Using a Captains Council to Grow Student-Leaders

“The growth and development of people is the highest calling of leadership.” – Harvey S. Firestone

How do you grow your student leaders? Leadership is one of the most important skills we can help our youth develop, and sports provides the perfect medium to practice and grow leaders. Surveys even show the vast majority of Fortune 500 CEOs were student-athletes in high school or college. While on the field, participation in interscholastic sports provides a great platform for honing leadership skills, this growth can be magnified with intentional off-the-field support by coaches and administrators.

As coaches and educational leaders, we sometimes make the mistake of assuming all of our student-athletes know what leadership means and what effective leadership behaviors look like. In many of our programs, teams vote for student-leaders without the necessary foundational information of what it means to be a leader or what expectations exist for captains. Subsequently, captains then “lead” with fuzzy agreements about what his or her job responsibilities include. Without guidance, they end up writing their own job description (and coaches end up frustrated).

In recent decades, the sports world has evolved to include a greater understanding of the importance of the mental-side of student-athletes. The same principle holds true for leadership, yet this area lags in support and training. Understanding the greatest influence we have on the student-athletes we work with might not be realized for years to come, transformational InSideOut leaders focus on the influence high school sports participation can provide. The formation of a captains group or captains council can help end fuzzy agreements and take your students’ leadership capacity to another level. Whether you have a great system in place or you are looking to start something new, here are some tips and considerations for a Captains Council you may wish to consider using for your own programs.  It is important to note—a Captains Council must be adaptable and tailored to fit your school environment. This is intended to provide ideas to improve and make your own!

  • Provide the student-athletes a good reason to show up.
    • Information and guidance, relevant discussion topics, engaging speakers
    • Food, spirit wear, other incentives
  • Make it required. If our practices can be required, so can something as important as leadership training. Of course, we want our leaders to show up willingly, however active participation in a captains council should be a requirement of being a captain.
  • Select a time when most students are available, so they don’t have to rearrange their schedules—the time when the council meets isn’t already “spoken for” by some other commitment in their lives. This could be lunchtime, before school, or an open class period in the day.
  • Consider a joint venture between principal and the AD. Give the student-athletes the opportunity to bring up and talk about issues that are current at school, whether or not they specifically concern co-curricular activities.
  • Recruit the help of your coaches and/or advisors. Before starting this group, get-buy in from your coaches by explaining your purpose and intentions.  Use your coaches as back-up for students that don’t see the value in participating.
  • Consider a training program for the students to supplement your program. The NFHS offers a free captains training program you can utilize here. This can reinforce what you are discussing in your meetings as well as provide students with additional resources.
  • Having a book discussion among your captains is a good idea. Among many great options, books such as Jon Gordon’s You Win in the Locker Room First and Joshua Medcalf’s Chop Wood Carry Water are great for discussions among team leaders. Arm your students with the resources to be successful leaders before the season in which they are to be captains.
  • Utilize outside resources as springboards for discussions and food for thought, Some examples:
  • Have your student leaders write their own transformational student-leader purpose statements.
  • Highlight and reinforce the core values you and your department wish to reinforce with your student-athletes. For example, if a core value is gratitude, take time to have them write thank you notes to someone important in their lives.
  • Take advantage of your staff and connections they have to arrange guest speakers. Think outside the traditional coach and leader roles. One of my best speakers to date was a vice president of a local medical device manufacturer.
  • Develop a schedule and stick to it.
  • Streamline communication. Figure out the best way to communicate with your group of student-leaders. Email? Text messages? A social media group? A free service such as Remind? Use your school’s announcements and keep your coaching staff informed to help with reminders.
  • Some conferences report great success leading captains training as a group. One model is to train captains during the previous season, three times a year. The ADs of the conference come together at one member school’s location and lead training sessions among the students from the entire conference.
  • Another best practice is to have a workshop or seminar with your captains and student leaders before the fall season. Waiting until school starts may mean the fall sports season is well underway already. Front-loading your training will help set the tone for the entire year.

Regardless of the format you chose, providing support to your student-leaders is the key. Our leadership can help set the stage for our student-athletes to experience a lifetime of success.

“Leadership is not about the next election, it’s about the next generation.” – Simon Sinek