Leadership Learning: Models of Team Leadership (Part I)

Throughout my years of working alongside collegiate teams and their coaches, I have
had the privilege of seeing team leadership models which work alongside models that aren’t as
effective (in my opinion). I have been asked a lot this semester about which models of team
leadership I have seen be most successful and which I recommend, so I decided to lay out some
aspects of effective team leadership I have learned over the years.

Disclaimer: There are many ways in which team leadership can be great, functional, and effective, so my way is not the only way. I am simply offering a provenly-effective model for which I have used in hopes that it will either help you and your team or allow you to mold your leadership model to best serve your team. This three-part series will cover Identifying Leaders and Team Captains (Part I), Non-Captain Leaders & Cultivating Future Leaders (Part II), and my preferred Model of Team Leadership (Part III) to wrap it up.

Identifying Leaders

Leaders on a team are often easily identified by a number of traditional leadership qualities such
as time on the court, confidence, clear decision making, and role modeling for other players.
While these are all important parts of leadership, they are not what makes a leader on a team.
There is often a disconnect between who has been given the title of “Captain” or “Leader” on a
team and who actually has influence over the culture and direction of the players. I have spoken
with a number of Division III volleyball coaches within the landscape about this and I have often
heard that coaches will initially identify future team leaders as early as the recruitment cycle.

This may prove to be accurate for some, however, I would encourage coaches to keep an open
mind and see who rises through the ranks in their first few months/semesters/seasons on the
team. I have seen far too many examples of the young man who the team wasn’t sure was going
to make it through the first season turning it around and leading the team to victory during his
junior/senior years; a true comeback story.

I use a different equation to identify leaders on a team when I am brought in to consult (or even
just asked my opinion). A few key aspects are on the top of my mind when looking for leaders:

  1. I look to see who other guys on the team turn to when something goes right, or something goes wrong. If there is a person on the team for whom other people are seeking approval or looking to see how they react, that usually indicates that person has perceived power on the team or has at least garnered the respect of his teammates.

  2. I watch to see who celebrates their teammates’ successes or moves to help a teammate who has just had a bad play. Whether they are on the bench or a starter, a leader will always be aware of his teammates and care for them in whatever capacity possible.

  3. I talk to players to see who is truly bought into the mission and values of the team, even beyond the gym and winning. True leaders recognize that their team’s success is far bigger than their own success and take it upon themselves to ensure their teammates are adhering to team standards on the court and within the campus community (socially, academically, etc.). This often means they hold other players accountable for their actions, encourage players who break team rules to talk to captains/coaches, and lead by example.

  4. I listen to hear which players are conscious of past teams’ successes and failures and are excited for the future teams’ successes and failures. A true leader understands that the legacy of a program is far beyond their years on the team. Learning from previous teams’ mistakes is a good way not to replicate them. Observing previous teams’ successes with an eye on how to make them your own, is a great way to use a program’s history to replicate a winning season. Being excited for the future successes of the program usually means that true leaders are not angry or anxious when a top recruit in their position is being looked at. They know good competition is a catalyst to make everyone great, valuing the team’s success over their own.

  5. I always look for the players who are focused on continuous improvement, those who always ask the “why” and the “how” questions. Too often, college student-athlete men look their coaches in the eye and say “Yes, Coach, I understand” when they actually have very little understanding of what is being asked of them. Finding a player who can appropriately ask questions to ensure a coach’s vision is properly shared is essential for identifying team leaders.

Team Captains

There are numerous models of team captains that I have seen in my years working with
collegiate athletic teams. There are teams who don’t have captains at all, those that have multiple captains, those who allow players to elect captains, and those where the coaches select captains at some point in the season. Are any of these wrong? Not necessarily. Are there models that exist that I believe are more effective for team dynamics and team success? Absolutely. I will discuss my preferred model of team leadership at the end of this series, but I first need to discuss the different types of captains.

Captains come in all shapes and sizes. They don’t necessarily have to be a senior, a starter, or the player with the best stats. Success on the court and success as a team leader are not one-in-the-same. Understanding this is the first key to working with team captains. Some of the best captains I have ever worked with are players who don’t always see the court but have a handle on their team and a relationship with their coaches that no one else can match.

Captains have to be someone who other players respect, not purely because they have been named a captain, but because they have put in the work to build emotional and relational equity with their teammates. This means getting outside of themselves, talking to players from every level of the team, and making themselves available for others as a team leader.

Captains also have to be in lockstep with their coaching staff and not just in a performative way.
Captains should be meeting with their coaches on a regular basis to either talk about team issues, talk about strategies, or just getting to know each other better so that they can communicate best during important times. There are NCAA rules and regulations about when players and coaches can talk about volleyball-related topics, but that does not preclude players and coaches from checking in, catching up on non-volleyball topics, and growing a healthy relationship in the off- season. If captains and coaches do not know how to communicate or do not see eye-to-eye most of the time, this will cause a clear and evident rift within the team and the program as a whole.

Coaches have to invest in their current and future leaders. They will be their best advocates during the players-only conversations happening outside of the gym and locker room. If a captain truly understands a coach’s mission and values, then that captain becomes a champion for the coach’s vision at all times within the team. Positive leadership like that is contagious and will spread throughout a team, if done correctly.

Finally, there are players who are captains because they are the best player on the team,
the “stud” of the program. Other players have been conditioned to follow them based on how they were brought up. These captains have usually not done the work to understand their influence is far beyond themselves. They fail to realize they are now responsible for their teammates as well.

Programs/Athletic Departments rarely provide standard training for team captains to learn necessary skills such as effective communication (speaking and listening), conflict resolution, strengths-based leadership, trust building, and how to champion team culture. Under these circumstances, “stud captains” are often left only with positional power as opposed to perceived power on the team. Captains like this are like building a house on weak foundation, they can usually hold the team up for a bit, but as soon as a storm enters the environment, things tend to fall apart quickly.

The next part in this series will cover non-captain leaders and ways to cultivate future leaders on
a team. The last part on this series will introduce a model of team leadership that has proven
successful within multiple programs.

If this resonates with you or you have questions/comments about this topic, feel free to email me at mark@frogjumpvolleyball.com. I love connecting with players and coaches throughout the landscape to talk about all thing’s leadership, mental game, and more! Hope to connect soon and be on the lookout for Part II of this series!