Developing Your Own Captain Academy

Recently I wrote about utilizing Google Classroom during the upcoming season to mitigate the risks associated with COVID. One idea included a Captain Academy (or Leadership Academy) to inform aspiring captains of the expectations that come with the role. I remember being selected as a team captain in high school. My first thoughts were not about the team. Being named captain gave me a bullet point in my college resumé and boosted my ego.

Coaches see it differently. They want the players to start thinking about the team. Superlatives like selfless, leader, and committed serve as qualifiers for the ideal captain to them. There is a gap between how the coach and captain interpret the role from the outset and it never closes. Teams that bridge that gap are more likely to have a positive experience and get positive results. I struggle with the process of picking captains, so this year I’m going to try the Captain Academy.

Why a Captain Academy?

The process for picking captains is ambiguous. Some coaches and teams have rigid requirements. For instance captains must be seniors, there is a cap on how many to have, or they cannot not be picked until the start of the season. It all seems needlessly arbitrary. Parents and kids feel cheated when they are not selected. The entire process which is designed with the intent of strengthening the team’s culture ends up sabotaging relationships. And more importantly, many of these roadblocks to becoming a captain are in direct conflict with the overall mission on and off the court. This is the mission for our program:

The mission of the Saugus girls basketball program is for student-athletes to grow as leaders in the present and apply what they learn as adults. We will reflect on the Pyramid of Success daily and positively encourage a deeper commitment to developing core values individually and collectively. We will be a competitive program on the court, demonstrate a growth mindset in the classroom, and uphold high character in the community.

Teams may differ slightly, but every coach and athletic director want the same two things. A good product on the field/court and an experience that transcends athletics. By denying a player the opportunity to become captain we are inferring to players that they are not capable of growing into leadership. That is partially why John McVeigh of Brooks High School refuses to name captains at all. McVeigh wants all players to embrace the belief that they do not need a title to be a leader.

The Role of Captains

Selecting captains is not the only ambiguous stage of captaincy. The actual role of a captain is also vague. Try this exercise. Write down the three most important aspects of a captain. Then ask your current captain(s) the same thing. There will almost certainly be some disconnect. And even if you agree on what a captain should be, the perception of how to execute will differ.

Coaches and captains want to make the entire team better, but the specificities of how to do that and what that means is uncertain. The best thing a captain can do is reflect on the captains that came before them and emulate them. Even that process is flawed because it does not help the new captains share their strengths. Coaches need to customize the role of each captain to make them successful in the role. In my current situation, it is as if these students were appointed for a prestigious job, but no qualifications were listed.

A Captain Academy can specify the exact responsibilities and expectations for each captain. In order for the Captain Academy to be successful, the student-athletes need to buy in. That is why the coach needs to listen to the captains and allow them the opportunity to negotiate their role and feel empowered to take unsolicited action. Teams that elect more than one captain can divide up responsibilities and even create new responsibilities based on the strengths of each individual. And slowly breakdown that captain’s exact role.

When do the Captains in Training Enroll in the Academy? 

The standards can differ slightly from program to program. In general, I would recommend a minimum of two years of experience in the program. That translates to student-athletes being enrolled in the Captain Academy during the start of their junior season so that they reach captain status heading into senior year.

Exceptions can be made for sophomores to enroll in the academy if there is a shortage of juniors in the program. Coaches usually anticipate the imbalance in numbers ahead of time and enroll a sophomore player if necessary.

The benefit of players spending a full season in the Captain Academy leading up to being named captain is similar to an internship. The juniors reflect on how to handle potential obstacles that occur in all phases (offseason, pre-season, and during the season). Once junior season ends, the players in the Captain Academy are invited to become captain. Assuming they accept, they will hit the ground running with the off-season responsibilities.

The Criteria for Enrolling in the Captain Academy

I mostly agree with Coach McVeigh’s perspective regarding every student-athlete being a leader. Unfortunately undoing the cycle of traditional team captains is not an easy sell to the other stakeholders in the program. Given that I want everyone to be a leader, here are the requirements:

First, the player must play at least two years on the varsity team. Second, the player cannot fail a class at any point after their tryout freshmen year. Third, a captain cannot get suspended at any point during high school.

Why Two Years in the Program?

I modified my criteria based on a conversation with Mansfield’s coach Michael Vaughan. Selecting anyone that is “old enough” appears to diminish the role of captain on the surface. That is until Coach Vaughan told me what “old enough” really means.

The players that are “old enough” are good enough to survive potential cuts as freshmen and sophomores. In addition to talent, these players want to return as sophomores and juniors – no doubt hitting road blocks along the way.  Passionate players and players that embrace the culture are usually the types that stick around. In a journey from fifth grade up until twelfth grade the amount of basketball players might go from forty to four. To stay with basketball for that long, is a sign that these three, four, or five are qualified.

Why No F’s?

 I think this is fairly simple. This connects back to the mission statement. If you only expect players to pass classes during the season, it is sending a message that staying eligible is the end goal. We want to promote education as the end goal. Not to mention there is a correlation with players that work hard in the classroom also working hard on the court. Perhaps your team is better served by a higher bar of no D’s or F’s. It can obviously be amended, but the point is you want to align with the greater mission of the school.

Why No Suspensions?

Once again, the message with no suspensions connects to our mission statement. Players must uphold high character in the community. Our players serve as camp counselors and clinic trainers to the youth players. They also are expected to make good choices in front of their peers in the classroom and on Friday nights. As John Wooden wrote, “Self-control of little things leads to self-control of bigger things.”

Measuring self-control in little things is very subjective. That is why suspensions are an easy tool to gauge character. Suspicions are measurable and irrefutable proof that a student-athlete violated our expectations for what a leader should be.

Exceptions to the Rules

All of these criteria have a counterpoint.

  • What if a junior transfers schools and is an exemplary team member? Are they precluded from being captain simply because they only played one year in the system?
  • If a student gets an F, but uses the experience to makes wholesale changes in their academic habits? What if it is a student that does not have academic support at home and academics is not really valued, but the carrot of being captain can persuade the student into caring about academics?
  • When a player gets suspended, owns it, and demonstrates genuine remorse should I forgive them?
Be Flexible

I am going to be flexible under the premise that these are still kids. People of all ages make mistakes and go through tough phases in life for a variety of reasons. Part of a great coach’s role is to be empathetic and help student-athletes get on track off the court. We teach persistence and growth mindset as part of our values. For certain players, your belief in them can help alter their decisions in the future. You could literally be the one person that appeals to a kid who otherwise has nothing. Players deserve the right to appeal the decision.

Have Some Standards

On the other hand, student-athletes that display patterns of poor decisions need to be put in their place. These three rules cast a pretty wide net for pretty much everyone to eventually be named captain. A player that only gets suspended one time is often not a coincidence. Perhaps you often notice other character flaws against them and the one incident serves as the concrete reason to strip the opportunity away. Academically, the player is clearly failing class because of effort. They cut class and refuse to seek out extra help. This is a player that still requires help and care, but the player is a poor example for younger players.

When the coach waives a rule, it will not be a secret. Get buy in from other players, coaches, and even the administration so that the rules maintain credibility. After all, these requirements are generally considered low standards compared to traditional systems for picking captains.

Remember the overall mission is to set adolescents up for later success. There is a balance between forgiving them and forgetting. In the real world, when people mess up we tend to remember them for their follies. A tarnished reputation in the small circle of a community basketball team is nothing compared to a tarnished reputation in the work force. Taking away the captaincy is not excommunicating the player from the team. Welcome them back, but remind the player and younger players that everything does matter.

The Curriculum Expectation for the Captain Academy

The idea for the Captain Academy came into view for me after reading Sam Walker’s book The Captain Class. I wrote an article on ten qualities all captains must have and shared it with the two elected captains of this year’s team before the onset of the offseason. We had a really good discussion over Zoom (by now we were in quarantine) and it hit me. These players are very likely to forget the entire conversation. One day is not enough.

Therefore each time we have a team event this coming season, players will be expected to read and respond to a vignette, a video, or an article related to captain expectations. All of it will be posted on Google Classroom for them. Players can either opt to respond to prompts in writing via Google Classroom or have a conversation with one of the coaches about it before or after practice. Since this season is going to be shorter as a result of COVID, I am going to add two weeks of time into the curriculum at the beginning of the season.

I do not want players to spend more than 10 minutes on any day and most days it will be five minutes. By keeping conversations and questions short, we can interleave small units of focus each day. The themes relate directly to the role of captain.

Curriculum Materials 

Here are some vignettes I created that are specific to issues our team faces:

I am trying to leave the tasks open-ended on purpose. Players need to think and make arguments. Once they make their arguments I want to affirm the players even if I disagree. I honestly struggle with my own answer to some of these, but it is important to know that we can struggle with these dilemmas and try to navigate them. If the players can be empathetic to these dilemmas themselves, they are more likely to be empathetic toward my decisions when similar situations crop up.

In addition to vignettes, there are endless other resources to tap into. Some are best with the entire team not just the juniors. Articles, YouTube videos, ten second film clips from previous seasons, etc. I am going to leave some room for new ideas to be shared as issues present themselves to my team and the teams of our rivals. That said, because of the variety of duties we already hold during the season, building a database of curriculum materials ahead of time is in your best interest.

From an organization standpoint, I am posting all the vignettes on Sundays. In Google Classroom, the players will still see one per day, but I don’t have to worry about remembering to post something new each day.

Template for a Captain’s Role

Coach Steve Boudreau and basketball trainer Rick Gorman shared a great role template with me in the off-season. I would like to do something in a more specific fashion with players in the Captain Academy. Here is a role template for a potential captain. I anticipate giving this out in the first week of the Captain Academy and modifying it based on the conversations we have as the season evolves.

One of the pet peeves for me are responding to text messages – particularly within a text thread. It is increasingly common for people not to RSVP when they are going to something. At the very least, captains need to be a quick voice in potential discussions about workouts or summer games.

Another pet peeve is how we treat stakeholders in the community. Each year we play an alumni game. High school players have no connection to those that came before them and are often shy. Whenever I go to college practices, I find it so welcoming that the players come over and thank me for coming to the practice. It takes very little effort, but my support level of that team rises as a result. The other stakeholder sits on the other end of the equation from alumni of the program. The players in elementary school and middle school often look up to the high school team. We need to be present for them in the same way that they are present for us. The energy of these young kids often make the difference in close home games.

Measuring the Effectiveness of the Captain Academy

There are more subjective measures than objective measures in this type of program. That being said, a rough before program and after program comparison can be made. I ultimately think there are three positive outcomes which will lead to better on and off court results.

Changes in the Present

First of all, the juniors in the program will develop as leaders during their junior year. As a result of our conversations and their reflection, these players will not need to wait until senior year to be better leaders. Each minimal investment will lead to small changes. In addition, as a result of conversations taking place with the juniors, there will be an overlap of any positive results that can trickle into the current captains.

Be in Better Position the Following Season

Secondly, I believe that the offseason will be better organized. Each year we try to take a different spin on what the off-season should be like. Overall, I think that the off-season is suddenly just thrusted onto these players. Coaches expect them to have a calendar on their desk and attend to it daily after one motivating conversation. It might work for one player, but basketball is not as high on everyone’s priorities.

What the players commit to doing in the off-season with deliberate language in their role is more likely to be carried out. If a player knows her role is to send three texts per week about a Monday 3 P.M. workout, it is going to be more effective than one text at 2:50 P.M. Monday.

Grow for Long Periods of Change

If the youth program has a fun time, they will keep playing. If the captains give the underclassmen the proper balance of feedback and love, they will keep playing and treat future underclassmen similarly. When the alumni are thanked for supporting the program, there is a level of pride taken from the community to support the team in the long term. And most importantly, for the captains themselves they will be better people. They develop proper goal-setting strategies, manners, the ability to make others better, and other lifelong skills.

If you as a coach are doing your job, you will grow too. The players need to be listened to. This generation is different and we need to embrace that. Cave to some of their suggestions and make the players feel empowered as they transition to the formal role of captain.

Conclusions on The Captain Academy

In the traditional model of selecting captains, what often happens is that the wrong player gets chosen. The idea behind the Captain Academy is that you anticipate the wrong person getting picked beforehand and pick her anyway. After sixty days of discussions, the goal is for you as coach and that player to be closer in appreciating one another’s perspective.

At the end of sixty days, the player might realize she is not capable or interested in being captain. That is ok too. Give the player the opportunity to refuse the role without judgment. If anything, this is the road less traveled. Most players aspire to fill this role. A player that is self-aware enough to know she will not fulfill the job demonstrates a life skill too. There will be opportunities, but it’s quite often about the fit.

The costs of running a Captain’s progress are limited, but perhaps I am blinded to them. Families might argue that it takes away the mystique of the position. I would argue that it adds to it since players will need to do more “work” than any captain before them to earn the role. Others might argue it diminishes the most deserving candidates. I would argue that the team is better with the less deserving candidates getting a genuine say in the process since they may end up disgruntled and alienated otherwise.

Ultimately the potential return on investment greatly outweighs the costs associated with a Captain Academy. I am excited to implement one for the first time this season. Given the nature of how so many things are being modified this year, I think it is the right time to try an experiment that offers much more upside than downside.

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