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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Category: Success Stories