10 Strategies to Strengthen the Critical Coach-Captain Connection

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

Coach K hit the nail on the head when he said, “You don’t just need a leader. You need a leadership team.” Ultimately, your team functions best and has the best chance of winning when you and your captains work together as a strong leadership team.

Unfortunately, coaches and captains aren’t always on the same page because they often don’t invest the necessary time to communicate with each other.

In fact, our surveys of thousands of captains and coaches at colleges across the country reveal that while 77% of coaches believe they regularly invest time to communicate with their captains, only 38% of captains feel their coaches invest adequate time to work with them.

What would YOUR captains say about how much time you invest in them?

With 77% of coaches thinking they spend sufficient time with their leaders and only 38% of captains saying they actually do, clearly there is a disconnect on many teams between the coaches and captains - which often means an even greater disconnect with the rest of the team. One captain remarked, “There is such a big gap between our coach and the rest of the team. I don’t think he even realizes it.”

Your captains are the critical connection between the coaching staff and the rest of the team. You need your team leaders to understand what you are trying to accomplish as a program, be the best examples of your team’s culture, help sell the team on your Vision, Values, and Standards, and hold people accountable who aren’t living up to them. All these critical things don’t just happen by chance but through developing a strong partnership with your team leaders based on mutual trust and respect. The only way to really accomplish this is through frequent, candid, and honest communication throughout the season.

If you want your captains to be an extension of you, you must extend yourself to them.

Based on actual suggestions from captains themselves, here are 10 things you can do to better develop and/or strengthen the critical Coach-Captain Connection with your team leaders:

1. Proactively Identify and Develop Future Leaders

One of the first things you can do to connect with your leaders is to proactively identify them and let them know how much you believe in them as current or future team leader. As Michigan gymnast Annette Miele said, “I gained so much confidence as a team leader when my coach asked me to be a part of the Leadership Academy. I knew my coach believed in me and my leadership.”

Just telling your athletes you see them as current or potential team leaders inspires a tremendous amount of confidence in them. Knowing that they have your support and backing helps validate them as leaders in their minds. Most want to step up to the challenge and prove to you that they are worthy of your respect as a leader. Expressing your confidence in them is an early important step in building a connection with them.

2. Discuss the Responsibilities, Risks and Rewards of Leadership

Once you identify your leaders, invest the time during your offseason or at the start of preseason to discuss your expectations of them. We do something called Onboarding in our Leadership Academies that comes from the business world. Onboarding is a 10-step process that is designed to bring leaders up to speed so they are ready for their all-important first 30 days of leadership - and beyond.

The first three steps of our Onboarding process have the captains and coaches meet to discuss the specific responsibilities, risks, and rewards of leadership. Coaches are asked to come up with their list of the Top 10 responsibilities they need most from their leaders throughout the year. Captains do the same and the two groups compare notes so they are crystal clear about what is expected of each other. They also then discuss the risks and challenges of being a team leader as well as the many benefits that strong leadership brings to the team.

This candid discussion about the responsibilities, risks, and rewards of clarifies expectations on the front end and helps solidify the bond of the leadership team. When you don’t clarify the expectations, you are apt to hear what one captain frustratingly said, “My coaches never gave me expectations or roles to play as a leader and never held meetings with me. I was never kept in the loop so I could lead more effectively.”

3. Weekly Check-in Meetings

One of the absolute best things you can do to build and strengthen your coach-captain connection is to schedule regular check-ins with your team leaders on a weekly, or at most, every other week basis. As one captain said, “We meet with our coaches every week throughout the year. We discuss issues going on in our team, positive things that are being accomplished, and how we can each improve to help take our program to the next level. Our coaches are there to offer advice and for the most part, really listen to what we have to say.”

These short, weekly meetings don’t have to be long but they keep everyone connected with what is going on. They provide captains and coaches with a chance to check in with each other to share successes, bring up any concerns, and develop a unified focus and plan of attack for the week. This dedicated time of just 10-15 minutes to communicate and connect is essential for creating a strong leadership team. To help guide the discussions, many coaches will use our Captain’s Weekly Monitoring Sheet found in The Team Captain’s Leadership Manual as a template. It quickly yet effectively allows the leaders to assess the status of the team and prepare for the challenges of the week ahead.

4. Start a Book Club with Your Leaders to Get on the Same Page

A great way to connect with your leaders as well as develop their leadership skills is through a Book Club. Assigning your leaders a common book to read and discussing the chapters on a regular basis not only introduces them to new insights on leadership but it also allows you to see how the ideas specifically apply to your leaders and team.

I really appreciate that many of you use our Team Captain’s Leadership Manual to train your leaders. In addition to the leadership concepts and strategies captains learn, many coaches tell me the in-depth and candid discussions they have with their leaders as part of working through the Captain’s Manual are absolutely critical in building and enhancing the connection of the leadership team.

In addition to our Captain’s Manual, North Carolina women's soccer coach Anson Dorrance uses the books Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl and The Leadership Moment by Michael Useem in educating his leaders. Other popular books include The Energy Bus by Jon Gordon and John Maxwell’s the 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership. No matter which book you use, a Book Club provides an excellent platform and discussion forum for you and your leaders.

5. 360 Feedback and Individual Coaching on Leadership

In addition to meeting with your leaders as a leadership team, I also recommend meeting with them occasionally on a one-on-one basis to discuss their development as leaders. Just as you coach them on their physical skills, you can also coach them on their leadership skills.

In our Leadership Academies, we provide our leaders with a customized Leadership 360 Evaluation and Report on their leadership skills and encourage them to go over it with their coaches. It provides the coach and captain with an opportunity to discuss the leader’s particular strengths and areas to improve. As one captain said, “My coach and I met about my 360 evaluation. This allowed me to understand what he wanted from me and created a good communication and connection between us.”

For example, after taking her leaders through the Captain’s Manual in the fall, South Carolina softball coach Bev Smith had each of her leaders go through the 360 Leadership Evaluation to get detailed feedback on their leadership. It gave them a chance to see how their teammates and coaches were responding to their leadership and helped them pinpoint their strengths and areas to improve. And it gave Coach Smith a chance to follow up with each of her leaders to discuss what leadership strengths they brought to the team and how specifically they could improve.

5 More Proven Strategies to Strengthen the Coach-Captain Connection

Our Championship Coaches Network members can click here to discover 5 more proven strategies to better connect with leaders including ones from top-ranked coaches and teams like Coach K and Carolina women's lacrosse, Remember, if you want your leaders to be an extension of you, be sure you extend yourself to them!


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