7 Strategies for Determining Your Team Captains

Trying to figure out how to determine your team captains?

Coaches often ask me the question, "What's the best way to determine my team leaders?" There are a variety of ways to select your team leaders, each with their own unique advantages and disadvantages. Because each program and each season is unique, the real key is to find the best way for your team for this specific season.

Here are seven strategies you can use to find the best leaders for the critical captain role and the pros and cons of each selection method along with my advice.

1. Have your team vote

Most coaches allow their team to vote for team captains. The coach hands out the ballots, asks the team to list their choices, tallies up the votes, and announces the winner(s).

Pros: The advantages of this selection method are that you allow your team input on deciding their leaders. Rather than arbitrarily imposing a captain on them from above, you show your athletes that you respect them enough to have them participate in choosing their leader(s). By giving them a choice, you also are much more likely to find a leader the team is willing to follow.

Cons: While there are many benefits to allowing your team to vote for captains, there are two potentially problematic drawbacks. The first is that the team might select someone who the coaching staff does not think would make a good captain. The person could be more of a "ring leader" than a leader. If you solely let your team decide the captain(s) by voting, you might regret who they select.

The second problem with allowing the team to vote is that the captain selection process might be more of a popularity contest. Here again the athletes might pick someone who is popular in a social setting, but does not have the necessary skills to be a leader on the field/court or in the locker room. If you allow your team to vote, it is very important to gauge the maturity level of your athletes to determine if they have the foresight and understanding to actually pick an effective leader.

Jeff's Advice: Think twice about having a team vote solely determine your team captains if your athletes are not mature or sophisticated enough to pick an effective leader. Additionally, if you are having your team vote, invest the time on the front end to have your athletes really think through what it takes to be an effective leader. You might transform the selection into a short team building activity by having your team discuss and list the characteristics needed in a leader so that everyone is clear before voting.

You can also have your athletes apply for a captain position - then provide your interested leaders with time in front of the team to explain why they feel they would be an effective captain for the program. All of these ways help ensure that your athletes put some serious thought and consideration in selecting the leaders of the team. When selecting team captains, follow the adage of "measure twice and cut once."

2. Coaching staff selects

The second most popular selection method is when the coaching staff names the captain(s).

Pros: With this option, you get to work with a captain who you respect, trust, and feel will do a great job. You also won't have to worry about the captain selection becoming an athlete popularity contest - or the athletes choosing someone who you believe would make a poor leader for your team.

Cons: The potential problem with having the coaches select the captain(s) is that you might select someone who the team doesn't really respect or follow. You might pick one of your favorite athletes - but for whatever reason, this person has not fully connected with the rest of the team. Further, by you imposing a captain on the team without their input, you might actually hurt your captain's platform of leadership. The team might have the tendency to view the person as a "Coach's Pet" and be less likely the follow the coach-named leader.

Jeff's Advice: It is important to allow your athletes at least some input on who their leader might be. Unless you are fully confident that your choice will be almost unanimously supported by the team, avoid imposing a leader on your team solely determined by the coaching staff. Instead, work together with your athletes to find someone who will be respected by both coaches and athletes.

3. Team Nominates - Coach Endorses

A hybrid of the first two, some coaches allow their athletes to basically nominate which teammates they look to for team leadership, then the coach gets to examine and ultimately endorse their choice(s). For example, in The Team Captain's Leadership Manual we have included a page called the Top Three Leaders List. The 12-question list has athletes indirectly explore who they feel best exhibits leadership qualities by asking them a variety of questions including:

List the Top Three people who you trust the most:

List the Top Three people who have the best relationships with their teammates:

List the Top Three people who are willing to confront and hold their teammates accountable:

As you might imagine, if you did this with your team, certain athletes' names will likely show up across several questions. It's these athletes who your team already sees as displaying positive leadership qualities and behaviors. In essence then, you give your athletes a chance to identify who they look to as leaders and value their input in the process. After compiling the various lists made by the team and coaching staff, you will likely see who the team looks to for leadership.

You can then go back to the team and say by the results of this exercise it is clear that this team looks to the following people as leaders. You can then either leave it at that or take it the next step and officially name them as captains.

Pros: The Team Nominates - Coach Endorses selection method should give you the best of both worlds. You provide your athletes with input on who they believe has exhibited leadership behaviors - but you also provide yourself with the latitude and discretion to make the final choice.

Cons: The primary disadvantage to this option is when the team and the coaching staff aren't on the same page. Your team might list some individuals that they look to for leadership - but you as a coaching staff might not feel comfortable endorsing them as leaders. Fortunately with the quantity and quality of questions that make up the Top Three Leaders List, this rarely happens.

Jeff's Advice: This is one of my favorite ways of determining captains because it provides both coaches and athletes with a way to provide valuable input on the critical captain selection process. Athletes get to have their say on who they respect through the Top Three Leaders List - and coaches are allowed the freedom and flexibility to make the final determination. In the vast majority of cases, the coach's choice is simply an endorsement of what the athletes already listed. And, even if you don't use the Top Three Leaders List to help select your team captains, it will still be an interesting exercise that can give you tremendous insights into your team.

4. Develop a Leadership Council

A Leadership Council is typically comprised of a representative group of athletes from certain segments of the team. Some coaches determine their Leadership Councils by class: having a representative or two from the freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior classes. Other coaches, especially in large roster sports like football, track, and swimming, determine their representatives by position groups or event groups (i.e. linebackers, d-line, and defensive backs in football or sprinters, middle distance, and distance in swimming).

The Leadership Council is often charged with providing input on the team, establising team standards, enforcing team rules, keeping the coaches informed, and being the primary leaders of the team. Also known as a Team Council or Unity Council, the Council is often voted on by the team or selected by the coaching staff. You can still name a captain or two if you so desire from the Leadership Council.

Pros: One of the biggest advantages to the Leadership Council is that you get input from a variety of segments on your team. If you organize the Council by class, you in essence create captains for each of your classes. This helps you stay in close touch with each of the levels of your team. Further, having a Leadership Council is great for what is called succession planning - having outgoing senior leaders smoothly replaced by underclass leaders who are prepared to lead. Leadership Councils are especially effective for teams with large rosters, usually 25 or more athletes. They can also be effective with teams of 16 to 24 people.

Cons: The potential drawback with a Leadership Council is that things can get a bit bureauocratic. Rather than making decisions with one or two captains, you now need to work through multiple people. Leadership Councils are good for handling the administrative aspects of team leadership, but you still will need a primary leader or two who will be vocal during actual competition. Make sure that at least one or two of your leaders are comfortable and effective in this vocal role too.

Jeff's Advice: If your team roster is at least 20 or more, strongly consider developing a Leadership Council. Having a Leadership Council ensures that communication with various segments of the team will be in place, the variety of input will be good, the ownership will be distributed, and you will set up a great succession system to replace graduating leaders.

5. Seniors Automatically Captains

A small minority of coaches, 6% in our survey, automatically make their seniors the team captains or core team leaders.

Pros: The advantage to this is that your seniors have likely been in your program for a while and should know exactly what to expect. Being seniors, you also hope that they have a greater sense of urgency to make their last year their best year.

Cons: The biggest problem with automatically making your seniors your team captains is that they might have done nothing to deserve it. Just because someone is older does not make a person a leader. Instead of being a position that people get because seniority rules, leadership is really an ongoing privilege that athletes and coaches must earn and maintain.

Another problem with this selection method is that you might empower a senior who is a "ring leader" on your team. By giving a negative leader the title of captain, you endorse their leadership and hold them up as a model for the rest of the team - not a smart decision.

Finally, by making seniors captains, you also likely stifle the emerging leadership from the juniors, sophomores, and even freshmen on your team. In some cases, your senior group might be your weakest or most negative leaders on the team. So obviously you wouldn't want to do anything to endorse them as leaders and thereby inhibit the leadership of the younger members on your team.

Jeff's Advice: Avoid automatically making your seniors the team captains. Not only does it send the wrong message, but you handcuff yourself based on the quality, or lack thereof, of your senior class. You can certainly look to your senior class to provide some informal leadership and seek their input on an occasional basis, provided they have done at least an acceptable job of leading, but you don't have to make them the team captains. Reserve the title of captain for those who have earned the respect of the team, deserve it the most, and are positive exemplars for the rest of the team.

6. No Official Captains

There are some coaches who prefer not to name team captains. Instead, they opt to allow leaders to naturally emerge on their teams - believing that the cream will eventually rise to the top. Legendary coaches Pat Summitt of Tennessee women's basketball and Mike Candrea of Arizona Softball are two examples of coaches who have not named captains in their programs.

Pros: Not naming an official team captain allows anyone to emerge as a leader. Everyone on your team feels the freedom and responsibility to lead. And, in many cases, a leader does emerge over time and can lead effectively, with or without the title.

Another advantage of not naming captains is that you avoid the potential "fallout" from the athletes (and their parents) who are not named official team leaders. Both athletes and parents can get jealous of the leaders who do have the captain title and can make their lives more difficult than they need to be.

Cons: The potential problem with not naming a team captain is that the infamous "ring leader" emerges and has the biggest influence on the team. By creating a formal leadership void by not naming a captain, you allow it to be potentially filled by the wrong person. Sometimes the team and coaching staff needs to formally endorse and coronate the positive leaders on the team - so the leaders know they have their coaches' support in standing up to the potentially negative leaders on the team.

7. Coach Becomes De Facto Captain

In some cases, the coach must squelch and minimize the leadership from the athletes and become the most dominant and forceful leader on the team. This often occurs when either the coach is highly controlling, the team has really weak leaders, or the team has very poor leadership. In essence, the coach takes the reins of the team and becomes the key leader.

Pros: The "Coach as Captain" situation primarily occurs when a new coach takes over a team with a poor culture, abysmal record, and likely embarrassing reputation. The new coach assumes most of the direct leadership and becomes the "new sheriff in town." The advantage is that the new coach gets to install the new and more productive culture. Once some athletes emerge who embrace the new standards and support the coach, the coach can then look to trust them as captains.

Cons: Ultimately, the best leadership comes from a team of coaches and athletes who are all on the same page. When a coach has to take over all the leadership, they miss having the positive driving force from the leaders within the team stepping up and taking co-ownership for the direction and reputation of the program.

Jeff's Advice: Use this option when necessary, but sparingly. You will likely need to be the leader when taking over a program with a poor culture. But once the right standards are in place, you really need to have the support and involvement of your team. By investing time in developing your team leaders, you should have strong and effective team captains to help you lead the team.


Picking the right captains for your team can be a complicated process. Hopefully the seven strategies listed above will give you some great options to use when selecting the captains for your team. After reading the pros and cons of each and discussing them with your coaching staff, decide which one of the strategies will be the best method for your team this season.


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