Simplifying the Decision for Picking Captains

This past season my team had six captains. Most people just kind of looked at me when I said that. They did not come right out and judge me, but I’m guessing behind my back they thought it was nuts. I asked Mansfield boys head coach Mike Vaughan about what he does with picking captains. The first thing he told me was that his team had six captains at one point. Take that everyone else’s beliefs! A few years ago, Coach Vaughn picked out a few criteria to simplify the decision for picking captains.

The Criteria for Being Named Team Captain

Veteran Status

Any player that is named a team captain must be in the program for at least three years. Players need to be on the varsity team as a junior. If a player that is super talented transfer back to school or decides to come out on a whim, that does not mean they meet the team’s character standards. Being a veteran means that you respect the tradition enough that you chose to come back each year. Veterans are the source that a coach can turn to in order for players to police each other.

I think the reason is self-explanatory, but let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. Some junior moves to the community and does everything you ask and is a terrific teammate. You can argue that the junior is skipping steps culturally. The devil’s advocate can counter that the steps were met in the player’s first year in the program. In any case, there is time in the process to modify your rule. Maybe by February you tell the team that you are amending the criteria to fit this player. Or perhaps you get input from the current core of captains. The main idea is that even for a radical example there is a potential solution that can rectify the problem.

Good Standing in the Community

Players in the Mansfield program are expected to be respected members of their community and school. Academics is a significant part of that. Players that have F’s cannot be captains nor can players that are suspended at any point. Suspensions could mean for in school behavior or it could also imply that the player violated the chemical health rule.

Good Standing with Teammates

This rule might be a little more subjective. In general my view would be to be more lenient. Occasional flare ups are inevitable if your team is practicing the right way. What you want to watch out for is someone that is a consistent negative force. Never mind that behavior being a problem coming from a captain. That behavior will be a problem worth confronting well before a player’s senior season.

When a player is a good teammate, respects the community, and establishes veteran status they are a captain in training.

Small Margin for Error

Kids are prone to make bad decisions. Feel free to quote me on that. Coach Vaughan has a system in place to accommodate an adolescent error. That player can appeal the rule, but in the appeal he has to address the entire team. Some people might think that this is a soft condition, but I got the opposite sense. In reality, when younger players hear a teammate open up about a mistake they learn in a much deeper way than if the adults told them what not to do. Their peer relates a situation that they have encountered already or know that they will feel conflicted about soon enough. Getting that player to admit their mistake will give the younger player empowerment to not make the same error down the road. To me, this form of forgiveness is one of the greatest rewards a coach can witness.

Why Keep the Process this Simple?

The Old Captain Picking Method Is Flawed

The process used to always include two captains. If three players were worthy for the role, one of them got squeezed out. And worse, if only two were worthy it was possible that one still got squeezed out if the team voted the wrong player in. Coach Vaughan cited one season in which the players missed badly in the selection process. Leadership was deemed less important than popularity. Some players and parents want to be named captain so they can pop it on a résumé. I do not take up issue with this. I was one of those athletes once upon a time.

Does this Belittle the Role of Captain?

Every process and decision has unintended consequences. Coach Vaughan recounted a story from a recent captain. A member of the local media asked what it meant to be captain of the basketball team. The player shrugged and told the media member it is not hard to be named basketball captain. Coach Vaughan knew the player meant no harm. What the player said caused Coach Vaughan to reflect and reconsider if the captain role lost its sense of mystique and honor.

Finally, it hit him. Maybe once players arrive at their senior season the last step of the process appears easy, but getting to that point is a gauntlet. Mansfield can have upwards of 30 kids playing in eighth grade. When they get to high school that group gets cut in half. And as each year turns over, more players bow out for different reasons. At the end of it all, only about 10 percent make it to senior year. Enduring all the adversities and maintaining the self-discipline is not easy. Not to mention the inevitable lessons of learning to be a good teammate and other essentials that are developed through osmosis in great cultures. In other words, captaincy came at a cost of four years of physical and mental labor, not an after school vote or a gut decision.

Creating Roles for Each Captain

Last month Tewksbury Assistant Coach Steve Boudreau told me about creating roles for every player. Mansfield operates in a similar fashion at the captain level. Depending on how many captains there are, different players are given different responsibilities.

Practice Captain

The practice captain is in charge of getting in touch with teammates about when to be in the gym. They get the equipment ready prior to the practice. It could even be the person that mops the floor or figures out how to rotate the job of mopping the floor among teammates.

Academic Captain

Coach Vaughan told me that Mansfield has an academic captain as well. Among this player’s jobs is to announce when teammates get into certain colleges. I love this suggestion because I often forget to put myself in the shoes of the seniors. Valuing the next step in the education journey is something that every player needs to know we take seriously. Additionally this role can provide homework plans, midterm plans, etc. for the team. Players that value education less might not respond well to an adult. A same-aged peer might have an impact though.

Social Captain

If the team is getting together for a pasta party, meeting up for breakfast Saturday, etc. it is this player’s role. My team set a goal of six team gatherings this past season. Nobody really tracked it though. The social captain can be the one to make sure the team is accountable to grow together off the court.

Community Captain

Mansfield High School organized a food drive. Other teams have read to local elementary schools or run clinics for younger players. Asking the players where they want to make an impact is probably the first step. If it is an initiative led by the players, it will feel more rewarding in the long run. Coach Vaughan noted that people pay to see their team play during the season. Members of the community donate money to give them equipment, meals, etc. It is important that the players give back.

These are only templates for what a captain can be. Your system and culture likely yields a variety of other ideas to try. The main idea though is that each captain has a particular role to play within the construct of their leadership.

My Thoughts on Coach Vaughn’s Captain System

I have written in the past what traits a captain must possess. They are great for players to read and reflect upon when they aspire to be captains. Once it is time to pick them, it is really hard to gauge exactly how well different people satisfy different criteria. I also acknowledge that to some degree every player needs to be a leader. And when you have captains, you also have players that are not captains. The players that are not captains naturally might shy away from leadership opportunities. Why should there be a quota for leaders on a team?

I like the degree of transparency in the process that Coach Vaughan employs. Getting an F, playing in the program for three season, or a suspension are black and white issues. In terms of community standing, the administration and school community will take your side over the family. Veteran status might prohibit a once in a generation sophomore, but hopefully that player sees a junior season with you. Perhaps there are criteria to add or tweak, but overall parents and players are less likely to gripe if the expectations are laid out ahead of time.  Ultimately, I find myself evolving every season in my philosophy for electing captains. What I liked about what Coach Vaughan did is clearly lay out the criteria for electing captains so that players know what it takes.

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