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The Leading Edge

Note: This is an adapted story whicvh ran in an issue of Coaching Management Football magazine.

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," said Jeff Janssen, founder and president of the Janssen Sports Leadership Center. "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," said Jeff Chandler, a former head football 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." 

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 said. "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, a former NFL player and former 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," said 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," McPherson continued. "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 authored a book titled "The Team Captain's Leadership Manual," in which he recommends that captains and coaches read a chapter each week during a 10-week stretch. 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," said Janssen. 

Chandler used ideas from Janssen's book the past two seasons and he would start the process 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," said 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."

The exact topic of the discussion is less important than simply having one. "As much as players want and need discipline," McPherson said, "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 has used is for captains and potential captains 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

In addition to working closely with their captains, some coaches form groups often called "leadership councils" to both spread the leadership duties and introduce potential captains to leadership concepts.

When he was the Head Football Coach at the University of North Carolina, John Bunting created a leadership council of 10 to 12 handpicked players, as well as three to five captains who are elected by the team, Bunting made sure that the pieces were in place to both provide direction and a collective voice for the team. He noted that after being elected as captains, which took place at the end of pre-season training, players were not allowed to be on the leadership council in order to keep the two entities separate. In most cases, though, the captains were players who have served on the council in previous years.

"The leadership council was there to give me feedback on the team," said Bunting. "I met with them every Wednesday morning for breakfast and bounced things off them relative to team chemistry. I'd ask, 'Do you guys see this?' or 'How's the locker room?' During the season, Bunting would meet with the captains every Monday for dinner. 

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 said.

"I treated my captains like colleagues," said Bunting. "I definitely gave them extra respect and when they did something well, I pointed it out to the other players." Bunting added that if those captains happen to do something wrong leadership-wise, he'd 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," advised 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 said.

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," said 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," said 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 added. "The time a coach spends on the front end creating great leaders is probably going to save them hours down the road."

The Team Captain's Leadership Manual is available fro download at: the Janssen Sports Leadership Center website, under "Free Coaching Resources: Evaluations."
 

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