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What kind of Captain would you be?

Captains – Student Athletes guiding team culture

Wow – 3 year captain of the lacrosse team: Sounds great on a resume and college application. It’s impressive, indicates leadership qualities in a student athlete and the ability to garner respect from their peers.  But what does a captain do and how can a player become a good captain who guides their team culture rather than just having a title? Can a captain help shape a positive culture if the coach is less than?

Leadership is a skill, some kids have a natural ability but generally leadership has to be learned, mentored and modeled.  I learned this the hard way, picking captains my first year as a head coach and then being very disappointed when they didn’t step up to the job at hand. It finally occurred to me that they weren’t slacking off, they just didn’t know how to do it and what it involved.  This is a common problem among teams with a lack in leadership, and it’s something coaches in the lacrosse world –who often are already short staffed and over extended- don’t have much time to work on.

So, for those kids hoping to lead their team (captain or not) here’s a few thoughts to help them along the way.

How much influence does a captain or leader have on a team, really?  Actually so much that it can make even the bravest captain applicant nervous.  Captains set the tone for the team – if they goof off, generally everyone loses focus. When they work hard while asking others to step it up- their teammates want to comply. Younger players model their captains behavior and look to them to see what is appropriate and then they act accordingly. The future seasons will be based on the culture these newbies learn when they come up. They are watching you on the field, to see how you handle mistakes, bad calls, disappointments, frustration, as well as celebrations. They are watching you off the field, do you party? Drink?  Do you talk about other players in a negative way or do you point out their good qualities and stand up for your teammates? Do you stand behind the team standards and rules, and do you follow through on your word? Do you throw your stick and storm off the field or are you the one redirecting poor behavior by building confidence in your players, asking your teammates to respect themselves and the team, and focusing on things you can control instead? When you talk to the team is it focused on what everyone is doing wrong  so they hang their heads, or do your words drive them to do better with helpful corrections and believing they can do it? Teammates also look to the captain for advice, as a bridge between the team and the coaches, and for communications.

How can a captain affect culture?  The same as a positive, encouraging coach can work to create a nourishing, driven, and encouraging atmosphere, a captain with those qualities can foster the same values within the player structure, ensuring a growth focused culture is being built inside and out.  A team with an encouraging coach but a discouraging, blaming or even lazy captain will struggle to see their true potential- because the culture will be unable to take hold – the players on the team often model the behavior of the captain. Do you want a team filled with players who believe in bigger and better things and build each other up, overcome adversity with hard work? Or a team that argues, yells, looks for excuses, blows off practice and doesn’t work together? Have you thought about what your behavior models to the team if everyone were to copy it exactly? What if there were 25 clones of yourself on that field, what would the culture be?

But….What if the captain is the brightest and most upbeat person your school has ever seen grace a turf field, but the coach hasn’t bought into the positive coaching idea? Unfortunately this is a little too common among teams.  Here’s the good news….there are more players than coaches on a team, and the ratio of possible encouragement from players to discouragement from a difficult coach,  is in the players favor if they choose to use their numbers for good.  As a captain who is dedicated to helping players see first what they are doing right, believe that they have the ability to improve, believe that they are each an important valued player, you in fact can create that positive culture. It’s harder to do without a coach on board but it can be done. 

Remember though, that whatever can be done, can also be undone.  Players who use the coach’s negativity as a tool to bring them together, hash over and over again, and bond with, will get sucked into the negativity trap.  It feels like bonding, but when you bond over a negative by talking consistently about a negative person’s actions and how unfair they are, it’s actually tearing down the threads that hold a team together, disguised as unity.  The only way to feed that sorted kind of unity is to keep having a problem. That doesn’t seem like a solution at all, does it?

Avoid the trap instead, cancel out the negatives with positives.  Does your coach like to yell on the field when you make a mistake? Players can call out encouragements, have a mistake ritual that allows you to move on and keep playing and keep each other driven to find success from mistakes instead of frustration. Get together after the game and talk about who was getting it done, ask who needs help, build each other up, cancel out the negative you may have heard during the game from a sideline.

Our team has a great tag line, I got your back.  Anytime someone struggles, another teammate lets them know they have their back. That’s our cheer at the end of every game, a reminder of why we play as a team and not individuals.  The other day, I told my team I was sorry because I had felt like I had been too hard on them at practice. I was pretty tired and a little more grouchy than usual. One of my players told me.. “hey, its ok coach, I got your back”.  That’s the culture captains can build amongst themselves by keeping the negative at bay. You never know, maybe that less than positive coach will catch on, culture shift is a powerful thing.

Captains have a great deal of responsibility on their hands, but they hold the most amazing opportunity to help their team reach a potential that the coach can’t do alone. When captains take the responsibility to represent and lead culture, players buy in on what the captains choose to promote and model.

What kind of captain would you be?

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