Team Captains: The Five Practices at Play in Sports

9/23/2013 12:00 AM ,

Being named captain of a sports team can be a rewarding experience. For many athletes, it’s a dream come true. It can bring admiration, recognition, and opportunity, and in many communities, a team captain is held in the highest regard. However, it also brings with it many challenges beyond those typically associated with being a leader as team captains must balance the multiple roles of leader and performer while integrating the roles of teammate and friend. They are equals with their teammates, yet different.

For the past 15 years I’ve been privileged to work with athletes, coaches, and teams at all levels—from high school to professional, NCAA to Olympic. Although I am often called on to help individual athletes with their performances, it’s rare when leadership and culture development aren’t also needed to cultivate the most consistent performance from each and every team member. This is particularly true at the collegiate level where student athletes are among the most visible young people on campus. Under scrutiny by the public and media, they must manage the pressures of competition within their sport, the pressures of academics, and the pressures of excellent time management. And because they are so visible, they face unique consequences to their everyday actions (from bad publicity to the potential loss of scholarship money when things go wrong). The important responsibility of guiding and directing team members through these challenges falls to the team’s captain, who often has little or no training. That’s where the work of Kouzes and Posner has served me well as a guide for helping young athletes navigate their development as performers and leaders.

I first introduced The Student Leadership Challenge and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model to members of a NCAA Division I athletic department seven years ago. As the department’s sports and performance psychologist, I worked with approximately 80% of team captains across 17 sports—on everything from life and performance issues to team leadership, assisted coaches and their staffs in developing their own capabilities as leaders, and helped teams collectively in their development. Over my seven-year tenure, The Student Leadership Challenge provided a powerful framework for engaging everyone in meaningful, concise, and productive discussions that led to lasting, beneficial change.

In a series of meetings held throughout the season, for example, current captains would come together to share challenges, ideas, and gain support from one another. Framing our work around The Five Practices model, we were able to keep clearly focused on helping these young leaders learn to understand themselves—their values, who they were as individuals, and who they wanted to be as leaders. Each session would begin with an introduction to one of the Ten Commitments, along with a sports-related example of the commitment in action, and include an activity (e.g., the Personal-Best Leadership Experience) to help engage everyone in the process. Using sample case studies, participants would divide into groups to discuss ideas about how they would handle the challenge presented if it occurred on their team, and then report out to the full group the approaches they had explored. Team captains also were given plenty of opportunities to practice “asking for feedback”: they would share with the group a challenge they were facing within their team and receive concrete suggestions on steps they could take to find a positive resolution. As the meetings progressed, captains would then report back to the group about an issue they shared, discussing what they had done, what worked, and what they thought they still needed to do better. Using The Five Practices framework and relating our discussions back to the model gave everyone a common language and structure as they worked to gain insight into their teams’ issues and learn new methods of intervention.

Toward the end of my time at this university, we started to expand the program to include potential future leaders as well. Coaches nominated underclass athletes who they thought might become future team captains. And in this way, we helped ensure that there was a strong pipeline of emerging leaders as their senior leaders graduated and moved on.

This long-view approach to leadership development also became part of my work with another team whose coach initially sought my help to build and sustain a more competitive spirit. Although very hard working, team members avoided challenging each other during practice because they associated those types of behaviors with being ‘mean’. By focusing specifically on two key Practices, Challenge the Process and Inspire a Shared Vision, the coach came to see that this was not a mental skills issue but one that involved leadership and culture change. Leadership development was essential in order to achieve her goal. As a result, we began working collaboratively to help the team as a whole learn how to work smarter, and find more comfort and trust in appropriately challenging each other. But to instill a sustained culture change, we knew we needed to develop good team captains this year and for the next year as well. So, in the off-season we launched a leadership development program with the full team (not just current captains) that incorporated a variety of concepts and tools of The Student Leadership Challenge. Over the next three months, we explored in-depth each of The Five Practices, discussing how the team felt it had fared the previous year in each Practice, what they wanted the future to look like, and defined key behaviors that exemplified that Practice. For instance, we had many discussions about what it meant to challenge and encourage competitiveness without being mean (or without labeling it as being mean), and provided honest peer feedback on each other’s abilities to challenge and encourage. In addition, watching the team’s practices to observe both coaches and captains in action, I was able to provide direct feedback and advice to help coaches understand more fully how to Model the Way and help team captains navigate through some challenging situations with teammates while also protecting their own individual performances throughout this change. In the end, the team was able to articulate a set of values (with behavioral descriptions) that they agreed would guide them on their journey. Declaring the next season one their best ever, team captains, coaches, and team members alike continued to positively challenge one another and nurture the talents of every individual on the team.

The Five Practices model has provided a great framework when working with team captains at any level, in any sport, to help them learn and grow as leaders. An awareness of some of the unique challenges of being a performer, teammate, and friend, in addition to being a leader, must be integrated into any development plan. When done well, it’s inspiring to be a part of that development process and be able to see tangible results.

Steve Portenga, Ph.D., is CEO of iPerformance Consultants, a technology company bringing performance psychology to people around the world. He helps bring out the best in team and leaders with iPerformance Consultants. In 2012, he served as the performance psychologist for USA Track & Field at the London Olympic Games. Steve is also an assistant professor of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. He can be reached at steve@iperformancepsychology.com.    

Category: Success Stories

What they are saying...

"Why wait to learn leadership in the workplace? Students can learn how to lead by using Kouzes and Posner's five proven leadership practices. [This] is the perfect guide for...[those] seeking to develop themselves for leadership."
– Howard T. Prince II
University of Texas, Austin

What they are saying...

"I've been teaching leadership classes for twenty years, and The Five Practices are, hands down, the best tool for helping students see both their inherent strengths as leaders as well as to further develop their skills."
– Britt Andreatta
University of California, Santa Barbara

What they are saying...

"[The Student Leadership Challenge] (book) is a gift to university educators who teach leadership courses or develop trainings. workshops, and retreats."
– Laura Osteen
Florida State University

What they are saying...

Corey Hill "The greatest part about being in the virtual community was being able to hear the instructors, talk about the material we were discussing, as well as having our own discussion as a class with our other classmates over chat. You got a lot of interaction with the material, a lot of takes and nuances on what other people were taking away from the material that I don’t think you would get in a traditional classroom setting."
– Corey Hill
Oklahoma State University

What they are saying...

"The Student Leadership Practices Inventory is the best tool I have used to help students assess their leadership effectiveness because it translates the concept of leadership into actions and relationships. By defining and measuring specific leadership behaviors, the Student LPI allows students to see how they are doing as leaders and to determine how they can improve."
– Cathy Early
National Interfraternity Conference

What they are saying...

"The student examples inspire the reader and show us that running into bumps along the way is not only normal, but that you can approach the challenges with confidence and practical solutions."
– Amanda Crowell Itliong
Stanford University

What they are saying...

"The authors set out to teach college student leaders to understand what it takes to be an effective leader, to inspire them to find their own unique skills and abilities, and to explore and discover where their leadership will make the most difference in the lives of others and in the success of their organization.  I believe they have succeeded."
– William L. Kibler
Mississippi State University
NASPA Journal, 2009, Vol. 46, no. 4

What they are saying...

"The experience of the Certified Leadership Training left me feeling more confident and equipped to provide better leadership training to my student leaders."
– Erica Lara
Nyack College, NY

What they are saying...

"The 5 practices are a must!  Demonstrating and understanding the [concept that] 'leadership is an art' that must be taught to our students was incorporated throughout the training."
– Jerry Alva
Texas A&M International University

What they are saying...

"This is a great opportunity for any person looking to develop a program that involves The Student Leadership Challenge."
– Miguel Trevino
Texas A&M International University

What they are saying...

"I am more equipped to develop a leadership program that will have a positive impact on the students at my institution."
– Andrew Moyer
Delaware Valley College, PA

What they are saying...

"Employers are looking for students who have content knowledge and practical experience working in teams and leading others. The Student Leadership Challenge is an excellent example of the behaviors needed to accomplish extraordinary tasks that can get you noticed by a potential employer."
– Kevin Bailey, vice president for student affairs
University of West Florida

What they are saying...

"Beth and Gary are so personable that I was totally comfortable asking anything. For a program with such vigor, these two facilitators do an amazing job of creating a safe, fun, and functional learning environment."
– Certified Facilitator Training participant

What they are saying...

"The Student Leadership Challenge is a gift to university educators who teach leadership courses or develop trainings, workshops, and retreats."
– Laura Osteen
Florida State University

What they are saying...

"Developing transformative learning environments for leadership education begins when we embrace the use of emerging technologies and social media to enhance student learning."
– Todd Foley, assistant director for the Student Involvement Center
Saint Louis University

What they are saying...

"Leadership is a journey of personal and organizational discovery… understanding that the best way to learn is to teach, we decided to take on the challenge of having our students teach others.
"
– Vince Bellafiore
Marmion Academy

What they are saying...

"We know that The Student Leadership Challenge is making a difference. Through continuous coaching and intervention, with the use of the Student LPI, we are helping to keep our young people engaged in the pursuit of exemplary leadership."
– Melvin Chia
Lifeskills Enrichment, Singapore

What they are saying...

"The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership are everywhere. And as important as it is to exhibit those qualities yourself as a leader, it is just as critical to see them in others, and to be driven and inspired by other people’s leadership.
"
– Nina Vasan and Jennifer Przybylo
authors of Do Good Well

What they are saying...

"Consider the college campus as a leadership laboratory—a place where students have multiple opportunities to practice their leadership skills and explore and develop their leadership identity.
"
– Marcy Levy Shankman
Cleveland Leadership Center

What they are saying...

"I am so passionate about leadership and making a difference and I truly, honestly, wholeheartedly believe in The Student Leadership Challenge model. It is complete, yet simple enough, for all to understand. SO very excited to share this model with others, both on-campus and in the community.
"
– Suzanne Von Behren, RN, BSN, University Wellness Services
Northwest Missouri State

What they are saying...

"I feel that a program like this could really work in helping to eventually change our culture within our schools, homes, and businesses. Although I am not a supervisor, I plan to implement the model fully in our office and look forward to sharing it with coworkers. I love The Student Leadership Challenge model and am so excited!
"
– Suzanne Von Behren, RN, BSN, University Wellness Services
Northwest Missouri State

What they are saying...

"The Student Leadership Challenge is one of the most robust teaching and learning opportunities we have as educators. The Five Practices are identifiable and learnable skills allowing an individual to improve by receiving feedback and observation and by setting goals.
"
– Jason R. Pierce, director of education
Alpha Kappa Psi Professional Business Fraternity

What they are saying...

"And so again [leadership development] becomes foundational, it becomes a foundational understanding of living your values, of challenging the process to make things better, enabling others to act. It’s not just delegating, it’s about giving people the passion and the power to it themselves.
"
– Matt Baker, Vice President of Student Affairs
Northwest Missouri State University

What they are saying...

"Within the academy, we are constantly seeking additional tools to assist us in teaching the valuable lesson of leadership development for students. The Student Leadership Challenge is an excellent resource to assist in the important goal of helping students to become better leaders and, ultimately, stellar citizens in the communities of the world.
"
– Victor K Wilson, vice president for student affairs
The University of Geogia

What they are saying...

"Student leadership challenges are quite similar to adult challenges, and yet they differ as wel­­l– in scale and in the power of peer perspective. Kouzes and Posner have constructed a wide and sturdy bridge across these worlds. My college students will find relevant lessons and great inspiration in the diverse and compelling stories that are retold. We’d have a lot less adult leadership problems if more teachers and students used this great book.
"
– Dan Mulhern, Distinguished Practitioner of Law and Business
University of California, Berkeley, and author Everyday Leadership: Getting Results in Business, Politics and Life

What they are saying...

"Kouzes and Posner provide a comprehensive, research-based, and values-driven resource that is packed with real-life examples. This book makes leadership highly accessible to college students and is sure to empower the next generation to tap into their potential as leaders and social change agents.
"
– Jennifer R. Keup, director
National Resource Center for The First-Year Experience and Students in Transition

What they are saying...

"The Five Practices has provided a framework for students to reflect on their leadership experience and restructure their philosophy and theories relating to leadership as they challenge themselves through these five practices.
"
– Amy Kuo, Somchanhmavong, associate director
Service-Learning, Public Service Center, Cornell University

What they are saying...

"As a Student Leadership Challenge Certified Facilitator I am excited about using these books to further aid me in developing curriculum and giving our students a tool to acknowledge and reflect on the concepts as they pertain to their own capacity to lead effectively."
– Deborah Mann, Student Leadership Challenge Certified Facilitator
BOLD Leadership Program, Cornell University

What they are saying...

"In our public service leadership programs and courses we will be able to easily use the many relevant and engaging activities and reflection exercises provided in this workbook. It will enable our students to better engage with and benefit from The Student Leadership Challenge, and will also help foster their personal leadership development journeys."
– Jon McConnell, associate director,
Haas Center for Public Service, Stanford University

What they are saying...

"Every young person dreams of doing something extraordinary. The Student Leadership Challenge provides everything this generation needs to turn a dream into reality."
– Brian C. Warren Jr., executive director
Sigma Phi Epsilon Fraternity

What they are saying...

"A book of genuinely effective activities for enagaging students at all levels, turning the novice facilitator into a pro. It includes easy-to-use concepts that readily apply to life as a leader, and is a real difference maker that fosters success!"
– Randy D. Grimes, human resources director
Duke University

What they are saying...

"A fantastic resource for leadership educators looking to further develop students’ understanding of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership in a tangible, hands-on way! It offers engaging activities that are sure to make an impact on your student leaders. This activity book is a great supplement to The Student Leadership Challenge, bringing the original concepts off the page and into the real world.
"
– Kimberly Piatt, coordinator of leadership development
The College at Brockport.

What they are saying...

"An excellent one-stop resource for activities to engage student of different learning styles. Students will find the experiential nature of the activities easy to comprehend and most importantly be able to see the relevance and application of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership."
– Melvin Chia, principal consultant
Lifeskills Enrichment

What they are saying...

"From what, to so what, and now what, this guide helps take educators on a journey of not only understanding The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership but also specifically on how to apply, practice, and teach the nuances of these exemplary leadership ways of being."
– Laura Osteen, professor of higher education, Florida State University
and director, Florida State’s Center for Leadership and Civic Education

What they are saying...

"The Facilitation and Activity Guide would have helped me not only to develop a better leadership program but to be a better leader myself. For those administering The Five Practices, this guide ‘Models the way’ and will be one of your best coaches."
– Sam Eriksmoen, former director, Emerging Leaders Program
University of North Dakota

What they are saying...

"Educators working at all levels will benefit from [The Facilitation and Activity Guide]. It is practical, applicable to diverse sectors, and works."
– Katie Burke, director, L.E.A.D. (Leadership Education & Development)
Florida Atlantic University