Category Archives: Captains

How Do You Pick Your Team Captains?

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I’ve done it all when it comes to team captains.  The team picks.  The coaches pick.  A combination of both of those.  I’ve even gone without captains.  I believe in team leadership and the athlete’s ability to manage each other and keep each other motivated through the normal highs and lows of a season.

But how do we stack the deck in the favor of team captains who will, you know, actually be good leaders?  According to How To Build A Team That Works by Tony Robbins, there are some things we can help our teams look for when voting and characteristics our captains can aspire to once they’re voted captain.

Some questions we can prep our team with before they vote for captains:

  • Can they do the job? Do they have the respect of their teammates?  Because if their teammates aren’t willing to follow them…can they actually be called a leader?
  • Will they do the job well long-term? No matter the sport, the season is long. No matter how well your team is doing, you’re going to have some downs that go along with the ups.  No matter how motivated the team, they’re going to have flat practices.  Can your team captains help the group through the tough times?
  • Are they the right team fit? I talked before about personality types and how important it is to know your team’s dominant personality and what it could be missing. If you’ve got a strong group of leaders who aren’t keen on getting the younger athlete’s opinions, you may want to stack the deck for your more collaborative personalities.

Here are qualities of good team leaders:

  • Envision an Outcome: Can they help the team come up with season goals and keep the group on track?   A lot of us coaches think this is all up to us, but I’d disagree.  We’re not with our teams more than we’re with them.  We need the captains to help us here!
  • Understand Others: Here I go beating the personality type drum again, but this is crucial. People are different and respond to situations differently.  Our team leaders can help us with team conflicts by understanding this dynamic.
  • Inspire Others: I’ve had players who inspired their teammates through their words, they could get everyone fired up for conditioning…which is almost a miracle. And I’ve had athletes who were inspirational without opening their mouth.  They basically shamed everyone into working hard because they worked so hard.
  • Understand Themselves: I don’t want captains who are pretending to be someone they’re not.  For example, you don’t want your quiet leader trying to lead a rallying cry at game time.  They’ll be stressed out and they won’t come across as believable to their teammates.  My general advice for captains is, “Do you”, with the caveat that they’re doing all of these other things.

Giving our athletes the tools they need to be leaders worth following has got to be a top priority for coaches.

Communication Principles For Creating A Leadership Strategy

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In the post, Do You Have a Leadership Strategy For Your Team?, I talked about the importance of having a leadership strategy: How do we pick captains? What characteristics should they have? How do we make sure the process is transparent and can be replicated from year to year?

So that’s what we’re going to focus on!

The following communication techniques are from this post and will keep us focused on our ultimate goal of creating an effective leadership strategy:

  • Formal communication:  I’m sure most of us do this whenever we’re in our captain-picking time of the year.  We say something like, “Hey, we’re going to be voting for captains in a couple of weeks (or whatever your time frame), here are some things we look for in captains.  These qualities should be present on and off the court.  Being a captain is a big deal, it’s an honor, so make sure you’re paying attention so that you can use your vote wisely.”
  • Informal communication: I use this in two ways.  The first being those players who I think will get voted captain.  I start talking to them about it at the end of our season…I want them prepared and I want them acting captain-ly so that they are seen as leaders.  The other way I use this type of communication is in weekly captains meetings where I ask the team leaders how things are going.  Early in the season, I may ask if any of the newbies are feeling homesick.  Later in the season, I’ll keep checking in to make sure there aren’t any interpersonal conflicts that need to be addressed or to find out if the behind-the-scenes tone is generally positive.
  • Communication related to the organization’s rituals and symbols. Older players, alumni, coaches who’ve been around for a long time are essential to helping paint a picture of “who we are” and give context to team culture.  This year, we brought back a championship team to be recognized during one of our matches and our players enjoyed hearing from the alums and seeing the fire that was still in their eyes about competing in our gym.  Those folks can give a fuller picture of the impact being a team leader has had on their life.
  • The messages that leaders send through their every action. I think we, as coaches, are pretty aware of this, but are our athletes?  I’m one of those fake it ‘til you make it kind of coaches.  I tell my team (at least) weekly that their enthusiasm for being at practice isn’t as important as everyone (the coaches, their teammates) thinking they’re enthusiastic about being at practice.  Didn’t do well on a test? I shouldn’t be able to tell by looking at them.  Got in a fight with their best friend?  They should be the loudest talkers in the gym.  A freshmen took a senior’s starting spot?  That senior should be screaming her face off in support.  Leaders/captains put the team first.  This could be the greatest gift we give our players: the ability to control their emotions and how they express them.

I like this strategy!  These are principles from the business world that can be easily adapted to the coaching world.

Do You Have A Leadership Strategy For Your Team?

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One of the coaches I work with always says that we’re the CEO’s of our sport…we’re running the show.  So when I ran across this article (Why Every Company Needs a Leadership Strategy), it made me think about all of us head coaches who work so hard to create a winning culture, environment, and winning expectations.

We know we need leaders.  We know we should train them, but how?  Beyond that, do our athletes know our coaching priorities?  What will consider to be “success” at the end of the season?  Is it only winning?  Does winning without honor count?  Do they know why they’re on your team instead of at another school?  If not, we’ve got to create an information/training strategy that ensures that the same information is passed down year after year, team after team.

How about amongst your staff?  Is everyone on the same page as far as what you’re looking for?  Not just positions, but what about personalities?  Do you need more gritty players?  Or maybe enthusiastic players?  How will you tailor your recruiting schpiel to increase the odds of filling your team needs…both tangible and intangible?

There are three requirements for an executable leadership strategy with our teams:

  1. A leadership selection system, to ensure the team gets the leaders it really needs.  How do you pick your captains?  Does the team vote?  Do the coaches decide?  Does the team understand the requirements of being a team captain?  Are they able to opt out?
  2. Leadership development efforts that support leaders so they can adapt to the team’s needs.  Once you’ve got team captains, what training is involved?  How often do they meet with the coaching staff?  Are they given decision-making authority? (It could be something as small as deciding where to eat after the game.)
  3. A succession management process that identifies, accelerates, and supports the identification and accelerated growth of the next generation of leaders. That’s super business-y sounding, but it’s true.  We’ve got to identify future captains and groom them so they’re ready once they’re elected.  What would that process look like? Would it entail formal or informal training?

Personally, I need to think a bit more critically about how me pick, educate, and cultivate leaders on our team.  For many reasons: to make sure we’re being fair, to make sure the staff isn’t blinded by personal bias (sometimes you just love a player, but they’re not ready to be a captain), and to make sure the team buys in to their captains.

I’ll be back next time to discuss a communication strategy from this same article that will help us make sure the entire team is on the same page.

Helping Our Captains Lead With Integrity

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“The most effective form of leadership is supportive. It is collaborative. It is never assigning a task, role or function to another that we ourselves would not be willing to perform. For all practical purposes, leading well is as simple as remembering to remain others-centered instead of self-centered.”—Great Leadership Isn’t About You

Teaching our athletes to lead is a big job.  Failing to set the ground rules for what you want leadership to look like can lead to hazing, “mean girl” tactics, cliques, and ultimately ineffective performances. We can’t expect our athletes to know what we want if we haven’t explicitly laid it out for them.  In the absence of a coach’s direction, the athletes are going to fill in the gap and I’m sure we can all agree that that probably won’t go well!

I believe our team leaders want to be taught and I know our teams want to be led by captains who make it easy to follow them.  What leaders are easy to follow? The author listed some characteristics in the quotation at the beginning…those are a good start:

  • I rely on my captains to be a go-between. They work closely with the team as well as the coaching staff.  Ideally, they understand that they perform an important role in the team’s success.  They should be close enough to their teammates that they know when things are going a bit sideways and they need to tell the coaches.  But they should also know when not to tell the coaching staff.  My most effective team captains squashed issues before I even knew what was going on!
  • Our teams are faced with the conundrum of needing to be both collaborative and competitive.  If you’ve got two players who play the same position, they will both benefit from in-practice competition, but surely they know that once the whistle blows at game time, they’re expected to support the team…whether or not they’re on the court.  Collaboration should be built into our team cultures, our captains should always be looking to take advantage of opportunities to collaborate.  Asking the younger players questions and not creating a “captain clique” will help create those collaborative feelings on the team.
  • In the trenches. I don’t want captains who say, “Freshmen always do ________ (insert task here).” Freshmen (or newbies) shouldn’t always carry stuff, be expected to defer to upperclassmen, or be treated in a second-rate manner.  That kind of behavior signals insecurity in the leader.  It’s hard for players to follow a captain that lacks confidence and tries to raise themselves up by pushing their teammates down.  Everyone pitching in helps to create good feelings among the players, regardless of how long they’ve been with the team.
  • Other-centered. I’ve had captains who would stay after practice with a lesser skilled teammate and help them with skill work…that’s great.  I’ve had captains who’ve told me about a teammate who beyond-the-norm homesick…that type of concern is necessary.  And we’ve had captains who, after I’ve announced that perhaps an extended conditioning session would be more productive than working on skills, gather the team together to figuratively whip them into shape.

Of course I’ve had ineffective captains as well, but that’s not what this post is about!  It’s about giving our team leaders the necessary skills that make them easy for their teammates to follow.  If we set the standards high for our captains, they will rise to the challenge.

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A Coach’s Guide To Creating Harmony On A Female Team

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Mean girls.  We’ve all heard that phrase and I worry that we all believe it on some levels.  I’ve heard coaches, mothers, and female athletes themselves talking about how girls and women can’t get along and that their team’s had “girl issues.”  I don’t believe that issues or conflicts have a gender attached to them.  What I do believe is that women can, in fact, get along and they can compete (together!) at amazingly high levels.  So now, let’s look at the…

2 prevailing myths that too many people believe about female athletes

  • Myth #1:  Women aren’t competitive.
    This is usually uttered by the exasperated male coach of a female team.  Check out this scenario:  it’s game point in a close volleyball match.  The two teams are pretty evenly matched…they’ve been trading points the whole game.  Your team is about to serve for the game and the opposing coach calls a time out.  You huddle your team close around you and you look your server in the eye very intensely and tell her, “it all comes down to you Susie…we won’t win without you!”  You think you’re firing her up and showing her that you believe in her.  She hears: “Don’t screw up!  If you miss this serve, your team will hate you!”

    Women are very competitive and will rise to any occasion…together.  Studies show that women get onto teams to be a part of something and to socialize, then once they realize that they’re good, they’ll keep playing.  That’s exactly the opposite of guys who join teams because they’re good and happen to make friends along the way.  So, the moral of the story is, if you want to motivate your female athletes to greatness, remind them of their teaminess.  At that same time out, bring your team in, huddle them up close and (while making eye contact with all of them) say: “ladies, you all have worked your tails off to get to this point.  You’ve hit, you’ve passed, you’ve set, you’ve played amazing defense.  Now, Susie is going to crush this serve and we’re going to win this game.”  You’ve said the same thing as the first example, but now you’ve included her in a group effort.


  • Myth #2:  Girls can’t get along.
    If I could have a cause as a coach, it would be to eliminate the world of this perception that female athletes can’t get along.  You’re probably thinking…well Dawn, you coach collegiate athletes, but my middle school girls are ripping each other apart!  I’ve coached middle and high school as well as at the Division I and III collegiate levels and I’ve learned one major lesson:  the coach sets the tone.  It’s our job as the coach to understand what makes female teams tick and what motivates each athlete.  As Kathy DeBoer says in her book, Gender and Competition: How Men and Women Approach Work and Play Differently, “until recently, it was not politically correct to think of women as different.  If you said women were equal, then they couldn’t be different.  The wonderful news is we can now say women are equal and different.  And that’s a huge and dramatic breakthrough.”  So now that we know it’s kosher to say that female athletes are different than male athletes, let’s cut to the crux of the issue.

    The coach runs the show.  Do you secretly believe that females are “catty” or can’t get along?  Then that’ll come across to your team.  How?  You’ll let bad behavior slide because you think that it’s somehow a female trait.  If two people have a conflict and they’re men, it’s no big deal…if they’re women?  They’re catty.  So the first thing is to evaluate your belief system and make sure that your team understands what you will and will not accept.  I’m pretty explicit with my team about this whole “girls can’t get along” thing and how I think it’s a crock.  The next step is to empower them with conflict resolution skills and also to help them understand the different personality types and how they interact with each other.  I certainly don’t expect my team to make it through an entire season and not have issues that need to be addressed, but I haven’t given them license to brush it under the rug as “girl problems”.  Conflict doesn’t have gender and we, as coaches, can’t give our teams excuses to not learn how to effectively deal with those conflicts.

So I’m hoping that this has confirmed what you already knew about your female athletes: they’re strong, confident, competitive, and resilient problem solvers who will run through walls for their teammates and their coaches.

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8 Qualities Of Great Team Leaders

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Captains are important and serve a unique function on our teams, so I enjoyed this article from Leadership Freak, The Three Power-People You Need On Your Team.  I don’t want to get into whether you choose captains or you let the team, or whether or not your captains are always seniors, or whether you don’t have captains at all.  I want to focus on what qualities we should look for, and what we should coach the team to look for, in our team leaders.

What we should look for in team leaders:

  • Hard working. I don’t know about you, but my best captains have been the hardest workers.  When they asked the team to run through a wall, their teammates knew the captain would be right there with them…leading the way.
  • Strong opinions and emotions. They should be passionate about the sport, about the team, and about their teammates.  Ideally they’re able to harness that emotion into motivating their teammates.
  • Unflinching alignment with organizational values.  What is it you value as a coach?  Does your team know?  Do your team leaders/captains?  Is it being on time?  Is it extra film study?  Is it supporting teammates who play a second sport?  Whatever it is, make sure you make it known.
  • Comfort saying no. Good manners are nice but not essential.  I had a young lady who was a natural born leader.  She was strong and she spoke her mind.  One preseason, she came in and it was like a quiet, mousy alien had abducted her.  She was worried that she was too strong and was scaring the team.  I did my best to tell her the qualities she was trying to hide were her best qualities.  And not only that, they were assets our team was in dire need of.
  • Dedication to serve the organization before serving themselves.  There’s that servant leader concept.  Team before self.  The teams I’ve had who have suffered through lack of success were always lacking that team-first leader.
  • Strength to confront brutal facts.  What if your star player is out all night long making a fool of herself (however you deem it) before a big game?  Will your team leaders address it?  My best leaders squash problems before I even realize it’s going on.
  • Openness to change.  Let’s say you’ve got a team captain.  She’s pretty good, but you see with a couple of tweaks in her personality or how she communicates with the team, she could be amazing.  Hopefully, she’s open to getting better…not just on the court, but off of it as well.
  • Loyalty.  To the program, of course, but more importantly, to their best selves.  That may come across as kind of cheesy, but sometimes our team leaders are put in tough positions where they’ve got to make a decision that may be unpopular.  I’d hope they believe in the type of leader they are and can stand by it.



Once we’ve found these folks and they’ve been identified as team leaders, it’s our job to train them to lead.  So often we assume our players know how to lead, but they only know what they’ve been exposed to.  What if you showed them leadership videos on Ted or youtube?  What if you read them great leadership quotes and asked them what they meant to each one of them?  What if you picked a leadership book and read it with them?

Training our leaders may be just as important as training our sport skills.

What Are The Most Desirable Traits For Leaders?

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Did you know that there are twenty leadership qualities common to most organizations?  Neither did I, that’s probably why I found this article very interesting.  As we think of coaches we admire or players we’ve coached that have inspired us…it’s sometimes hard to put their leadership traits into words.  This list is designed to give us words for what we know intuitively about great leaders.

20 leadership traits common to virtually all groups

____ Ambitious:  Having a strong desire and determination to succeed.
____ Broad-minded: Open-minded to and tolerant of differing opinions and suggestions.
____ Caring: Compassionate and concerned with maintaining quality relationships.
____ Competent: Having the required knowledge or skill to perform a task successfully.
____ Cooperative: A team player who is interested in working toward the team’s common goal.
____ Courageous: Bold, daring, fearless, gutsy, brave.
____ Dependable: Reliable and trustworthy, someone the team can count on.
____ Determined: Not afraid to make a tough decision and willing to stand by it.
____ Fair-minded: Someone who is impartial and just.
____ Forward-looking: Someone who is up on the latest trends, ahead of the game, a visionary.
____ Honest: A trustworthy and sincere person.
____ Imaginative: A curious and creative person.
____ Independent:  A self-reliant person who doesn’t depend on others to make decisions.
____ Inspiring: This person can uplift the group with their positive energy.
____ Intelligent: A reflective and thoughtful person who uses sound judgment.
____ Loyal: Someone who is unswerving in their allegiance to the team and the program.
____ Mature: A wise person with a depth of experience.
____ Self-controlled: Self-disciplined and restrained, able to control one’s actions and emotions.
____ Straightforward: Honest and direct, you’ll know where you’re standing with this person.
____ Supportive: A natural comforter, this person willingly provides encouragement.

Different ways to use this list:

  • Self-assessment of leadership skills,
  • Pre & post leadership training for team leaders/captains,
  • Ask team to put qualities in order of importance regarding captains,
  • Ask team to put qualities in order of importance regarding coaching staff,
  • Ask each team member to pick their favorite from the list and explain their reasoning to the group,
  • Pick seven words that describe yourself,
  • Pick seven words that describe your ideal leader.


Challenge yourself

  • Pick the five qualities you believe are your personal best from the list.
  • Pick the five qualities you would like your team leaders to master.


I’ll step out on a limb for this one.  My five:  I am ambitious, competent, determined, honest, and self-controlled.  (This is tougher than it looks!  All of these traits are great, so it’s hard to choose.  As I go through the list, I feel as if I’m making judgments on the validity of the other traits, which certainly isn’t true.)  My top five for team leaders:  ambitious, broad-minded, cooperative, courageous, and inspiring.  Give it a try and see what you think.

This could be a great tool for coaches to use with their staffs…to see how they complement one another as well as with your team captains/leaders.  It seems that finding all of these traits in one person would be difficult to impossible…but it could definitely happen with a group of people.

How To Recognize Leaders Who Can Handle Crisis

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Cultivating leaders has been on my mind lately.  I’m trying to make sure that I do my best to create the best and most amazing leaders that I possibly can…I want my athletes to be rock stars!

What does an awesome leader look like?  According to this post, great leaders follow their values, are confident in crisis, and are well connected on the team.

During the course of a normal season, with its ups and downs, every team requires a leader who can handle crisis.  Check out the different ways leaders can help or hurt when your team is going through a tough time.

Problem Leaders

Awesome Leaders

  1. Value themselves above others.  They always seem to find someone else to blame for their problems and the problems of the team.
  2. Lack confidence, so they’re defensive.  Problem leaders feel that things are out of their control (“Susie doesn’t like me”, “Coach won’t play me because she hates me”, etc.) and will lash out to associate blame with anyone besides themselves.
  3. Don’t connect well with their teammates since they’re always looking for someone to blame for their problems.  This “leader” will say things to their coach like: “Susie’s not working hard enough in practice, that’s why we’re losing” or “Amy is doing who knows what on the weekend, that’s why the team isn’t playing well.”
  1. Value others and are compassionate.  Even in those cases where blame can be put on a teammate, an awesome leader doesn’t blame and never tries to do publicly what should be done privately.
  2. Remain calm and focused because they are confident.  They aren’t the start of gossip or negative energy on the team…and when they hear it, awesome leaders can nip it in the bud.  They are able to handle team issues with a sense of calm and poise.
  3. Are very connected to their teammates even while holding a position of leadership.  Awesome leaders see themselves as part of the solution, so they don’t complain to their coach after the fact…they talk it out with their teammates right then and there.  Since they’ve made such good connections with their teammates, their critique is well-received.


As we talk to our teams about picking captains or recognizing leadership traits in one another, this would be great information to give them.

3 Communication Tips To Help Women Get What They Want

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I often say that athletics gives its participants a chance to learn all sorts of life skills.  I’m going to quote the President of Beloit College (where I work!) as he talks about the benefits of sport, because he’s much more eloquent than I am:  “Athletics offers a particularly clear connection between high discipline and high achievement.  Being effective in front of a highly attentive external audience in a high-stakes setting requires years of practice.  Staying calm, rational, and productive when chaos is reigning around you requires practice.”

Good stuff, huh?

We have an opportunity to give our female athletes a chance to practice quality communication.  It’s not something that comes naturally for a lot of folks (hence the ever-present belief that women can’t get along), so allowing our team leaders to get practice at it will give them a leg up not only in athletics, but in life.  If you’d like, check out this video, Why women don’t get what they want, it’s only about three minutes long.

3 way our female athletes can practice great communication

  1. Be direct.  I remember a team where I had great senior leadership.  There were four young ladies who were equally strong, but in much different ways.  My two “fun” captains were always complaining that the underclassmen weren’t listening to them.  They’d say, “When we were freshmen, we just followed whatever the seniors told us to do.”  And that was the difference.  My fun captains were asking their teammates rather than telling their teammates.  Asking opened the door for folks to choose something that the captains didn’t want whereas telling would not.  Of course there are times for telling and times for asking, but our leaders can’t get frustrated when their teammates pick an option when given an option.
  2. Be a listener.  Over the course of a season, there are bound to be times when a player may not be getting along with another player.  I’ve often said the source of all “girl drama” is conflict left unattended.  We have a chance to show our athletes how to handle conflict in a way that it doesn’t escalate into an epic battle…with teammates choosing sides.  How is that, you ask?  Listen.  Rather than trying to shout each other down or make their own point, what if each player listened to the other’s concerns?  This may take some mediation by a captain or a coach, but I think it’s a great way for our players to practice conflict resolution.
  3. Be an “I”.  Many times, our team leaders may try to soften requests they have of their teammates by saying “we” want to do something…or even “coach” wants us to do this or that.  According to the expert in the video, that weakens their position and their authority.  I think this is an invaluable life skill!  If we could get our female athletes to practice owning their words, we can call our time with them a success.  Even if they are relaying information from the coaching staff, our team leaders could say something like, “Coach says we have to be more focused in practice and I agree with that, because I believe we can win conference if we practice at a high level all of the time.”


Sure, being direct, choosing to address a conflict, and owning their words can be scary for our female athletes….that’s why we want to get them some practice at it!  But as our college’s president said, athletics is a high-stakes game and it takes practice.  Teamwork takes practice, leadership takes practice, and communication takes practice.

If you liked this one, check out How To Equip Our Female Athletes To Be Leaders and 4 Steps To Communicate Competently With Your Team.

What Makes An Exceptional Team Leader?

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Lately, I’ve been assessing the usefulness of team captains.  Logistically, it’s nice to have them so that there’s someone to lead off-season workouts and things like that…but I’m not sure if they need to have a “captain” title in order to rally the troops to go to the weight room.

What happens when the leadership is in the lower classes?  What if we’ve got a sophomore who’s an amazing leader…but she’s on a team with four seniors?  That could be a team dynamic nightmare.

I believe in leadership training and its benefits to our athletes while they’re on the team and afterward…I just don’t know if they need that title to receive those benefits.  At the end of this post, I’ll ask for your help with a couple of questions, so be prepared!

3 qualities our captains should have in order to lead effectively

Clear strategic focus.  I know that seems obvious, but I’ve coached teams where the captains didn’t know what was important to them.  If it’s more important to the captains that the team jumps when they say to jump than it is for the team to accomplish its goals, then the focus is off.

Open to new ideas.  By the time players get to the collegiate level, they’ve been on many teams, been coached by many coaches, and have been led by lots of captains.  This means that, even though a player may not be a team leader, they may have great ideas about how captains should behave.  Great captains will listen to their teammates and maybe even take them up on a suggestion they make.

Forge strong bonds.  The best captains I’ve had mobilize the team and are laser focused on their goals.  They squash petty issues and internal fighting before I even know it’s happening.  They create time for the team to bond and hang out outside of practice time so they really get to know one another.  Great captains make the team into a family.

Questions for you, dear reader

Do you pick your captains or does the team pick?  How much input to you have in the process?  What about not having team captains at all?  Have you done it and did it work? What do you look for in team leaders?  Do you think the “captain” title is necessary?  Hit me up in my email or on twitter with your answers!

The thing is, great team captains are amazing…they can transform a team from okay and full of cliques, to united and focused.  On the flip side of the coin, bad captains can wreck team chemistry and any chance your team has at success.  Let me know what you think.

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