11 hacks to becoming team captain

Team captain. It’s often the highest position an athlete can aspire to. But how do you get there? We all look up to good leaders and happily follow them, but exactly what is it that they did to reach their position and become so respected? How do you gain the respect of your team mates, and the trust of your coaches and administrators?

There are 11 things that you can start doing today – before you have an official leadership role – that will set you on a speedy path to captaincy. For all the talk in universities over whether leadership is an innate skill or if it can be taught, on the sporting field it is more practical. If you demonstrate the following qualities and behaviours then you are leadership material. It won’t take too long until it’s recognised formally.

Even if you play an individual sport (or in a team of just two people like I do in beach volleyball), you are likely still part of a larger team. Perhaps you could become your club leader, state captain, or the flag bearer for your national team. Similarly, while this post is written with a focus on becoming a leader in sporting teams, the exact same principles apply in your career too.

Here are the 11 things that will make a difference.


1) Make suggestions

At age thirteen my mum taught me how to rule the playground. She meant it in the vein of teaching me leadership from a young age… I’m sure she didn’t intend to unleash a dictatorial monster in the school yard.

The advice was simple. Start making suggestions to your peer group regarding things you would do anyway. For example, if you always eat lunch in the same place, simply suggest ‘let’s eat under the oak tree like usual’. This gets your friends into the habit of agreeing with you. Until one day, you suggest eating somewhere different. If you have the respect of your peers, and they are already in the habit of agreeing with you, they will likely say yes. Over time, if you continue to make valid suggestions your peers will look to you more and more for leadership.


2) Arrive first, leave last

Humans have an uncanny ability to pay attention to the arrival and departure times of other people. I’m sure you can immediately think of someone who is always late – it doesn’t exactly inspire the highest regard for that person. Similarly, if you work in an office, people always know who stays the latest. It’s not logical, but we naturally attribute longer hours to harder work (this may be true, but it might actually be that the efficient and smart workers have finished the same amount of work by lunch time).

In sport, being early to every practice, and staying after to do a few extra drills or help pack-up will make a huge impact on how you are seen by the coach and the team. It doesn’t cost you much extra in terms of time, but it will go a long way to making you seem like leadership material.


3) Be really good

99% of the time the team captain is one of the top performers on the team. If you show all the qualities of a leader, but you are only average at the skills of your sport, then you will be missing a huge chunk of the respect you need from your team mates.

Being really good doesn’t only refer to having the physical skills to perform at a high level. It also refers to having a deep knowledge of the game, strategy and opponents. And it refers to you being able to bring the right mental state to every game. For example, if you blow up in anger when the umpire makes a bad call then you can’t be placed in a position of leadership as your team mates will mimic your behaviour.

This step may require that you put in extra practices. Or ask the coaches for more drills to do. Or ask the more skillful players on the team for help. Or seek outside help from a sports psychologist. Or spend hours watching tape of games. However you do it, you need to become amazing at your sport in order to be seen as a leader.


4) Add value

A leader isn’t the loudest voice on the team, but they are the most listened to voice. That’s because when they contribute to the conversation they have something worthwhile to say.

When you first join a team 95% of your time should be spent listening. Learn everything you can. Know the intricacies of how things work. Understand why things are the way they are.

Only when you understand everything, can you then think about how things might potentially be improved. You might question a process: ‘I know we’ve always done it this way but could we try it this way – I think it could be more efficient’. You could offer new insights such as ‘I watched a lot of tape of these opponents and when they play the ball in this formation the best defense is this’. Or you could think about the current situation differently for instance ‘I know we believe that our greatest strength is our speed running the ball down the field, but from our opponent’s perspective they actually fear our ball handling and rapid passing – we should capitalise on that’.

A follower comments on how things are, a leader comments on how things could be better.


5) Take ridiculous ownership

There is a broad spectrum of degrees of accountability when it comes to sports. You see it most clearly when an athlete loses. There is the player who blames everything but himself – ‘the tennis court wasn’t the correct bounciness and my racket unexpectedly broke in the third set, that’s why I lost’. There is the player who takes some accountability with comments like ‘the opponent played well, I respect their game, and they got a little bit lucky with a few shots hitting the lines’.

And then there is the athlete that takes extreme ownership. They may have tempered their answers for media interviews, but behind closed doors with their team, they take responsibility for everything. Didn’t win a tournament? It had nothing to do with the draw, your coach, your equipment, the weather or luck – you are responsible for training hard enough that even on a day when everything goes wrong you are still good enough to win.

Obviously, you can’t completely control everything that happens to you, but you can control your reaction to everything. And you can control your preparation. An athlete who takes extreme ownership believes that they are completely accountable for their results, and they are incredibly respected for that trait.


6) Give recognition to others

People like and look up to those who give them recognition for their efforts. Meaningful compliments are probably the fastest way to not only make friends, but also secure a leadership position. I know you’ve all felt the spring in your step when a team mate has said something like ‘wow, your serve has really improved this month, it’s a real weapon now!’

The most powerful recognition has three characteristics:

  • Specificity – be detailed, not general, about the good you see in the person
  • Authenticity – make sure the compliment is real and comes from the heart
  • Surprise – catch them off-guard to make it memorable

People look to leaders for recognition and acknowledgement. But you don’t become a leader and then start handing out compliments. You demonstrate the behaviours of leadership first – including giving recognition – before you become one.


7) Give 100% – never let the situation dictate your effort

When I competed in CrossFit, there is a curious phenomenon where the athlete who finishes last, on who’s face you can see the supreme struggle to lift the barbell just one more time, gets a standing ovation.

Why is that? It’s likely because we can relate to the struggle. And we would like to think that if the positions were traded we would show as much guts, perseverance and sheer effort as the person we are cheering on. The truth is, most people don’t.

When you are in the 4th quarter of a match and are down by an insurmountable amount of points most athletes go-through-the-motions of playing. There is a marked difference between their efforts in the final minute of a tied game, compared to the final minute in a game that’s already been lost. There is a huge difference between regular season footy and finals matches. Why? There shouldn’t be.

Effort is your way to shine as a leader. And you will shine extra bright in situations where others aren’t giving the same commitment to the task. If you are playing a team you can comfortably beat bring your A-game mentality and absolutely crush them. If it’s an exhibition match that doesn’t count for anything see it as a chance to hone your skills and your concentration and attack it as though Olympic Gold was on the table. If it’s a game you are losing, keep going as though you are tied – you never know what might happen. Just ask Steven Bradbury.


8) Help those who are struggling

If you are good at something, it is tempting to hang out with other people who are also good at it. I see this in girl’s sport all the time – friendships are formed on the basis of your skill level in the sport, as though that has a bearing on your personality. Taking the time to quietly, without fuss, and without asking for credit, help someone not as good as you is something a leader does. Do some extra drills with the newest recruit on the team. Include someone struggling physically in your conditioning program. Mentor a more junior athlete.

You’ll gain incredible supporters, and your actions won’t go unnoticed. Leaders work with all members of a team, not just their friends, and not just the top athletes.


9) Be the team spokesperson

A lot of people hate public speaking. For most of them it’s a scary experience. For a few high profile athletes they’ve done a million interviews with the media and are simply bored by it.

Be neither scared nor bored. Do media training. Work on your public speaking skills. Wherever possible stand up and be a voice for your team. Speak with honesty, integrity and humour. Take accountability. Heap recognition on your team mates, and thank yous on your coaches and support team. Be interesting.

Within the team you can also volunteer yourself to be a spokesperson. Be an representative of your team mates when raising concerns, organising a birthday gift for your coach, or running a group warm-up. There are plenty of opportunities for your voice to be heard.

The person who is seen as the voice of the team in the media and behind closed doors, will often end up becoming a leader of the team. Leaders must lead, and to do so requires that you are able to speak. So start to speak up now.


10) Lead the team off the field

Most team bonding happens off the field, away from the gym, and outside of the training hall. It happens in the social gatherings, the post-training dinners, the travel to events. In order to be seen as a leader on the field, start leading in the social arena first.

You don’t necessarily need to take on all the organising duties of large-scale social events. You can start by simply suggesting a quick bite to eat together after practice. Or bringing along a card or board game to entertain each other in the down time while travelling or between matches. Or buying the first round of drinks. The idea is to build small rituals, and regular occasions, for your team to connect and have a laugh.


11) Say thank you

When you are given a moment of leadership – formally or informally – remember that leading is an honour that your team mates have allowed you to have. So say thank you. It might be a quick slap on the back and a comment like ‘thanks for trusting me to call that play – I really appreciate your faith in my decision making on the field’. Or it might be a more formal statement such as ‘I’m honoured that you’ve chosen me to lead you, and I will put in every effort to not let you down. I promise to listen to all of your voices and to represent you as best I can’. The important thing is that you recognise that you have a position of leadership only through the support of others, and you thank them for that support often.

Without followers there is no such thing as a leader. Be grateful for those who are willing to follow in your footsteps. Even if you are not officially a team leader yet, any time you are a situational leader you need to say thank you.


That’s it. 11 ways to become a leader. You can take this guide and apply it to your sports team, your work team, your friendship group, and your community. When it comes down to it leadership is not something you are born with, it’s a set of behaviours and traits that you demonstrate consistently. True leaders and team captains demonstrate all of these traits before they are given an official leadership role. And if they do, when the time comes to choose the captain, they will always be first choice.

June 23, 2017