Ten Qualities a High School Captain Must Have

The end of the high school season is here, which for many coaches means it is time to establish new captains. Before I go into the ten qualities that a high school captain must have, I want to establish three important caveats.

First, players that are not picked to be captains can still be leaders. I define leadership as someone that makes others better. Every coach should try to cultivate leadership among all players at some point, otherwise the team will not be very good. The difference between a captain and a leader is simply that the captain is the face of the team’s leadership. They are the ambassador of the program that referees can seek out in heated moments of a game. These are the first place that coaches will look when they are at their wits end with a bad practice or a low-effort game.

Second, picking captains before the season can be dangerous if the captain or captains do not make good choices. Players should be reminded that failure to attend to academics, character, and leadership can result in being stripped of their role. Communicate this to players before they accept the responsibility that comes with the position.

Third, get a variety of opinions. One rival coach told me years ago that she always starts by letting the players vote. She was worried one year that players would pick a girl who was a negative influence, but ultimately the players had the same perspective as their coach. The girl received no votes. Many of the qualities that captains require have to do with what the leader is doing behind the scenes. The coach’s perspective is not the best one to have when it comes to these situations. Solicit teachers, the athletic director, custodians, etc. who see these student-athletes in the student light. Ultimately the player that you pick is going to be a huge reflection of the team. Just making the choice on your own as the head coach could prove to be costly down the line.

Here are ten qualities that a high school captain must have. For more information on the topic of captains, I highly recommend reading Sam Walker’s book The Captain Class. Many of the ideas mentioned here are amended from Walker’s book.

1) Captains need to set the bar too high.

There is nothing worse than a coach setting a goal for a team in a practice drill and the players shying away asking for a lower bar. Captains get excited by a challenge and are afraid of goals that are too easy. They find the value in hard competition. Likewise, in the classroom the captain works for more than just a grade or being well-behaved. They help their classmates and ask their teacher questions that won’t be on the test just because they are curious. “It’s not the coaches as much as one single person or people on the team who set higher standards than that team would normally set for itself.” – Mike Krzyzewski 

2) Captains pay more attention to the team than themselves.

It matters not how many points you score, how many minutes you play, or how much positive attention you are getting. The growth of the team is the captain’s primary concern.

3) Captains are not motivated by the glory of their title.

They are drawn to be captain because they wish to reinforce the message of the coach. In Saugus girls basketball that means the captain is motivated by the mission of the Pyramid of Success. In your program, the captains are motivated by promoting your team values. The captain is too humble to care about getting credit for team success. 

4) A captain gives a teammate feedback when they are wrong or out of line.

It is a bit uncomfortable, but teammates need to hold each other accountable. It is unrealistic that a player’s ten best friends are going to be in the same locker room. The captain does not seek friendship, she tries to do what is right. If the coach is the only one holding players accountable, then the team is going to be mediocre at best. The captain does not need to raise a voice or scold their teammate. In fact, captains and coaches should always try to differentiate between the error and the person. The error or habit is what needs to go. The person is already valued as a team member, and will be even better when the habit goes away. A calm explanation such as, “Pass right away after the player who just had the ball for four dribbles passed to you,” is all that is needed.

5) A captain communicates in micro groups to everyone.

The occasional speech is fine. Speeches used too often can be portrayed as self-serving. What captains do need to do is give one or two teammates encouragement off to the side if they are checked out. At halftime, captains should be heard for tactical errors they see. Reinforcing culture ideas or tactical strategies can be done by texting the whole team or just one player an hour before practice starts. “Today just focus on boxing out the entire time.” After timeouts as players walk back on the court, a captain should grab a teammate or two and reaffirm that player or reiterate a tactical thought the coach mentioned. Captains never stop communicating. Communicating is the path to how captains correct team errors. 

6) The captain is enthusiastic.

Captains rarely frown or show other forms of negative body language. They are almost never on their phones at practice because they are exactly where they want to be. When the coach has a new idea, the captain is open-minded or even excited at the potential improvement it could provide. Captains openly and privately find the opportunity to share their excitement with others. Their faith in the new idea is contagious and reinforces the coach’s confidence.  

7) The captain is “in the game” when she is not in the game.

Standing on the sideline at practice means that the captain is not in the scrimmage or drill, but she is still engaged. Echoing play calls, clapping, jumping, pointing, dribbling, smiling, or chatting with an assistant coach whenever she isn’t actually on the floor. And when she is not on the floor during the game, she is watching, thinking, learning, chanting, and anticipating. She is a student of the game at all times. 

8) The captain loves the off-season.

The captain plays pick-up games, summer league games, shoots at outdoor public courts, and dribbles up and down her driveway. Most importantly, teammates are constantly being pestered to join the party. “It’s way more fun when you’re there,” the captain reminds them via text. She knocks on doors and surprises teammates by saying, “I’m heading to the park, meet me in five?” The captain takes joy in the process of improving. The season might be months away, but the game is fun regardless of the time of the year for a captain. 

9) The captain does the unrequired work.

Without ever telling the coach, she makes it her job to put the balls away after practice. She sweeps the floor before practice. The captain cooks pasta and cleans her house so her teammates can gather before a big game. When the new player arrives nervous for tryouts that she will not make a lay-up, the captain patiently pulls her aside and shows her how. At youth clinics she makes the worst player believe in hard work. And when she is not asked to help at a youth clinic, she shows up anyway. An extra reversible is available in her bag in case her teammate does not have one. When she arrives, she gets laced up and picks up a ball without anyone telling her. She thanks the scoreboard operators and learns the bus driver’s name. She watches film, reads books, and watches college and professional games on television. 

10) The captain is aggressively striving to win.

By win, it could be the game, but it is more often the drill. Captains keep track of how many points they have or how many shots they made. There is a never give up attitude if the win appears out of reach. Captains recognize that striving to win is not the same as winning. Even in a 30-point game with two minutes to go, they are attacking the situation as if it is a tie game and imploring their teammates to do the same. 

2 thoughts on “Ten Qualities a High School Captain Must Have

  1. the one thing i would add is there is a “social” {for lack of a better word} element to picking a captain(s). the players & unfortunately parents have to be onboard that the kid picked deserves be the captain and earned it. being named a captain is a status symbol for the kid & definitely the parents. if an incoming freshman or a sophmore demonstrates all the qualities you listed above and gets named a captain ahead of a bunch of seniors on the team it could get ugly, especially with the parents. nothing derails a season faster than disgruntled parents. a friend of mine only picks seniors as captains with his thinking being that it’s hard enough to get seniors to pay attention to the coach, they’re never going to listen to an underclassman. enjoyed the article, keep up the good work. Go Sachems!!!!

    1. Amen Mike. I think that’s why it’s all the more important to reiterate that everyone can be a leader with the senior(s) that are not elected as captains if that’s the track you end up going. I think there are also steps to take if you are that underclassman in order to earn your teammate’s respect. That player cannot come out of the gates making demands or being negative. The captain should seek for opportunities to serve others. Many of the things on this list such as holding teammates accountable may have to wait until the second half of the season in this circumstance. That way the underclassman has established relationships and earned the respect from even the upperclassmen.

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