Picking Captains

The difficult search for leaders in high school sports

Most teams have formal captains. All teams have informal, de facto leaders whether assigned or not. These two facts are sometimes equivalencies, and sometimes they are in opposition. 

The question of how to select captains for a team is tough to answer. For youth teams, the decision is somewhat easier than for high school programs: pick the more mature kids and those who are better players. The former will be less likely to throw a tantrum in the middle of a game or run away crying for no reason, while the latter will be a good example for the other players. Ideally, anyway.

Once you get to high school, though, such simple parameters are not quite good enough. High schoolers are as complicated as full-fledged adults, and often come with more turbo-charged drama! But, captains must be named if only to fulfill the formality of when referees call out the pre-game “Coaches, send in your captains.”

As a head coach

I’ve wrestled with this over the years. I’ve eliminated a few captain selection traditions that I feel are just arbitrary. For example, I don’t think captains need to be seniors. I don’t think there needs to be three. I don’t feel it’s necessary to represent each major discipline (attack, midfield, defense), and I don’t like elections by the players. In my own high school, the coach allowed the team to elect the captains. As a junior on varsity, I was surrounded by the seniors and told who to vote for. We all were. I would have voted for those guys regardless, but I know some others might have gone a different direction but felt they couldn’t. Plus, it’s a popularity contest, like a vote for Homecoming Court. That’s a great way to pick a smirking, smug kid who dabbed often when dabbing was cool, but no way to choose leaders. 

At one school, my assistant coach and I selected a sophomore who was probably the best player, a junior homeschooled kid who was the most mature and certainly a talented player by any measure, and a dynamic football hero type kid who had the swagger and confidence of a traditional captain. We had a little pushback on the first two. A few of the older players didn’t want to have a captain who was younger than them. There was some question of why a homeschooled kid should be the captain when the other kids “paid their dues” in the hallways (an actual quote from an actual parent, who apparently mistook this suburban high school for the set of West Side Story), but it actually worked out in the end as the boy selected was a humble but serious leader whom everyone liked and respected. It didn’t hurt that he was an absolute beast on the field. The team got behind them. The other guy was the heart of the team and pushed them with his indomitable spirit. Our final game was a playoff loss to the best team in the league. The opposing coach came up to me and commented that “Number ten…what an incredible player…he refused to quit. I’ve never seen anyone play like that before.  That was incredible to watch.” That was the third captain. He was the best captain I’ve ever selected.

The next year, hot off our banner captain year, we picked our goalie, who was an absolute wall, and a midfielder who could fire the ball at 106 miles per hour. The goalie turned out to be a petty, jealous, vindictive kid who actually tried to start a fistfight at halftime of our first playoff game—with our own player! In fact, he tried to fight the young man who we had named to replace the fast-shooting midfielder who, about halfway through the season, took off his helmet and threw it on the ground in the middle of a game, yelling, “I don’t care about this f***ing team!” The replacement went on the be the regional Player of the Year and could have played in college, but chose not to. 

So, bad choices.

Last year, we picked a kid as captain who was probably the most talented player on the team. He was a stereotypical “lax dude.” His long, curly flow protruded behind his helmet, he used the word “dude” to start every other sentence, and he reportedly blazed up some illegal substances on his free time. He was amazing during the tryout period: supportive, helpful, uplifting of his teammates. Once named captain, he became petty, blaming, and a selfish ball hog. If you didn’t pass to him, he’d yell at you. If you shot, he’d say he was open. He wouldn’t pass to you, though, and he would always shoot regardless of his location on the field. One day, he skipped practice, claiming he was sick. He wasn’t. Kids saw him out. His mom sent in a note to cover for him, so there wasn’t much we could do. Then he skipped a game to play hockey with his buddies. He was stripped of his captaincy immediately. 

Bad choice, again. The other players told us—after the fact, of course—that they all hated him and didn’t want him to be captain. That’s not great to find out when it’s too late.

The organic approach

This year, we tried an experiment. We didn’t name anyone. We told the team to get together at 4pm to start practices, stretch, warm up, and be ready for the coaches to take over their part after that. We coaches sat back and watched. Four or five boys attempted to lead. Some barked orders. Others tried to psych up players. What was fascinating was that a few of the boys had commented that they wanted to be a captain this year and attempted to assert their will on the team. Generally, the team ignored them. They’d say, “Let’s set up over here!” and the team would just walk past them to a small cluster of other boys who did not call out or command. The team just wanted, it seemed, to be where they were and to do what they did.

This organic approach showed that groups naturally want to be led, and that there are always some people who will take leadership roles. It also showed that, often, if given a choice, the group will not follow those it doesn’t feel fit to lead.  In a few days, three boys quietly took the lead. More importantly, all the others followed them. None is the yelling type, but all three are solid players…probably the three best on the team. All three are the ones who coach on the field, arrange the other players, and help correct errors. All are polite. None are mean or bossy, yet they certainly command the team’s attention and respect. I would argue that the team feels these boys have the team’s best interests in mind while some of the others just wanted to be captain, possibly for the prestige, maybe for the resume clout it would give them. 

Yesterday, we named these three interim captains. By sheer chance, it happens that they are an attacker, a midfielder, and a defender. We will see how they handle the official job and how the team reacts to the declaration that these three are in charge. What will the others who expressed interest in being captains do now that they know they are not getting the job? Will there be grumbling? Will there be factions? 

We will see. Teams are a lot like companies, but the difference is that the emotions run high and stress is rampant in a team format. Cracks can develop quickly under that kind of strain. It will be interesting to see how it all plays out. I wish them well. It’s a tough but rewarding job for any young person. 

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