team," says Bunting. "I meet with them every Wednesday morning for breakfast and bounce things off them relative to team chemistry. I'll ask, 'Do you guys see this?' or 'How's the locker room?'

"The captains are in the inner-most dealings of team management and are charged with making decisions," he adds. During the season, Bunting meets with the captains every Monday for dinner.

In the year since the academy's inception, Bunting has seen a dramatic turnaround in the leadership of his team. He says that by first learning to become accountable for their own actions, younger players are stepping up and displaying the characteristics that could lead to them becoming a captain down the road.

"We had 15 or 16 players involved in the leadership academy-from freshmen to seniors," says Bunting. "And I expect them to advance in the leadership council and have an opportunity to become one of the team captains."

At Western Kentucky, Elson believes that good leaders beget more good leaders. To provide positive examples for younger players, Elson has set up a peer-mentoring program that partners a senior leader with a freshman or sophomore.

"A guy mentoring another player one-on-one and showing him that he cares-that's leadership," says Elson. "Leadership is not always the guy in front who's yelling and screaming. Leadership means doing something behind the scenes to show one of your teammates that you care about them-taking the time to sit down and talk with him, getting to know him, and helping him through a tough time.

"That builds a relationship, and if guys have those relationships and care about one another, you're going to have a pretty strong team," he adds. "You'll have that elusive team chemistry that everybody always talks about. Team unity comes more from one-on-one interactions off the field than from anywhere else."

Leadership education does not end with the leaders. To produce effective leaders, coaches must also make sure that the rest of the team understands what you expect. Coaches don't always realize that whether or not a captain's teammates respect him can be largely determined by how the coach treats his captains in front of the team.

"The coaching staff should empower the captains by saying to the rest of the team, 'These are your leaders, and we expect you to respect them because they are going to be the voice of the team,'" Janssen says.

"I treat my captains like colleagues," says Bunting. "I definitely give them extra respect and when they've done something well, I point it out to the other players." Bunting adds that if those captains happen to do something wrong leadership-wise, he'll pull them aside and talk to them privately.

Another way coaches can help to empower their captains is by providing them a say in the way things are done. "Provide them with opportunities to have input on decisions," advises Janssen, "whether it's about practice times, drills, or the disciplinary actions when people aren't doing what they're supposed to do."

Constant Communication
Just as a coach expects his captains to communicate constantly with teammates, he must also ensure that his lines of communication are open. "If coaches want their captains to be extensions of them out on the field, they have to extend themselves to their captains on a regular basis so they become a leadership team," Janssen says.

Weekly meetings are a common way of keeping in touch with captains. Less formal get-togethers can also work as long as the coach is sincere about communicating. "Nothing replaces having a sit-down, face-to-face conversation and just getting to know them," says McPherson. "It's a time when a coach can sincerely ask, 'What are you all about?' It's also a time for that coach to tell the player what he as a coach is all about."

While it takes time and effort to develop effective leaders, by investing a couple of hours a week to help leaders hone their skills, coaches can do themselves a big favor. "With good captains your job becomes so much easier because you have fewer headaches," says Janssen. "You don't have to worry about what guys are doing on weekends quite as much because you know that you have a solid leadership group that is going to hold them accountable.

"Developing their leaders allows coaches to spend more time on adjustments, game plans, strategies, and X's and O's rather than worrying about putting out all the other little fires in terms of chemistry," he adds. "The time a coach spends on the front end creating great leaders is probably going to save them hours down the road."

SIDEBAR: Making The Choice
What are the first steps in selecting team captains? Whether you choose the captains yourself, or allow the players to vote on the decision, some early legwork is necessary.

If you have the players elect leadership representatives, you still need to make clear what criteria they should consider before voting. From informal suggestions and pre-vote instructions to having the players formally evaluate their teammates on work ethic and character, there are a number of methods for getting your message across.

"An easy thing for coaches to do is create a job description for their captains-before they are voted on," says Jeff Janssen, author of The Team Captain's Leadership Manual and co-developer of the Carolina Leadership Academy at the University of North Carolina. "Think of some of the best leaders you've had in your program, and with them in mind create a precise description of the roles, responsibilities, and do's and don'ts that you need from your captains. That way all of the players will know what you're looking for."

To identify potential take-charge student-athletes, Jeff Chandler, who recently retired as Head Coach at East Lake High School in Sammamish, Wash., looked at the previous season. He had each returning player complete a year-end survey called the Top-Three Leaders List. The survey contained questions such as "Which three players have the best work ethic on the team?" and "Name the three people you trust the most."

The players who scored the highest comprised the players' council. Chandler says he had between four and 12 players on that council and divided it by position, class, and playing time. "I tried to get a good cross-section of the team so it's not made up of just the kids who are getting the headlines," says Chandler.

It helps to be open to changing the way captains are selected. What has worked the best in past years may not be the best solution now. "Each season and each group of kids might be a little different, so coaches need to get a feel for their team and find out what's going to work best," says Janssen.

Wes Littlefield, Head Coach at Messalonskee High School in Oakland, Maine, has taken a business-like approach to selecting captains by treating the entire process as a job interview. At Messalonskee, seniors who wish to be a captain are required to fill out an application and provide three reference letters before they can be considered.

Once those requirements are fulfilled, each individual faces a 10-person panel, made up of coaches, school board members, a teacher, and the town's chief of police. Littlefield says typical questions include, "You're a senior and you hear that another player went to a party. How do you handle that? How do you approach him? Do you tell the coaches, tell the other captains, or do you keep it under your hat?"

Most interviews lasted about an hour, but can run longer. "We had one kid who was a great tailback, but he was also a hothead," says Littlefield. "We wanted to make sure he would be able to control himself. So we drilled that kid for an hour and 45 minutes-and the chief of police handled the first 25 minutes by himself."

Despite the panel's best efforts to rattle him, that player kept his cool, and was named one of the captains. "He was under control his entire senior year and had the best year of his career," says Littlefield. "We basically used his captaincy to help control his temper.

"It's an experience that can be a preview for real-life interview situations," he adds. "Even today, that player tells us that his college interview was 10 times easier than what he went through to become a captain."

Selection Survey
Jeff Janssen, author of The Team Captain's Leadership Manual and co-developer of the University of North Carolina's one-year-old Carolina Leadership Academy, recently asked 150 high school and college coaches the question, "What methods do you use to select captains?"

33% let the players vote.
25% make the decision on their own.
16% do a combination of the two. They let the players nominate who they think the best leaders would be, but then the coaches have the final say.
6% automatically appoint the seniors to be captains.
6% use a unity or leadership council in place of captains.
13% decided not to name captains at all. They still had leaders but they did not want to use the term captain.

Checkup Time
To help a captain gauge what kind of job he is doing, Jeff Janssen, author of The Team Captain's Leadership Manual and co-developer of the University of North Carolina's Carolina Leadership Academy, recommends that twice each season, coaches initiate a review process that includes a self-evaluation, as well as evaluations from teammates and coaches. To facilitate this process, Janssen has constructed a 24-question Team Leadership Evaluation. He says the first round of evaluations should take place after the last preseason practice, and another should be held a third of the way into the season or at the halfway point.

"A lot of times a leader might think he's doing a great job," says Janssen. "But if he gets feedback from his coaches or teammates saying, 'We need some more things from you that you're not giving us right now,' then that captain can look to make some corrections and adjustments mid-season, rather than wait until the end of the year to find out he wasn't as effective as he could have been."

The Team Leadership Evaluation is available as a free download at:, under "Free Coaching Resources: Evaluations."

For information on the Carolina Leadership Academy, go to and click on student-athlete development.