Why Can’t My Child Be Team Captain?

Question: My ten-year-old daughter does not understand why she hasn’t been named team captain in the past four seasons. The other day in the car, on our way home from practice, she asked me what exactly was the role of a team captain. She wants to know why she can’t be one. “They pick the same three girls as captains every season,” she says. “Jody because she’s the coach’s daughter, Kathy because she scores the most goals, and Samantha because she’s Jody’s best friend.”

Discussion: Teams do not need designated captains before high school age. In youth sports, captain roles are sometimes assigned to stroke the egos of “star players” and sons or daughters of team coaches. By naming captains, coaches set up an unnecessary and divisive hierarchy on teams at a time when children are very sensitive to distinctions. We don’t need entitled prima donnas. Coaches should strive to create a strong sense of team equality in younger kids. The role of a captain is to be the liaison between coach and team as well as a leader by example. Younger kids cannot be expected to properly carry out such a function until they have reached the age of fifteen or sixteen.

Coaches may claim they select captains democratically by staging team votes, but the kids who are elected tend to fall into one of three categories: the most popular kid; the best player; a child who is overly dominant or bullies. Few people would agree that popularity, performance, and aggressiveness epitomize the qualities necessary for truly good leadership.

Solution: We have to stop thinking of kids as adults. Although there are kids on youth teams with leadership potential, they may not yet be ready to meet such responsibilities. They are still too young. The coach needs to be the leader on youth teams. If he is not, it can open a leadership void that can make the kids confused as to who is giving them direction. A Lord of the Flies scenario can then come about, with the kids prematurely and inappropriately stepping into a role that is beyond their developmental ability. It’s important that coaches develop leadership qualities in all players without labeling specific kids. “Ths is a time to sow the seeds of leadership.

If your child’s team always appoints captains, approach the coach before he begins the selection process. Ask him or her to reconsider and explain your concerns. If a coach insists that captains are a team or league requirement, suggest that the role be shared by all team members. Rotate the captaincy from game to game and make the designation mean something. It shouldn’t simply be a license to show off an armband or a chance to call the coin toss. Ask the coach to give the captain(s) of the week a bonafide leadership task so kids can get a clear picture of what being a leader is really about. For example, the week’s designated captains can lead team warm-ups at every practice and prior to the week’s game, they can be in charge of equipment, or they can choose a theme that applies to a goal the team sets out to achieve each week (like teamwork, sportsmanship, or commitment). The captains can lead team discussions about the theme at practices and before the week’s game. The team can wear the theme as a message on their uniforms or helmets, or post it in the dugout or on the bench as a reminder of their efforts to achieve a collective goal. That way, kids learn that team captaincy is an important, challenging role, not just a glorified label. ♦

From Kim John Payne, Luis Fernando Llosa, & Scott Lancaster. Beyond Winnning: Smart Parenting in a Toxic Sports Environment (Lyons Press, Connecticut, 2013)