4 Things Your Captains Must Do to Create a Championship Culture

by Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

As a coach, you likely already realize that your team’s culture is absolutely essential to your program’s success both on and off the playing field. While your leadership is certainly critical to building and sustaining the kind of winning culture you need to be successful, your captains and team leaders play a HUGE role in molding, managing, monitoring, and maintaining your team’s culture. Because your leaders often have the most contact and credibility with their teammates, their strong, continual influence shapes your team’s culture in a multitude of ways.

Your captains and team leaders must do these 4 critical things to help you build a Championship Culture:


1. Captains Must Help Create the Culture

Your captains play an important initial role in helping you create the kind of winning, high-performance culture you need to be successful. Culture cannot simply be created and mandated by one person but must be co-created in a colloborative effort between the coaches, captains, and team.

Together you must co-create your culture by first envisioning the goals and standards you would like your team to achieve. You must collectively decide how your are going to treat each other, what you are going to expect from each other in terms of commitment, what kinds of attitudes and actions are appropriate, and how committed you are to each other and winning. Your captains are critical not only in helping you co-create the kind of culture you need to be successful - but they are also important in selling this culture to the rest of your team.

On a scale of 1-10, how well are your captains and team leaders working with you to CREATE the kind of winning culture necessary to be successful?

1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

If your rating is not a 9 or 10, what can you do to better work with your leaders to co-create a winning culture with you?

“The most successful cultures are shaped by the leader’s own vision of how things should be done and influenced by her actions and behaviors; it’s the tone from the top.”
Marty Parker, Author of Culture Connection


2. Captains Must Champion the Culture

Once your captains help you create a winning culture, your leaders must then Champion or drive the necessary culture throughout the rest of the program. As the primary Champions of the culture, your leaders must eat, sleep, and breath your culture and be the best examples of it. Your captains must lead the charge as they first embody the culture in every way imaginable and then encourage everyone else to live up to it too. Not only must your leaders live the culture at the highest levels themselves, but they also need to continually inspire, challenge, and support their teammates to do the same.

Because of their passion for your program’s cause, your leaders create a palpable sense of energy, excitement, enthusiasm, and urgency toward achieving your program’s Vision. Their teammates can sense your leaders are there to do and accomplish something special – rather than just being there for something to do. In short, effective leaders drive behavior by both their words and deeds. They determine which attitudes and actions are necessary to move your program toward the goal, then model the way themselves while inspiring and motivating others as well. They continually look to move the needle in a positive direction.

As former IBM CEO Lou Gerstner said, “If the CEO isn’t living and preaching the culture and isn’t doing it consistently, then it just doesn’t happen.” The same principle applies for captains and coaches.

On a scale of 1-10, how well are your captains and team leaders modeling, CHAMPIONING, and driving the kind of winning culture you need to be successful?

1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

If it is not a 9 or 10, what can you do to teach your leaders how important it is that they champion and be the best examples of your desired culture?

“A leader doesn’t just get the message across - a leader is the message.”
Warren Bennis, Leadership Author


3. Captains Must Connect the Culture

You also need your leaders to serve as the primary Connectors within your team. This means they need to connect the various subgroups on your team so that they don’t splinter off and become corrosive cliques.

Opposing subgroups often arise within teams based on a variety of factors: starters vs. the reserves, the upperclassmen vs. the underclassmen, the offense vs. the defense, the people the coach recruited vs. those the coach didn’t recruit, etc. While this is natural and a positive when the subgroups get along and work together, sometimes these subgroups become internally competitive and combative with each other and create divisive cliques on your team.

Your team leaders must help to keep the natural subgroups working together for the benefit of the entire team - not battling each other. Good team leaders connect with all the natural subgroups on your team and understand each subgroup’s viewpoints, challenges, and value to the team.

For example, some years back, Chester Frazier was the starting senior point guard on the Illinois men’s basketball team. Even though he was an experienced senior, Chester made a point of connecting with the freshmen on the team by reaching out to them often. Even though the perimeter players had different workout times, Chester also made a point to hang around afterwards so he could be at the gym when the post players came in for their workouts. And even though he was a starter, he still worked with the reserves after practice so they could get in some extra shooting. Chester made a special point to connect with all the various subgroups on the Illinois team to keep everyone on the same page, which gave him great respect and credibility as a leader. Your leaders must also take the initiative to reach out to the various subgroups on your team to keep them all connected.

On a scale of 1-10, how well are your captains and team leaders CONNECTING the various subgroups on your team so they don't splinter off and become divisive cliques?

1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

If it is not a 9 or 10, how can you work with your leaders to reach out and connect the various subgroups on your team?

"Great leaders are great connectors."

Jeff Janssen


4. Captains Must Be the Caretakers of the Culture

The fourth important function of your captains is to serve as the critical Caretakers of your culture. If your team is going to be successful, you must establish high Standards in practices, conditioning, weights, the classroom, on campus, and in the community. Your team leaders must vigilantly monitor your program’s Standards on and off the playing field and hold everyone accountable to them. When people meet and exceed your team's Standards, your leaders should be the first to congratulate them and call them out to the rest of the team as a positive example.

When people fall below the Standards, as they inevitably will, your leaders must constructively confront their less-disciplined teammates for the good of the program. Holding teammates accountable is an ongoing, challenging, and uncomfortable job for many leaders, but nevertheless a necessary one that absolutely must be done for the overall health of the culture. If your team leaders let your team's Standards slip or allow others to abuse the culture intentionally or unintentionally, your culture soon decays and collapses right along with your leader’s credibility. In this way, your team leaders serve as the guardians and caretakers of your culture. Like the safety guardrails on a treacherous highway, leaders must keep their team from running off the road and into the ditch, or worse, off the side of the mountain.

Michigan field hockey coach Marcia Pankratz proudly tells of the time when her team leaders stepped up and appropriately disciplined some teammates who had broken the team rules. Marcia said her captains called her on Sunday afternoon and said that some teammates had broken a clearly established Standard the night before. The captains were having the violators run early in the morning for the next three days (supervised by the leaders), suspended them from the privilege of practicing on Monday, and would have them apologize to the team before Monday’s practice. Marcia was thrilled about how her leaders stepped up and held their teammates accountable for their unacceptable behavior. Do your team captains care so much about your program that they discipline their own teammates?

On a scale of 1-10, how well are your leaders serving as the CARETAKERS of your team's culture by holding people accountable who don't live up to your team's Standards on and off the playing field?

1          2          3          4          5          6          7          8          9          10

“The final piece in a championship team is leadership. The most attractive type of leadership to me is the student-athlete who is a coach on the field. I want a driving verbal force who won’t let standards slip. That’s how teams with ordinary talent can win championships.”
Anson Dorrance, North Carolina Women’s Soccer Coach


Looking to develop your captains into better Creators, Champions, Connectors, and Caretakers of your team's culture? Check out our Team Captain's Culture Manual as part of our popular Sports Leadership Development Series.



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