Leading the team: the role of a captain

By Taylor McKee

On Christmas Eve 2004, Theo Epstein, the general manager of the freshly crowned World Series Champions, the Boston Red Sox, presented Jason Varitek with a contract extension and a simple uniform modification. The letter ‘C’ stitched to his jersey symbolized one of the highest honours an active player can receive. In baseball, it is exceptionally rare to overtly display team captains in this fashion. But in other professional sports, including hockey and soccer, it is a time-honoured tradition to mark the captain with a special badge.

“It’s not every day you’re lucky enough to sign a player who embodies everything you want your franchise to be,” Epstein explained to the Associated Press about making Varitek captain. “When you have that player, you don’t let him get away.”

The Boston Red Sox are one of the most captivating organizations — becoming the captain of such a team is a high honour. Very few players are entrusted with the responsibility of becoming captain and it is a somewhat nebulous position in terms of job description. Whether it’s the captain of the New York Yankees, Green Bay Packers or a co-ed charity croquet squad, being a team leader comes with expectations and pressure.

Regardless of how captaincy is recognized, the importance of the role is acknowledged across all sporting borders, almost without exception. Despite the ubiquitous existence of captains in sport, the definition of a captain lends itself to a certainty of opinion, but may have little in common with the collective conception. The captain is accepted as a regularized component of sport and is expected to lead by example both on the field and in the change room.

Most athletes have a clear picture of what a captain means in the context of their own sport, but articulating what makes a good leader is exceedingly difficult. Canadians are acclimatized to visible captaincy through their experiences with the nhl. Any hockey fan can name their team’s captain and a legendary captain from hockey’s past. Gordie Howe, Scott Stevens, Mark Messier and Joe Sakic evoke the ethos of what fans expect of an nhl captain: courageous, talented, intimidating and successful. These standards are so clearly defined in the mind’s eye of a sports fan that the conceptualization of a team captain is engrained in an athlete from a very young age.

When a team falters during key stretches of the season or has a lacklustre effort in a rivalry game, the same nauseating sporting cliches often place blame on team captains. Commonplace to any radio station call-in show of a struggling sports franchise is the constant questioning of the team’s leadership or ‘core.’ This implicitly identifies something that seems obvious but is an interesting concept; the captain of the team represents the team’s intrinsic identity. However, this responsibility is not without inherent risk. External pressure to make changes to the identity of a team can result in a change in captaincy. After disappointing team performances, captains are not immune to challenges to their position. This was the case for forward Patrick Marleau, stripped of his captaincy of the San Jose Sharks prior to the 2009-10 nhl season. The team decided his leadership skills, or lack thereof, contributed to the team’s repeated failure and rather than trade the player, they chose to take away his leadership position. Alternatively, a captain who achieves success is forever known as someone who was able to elevate his team. The captain shoulders a large amount of the responsibility for the integrity of a team’s successes and failures.

The captaincy means different things in different athletic contexts. The captaincy of a football team does not rest on one singular individual to speak on behalf of the team.

Matt Walter, the Dinos football team all-time leading rusher and Calgary Stampeder prospect, said the roster size of a football team and the vastly different aspects of the game necessitate more than one captain. “In football, it is the leadership of a group that functions best,” said Walter. “Football is a unique game in the sense that it requires teams [that have] upwards of 50 individuals. Each team ends up being comprised of an incredibly diverse mix of people and personalities.”

Walter added that the captaincy of a football team should reflect the diverse group of players. “A small group of captains who each have different relations allows for the greatest sense of unity and structure within the locker room.”

Walter said football has a more nuanced understanding of the role of the captain on a team — the captain serves as a leader who is simultaneously accountable to his specialty and his team.

The captaincies of other sports rely on a single individual. Five-year veteran of the Dinos men’s soccer team and bio-medical engineering graduate Matthew Reid said the role of a captain on a soccer team is partially to make important decisions.

“On the field, a soccer captain takes the coin toss, making the game decision of which side to choose usually based on the wind and sun,” described Reid. “He is also the only player allowed to object to foul calls made by the referee, so other players tend to voice their displeasure to the captain to pass on to the referee.” The responsibilities of the captain also extend beyond the field. “Depending on the team, captains may organize players-only meetings, training sessions and also organize team-building exercises.”

An aspect of being a team captain is the role as a facilitator of team cohesion.

Both Reid and Walter have a similar perspective about what constitutes a good captain and a good leader. Describing the type of qualities he admires in a captain, Walter mentioned a militaristic flavour.

“Captains set the precedents and demonstrate the individual characteristics required to be successful,” said Walter. “A player with a strong sense of conviction and determination that is willing to go to the edge and backup the man beside him.”

The attitude expressed by Walter demonstrates a belief that the captain of a team is naturally accountable for the results on the scoreboard, but more importantly, a captain is responsible to his teammates for his efforts.

Reid echoed this sentiment: “I want the hardest-working player on the field [as captain]. I don’t care if he is the least-skilled player on the team and doesn’t say a word.”

A good captain then is someone who doesn’t play for the praise of fans — it is someone who plays for their teammates.

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