By Jeff Janssen, Janssen Sports Leadership Center

It happened at Harvard
It happened at Cornell
It happened at Sayreville High School
It happened at Philomath High School

And, if you’re not careful and proactive, it can happen to you.

Some serious issues have happened at colleges and high schools around the country that have hurt and scarred people, shut down programs, cost coaches and administrators their jobs, and given a huge BLACK EYE to schools, their alumni, and communities.

Sadly, in most cases, the team captains either knew about the intolerable instances and did nothing, or WORSE, actually led the abhorrent behavior. This lack of basic leadership and human decency blindsided many coaches and administrators because people didn’t speak up.

These disastrous situations could have been avoided and seasons and jobs could have been saved if much better judgment, leadership, communication, and training had occurred on the front end.

Coaches and captains must serve as the critical Caretakers of the team’s culture, ensuring that everyone is aligned with the team’s Vision, Values, and Standards of Behavior. Effective captains are essentially the eyes and ears of the program, especially when the coaching staff is not around. If something is heading in the wrong direction or has gone drastically off course, it is the captains’ job to notice, help get people back on track, and keep the coaching staff informed. In short, if captains see something, they MUST say something!

Smoke Detectors and Front-line Firefighters

In our Leadership Programs, we teach captains to think of themselves as the team’s smoke detectors and front-line firefighters. It is the captains’ job to prevent and detect any fires that might flare up within the program. If a small brush fire ignites, the captains can use their leadership skills to effectively extinguish it. If the situation involves highly flammable elements and could easily explode into a five-alarm fire, the captains must alert the coaching staff so the blaze can be quickly and effectively fought before it engulfs the whole team and school.

Unfortunately, many team leaders are uncomfortable with being the Caretakers and Enforcers of their team’s standards and culture. Our research clearly shows that many team captains struggle to prevent or fight the inevitable fires that flare up on teams. They often don't confront combustible teammates and situations because they are concerned about overstepping their authority, the inflammatory reactions of teammates, or they don’t have the skills necessary to properly manage the conflict.

Captains are obviously in a challenging position because they need to maintain the trust and respect of the coaching staff and their teammates. Teammates don’t want their captains to be tattletales and snitches to the coaching staff for every little thing they do. At the same time, coaches don’t want to be blindsided or devastated by critical issues happening within the team that the captains knew about like the ones mentioned above. So captains need to understand and effectively straddle that fine line between maintaining their coaches’ and teammates’ trust and respect.

To proactively reduce and minimize these instances, here are some practical steps that coaches captains, and administrators can take to avoid being blindsided by these incendiary issues.

Coaches should:

  • Forge a trusting relationship and partnership with their captains. Coaches and captains need to work together to co-lead the team.
  • Communicate often. To help coaches and captains stay on the same page throughout the season, we encourage them to meet on a weekly basis. We have developed the Captain’s Weekly Monitoring Sheet in our Team Captain's Leadership Manual, which provides a simple template for coaches and captains to rate the team, communicate important issues, and stay on the same page.
  • Ask the ongoing question: "What will I not want to hear but need to hear if we will be successful?" While it is a tough question to ask because you will likely hear some things that will challenge you, it also invites and encourages your captains to share VITAL information with you that will help minimize major problems later.
  • Not shoot the messenger. When you do hear critical comments or bad news from your captains, be careful not to shoot the messengers. As tough as it is to hear and digest, thank them for caring about the team enough to share this difficult information.
  • Agree on a list of serious situations that captains will alert the coaches about. Co-create a list of situations that you feel your captains need to come to you about if they come up on your team. These could be things like a teammate threatening to harm themselves or others, an eating issue, suspected drug use, hospitalization because of binge drinking, serious gambling problem, etc. Proactively discussing these situations ahead of time sets the expectation of what situations you don't want to be blindsided by and need to hear about from your captains, not your athletic director, principal, or police officers.
  • Honor and acknowledge those athletes who best and most consistently demonstrate your team’s Vision, Values, and Standards. Make a point to call out and commemorate the athletes who best exemplify your team's culture. North Carolina's women's soccer team's most important award goes to the three athletes who best demonstrate the program's Core Values.

Captains should:

  • Understand and take seriously your role as the team’s Caretakers. You are the key influencers in your team’s culture. It is up to you to ensure that your culture is positive and productive.
  • Develop a list of Team Standards so the team is clear about Acceptable/Unacceptable and Intolerable behavior. Invest the time to create a list of attitudes and actions that are Acceptable, Unacceptable, and Intolerable within your program. Use the Standards of Behavior matrix in the Team Captain’s Culture Manual to help you.
  • Remember if the behavior is not something you would be proud to tell your parents about or you'd be embarrassed if it was posted on social media, it is likely not behavior you should do or tolerate within the team.
  • Learn how to constructively confront teammates whose behavior goes against the team’s Vision, Values, and Standards. Confronting teammates is something you need to get comfortable doing as a team leader. Use the strategies in Chapter 10 of the Team Captain’s Leadership Manual.
  • Understand you confront teammates because you care about the team. Speak up because you care about the success of your team and and the health of your teammates - not because you are on a power trip.
  • Warn teammates that if unacceptable and nonnegotiable behavior continues you will need to go to coaches for the good of the team. Let your teammates know that your role as a captain is to do what is best for the team. If they choose to act in ways that hurt the team's success, culture, and reputation, it is your duty to address it and inform the coaching staff.

Administrators should:

  • Hire coaches who can relate with their athletes as well as teach sports skills and diagram plays. Don't just look at a coach's record or their ability to draw up X's and O's, determine if the coach has the ability to truly connect with young people and earn their trust and respect.
  • Encourage coaches to develop trusting relationships with their athletes. Remind your coaches of the importance of connecting with today's generation of athletes.
  • Invest the time and resources to train your captains as leaders and culture caretakers. The time and resources you invest in proactively training your leaders pales in comparison to the headaches, heartaches, time, and money you spend in trying to cleanup the disastrous mess of poor leadership.
  • Encourage coaches to develop a partnership with their athletes through captains or a Leadership Council.
  • Encourage coaches to communicate regularly with their team leaders. (See the Captain's Weekly Monitoring Sheet mentioned above.)
  • Encourage coaches to work with their leaders to create Standards of Behavior matrix of Acceptable, Unacceptable, and Nonnegotiable behaviors. See the Team Captain's Culture Manual.
  • Acknowledge captains and coaches who demonstrate Exemplary behavior. Reward the captains and coaches who best exemplify your athletic department's Vision, Values, and Standards.
  • Hold coaches and captains accountable when Nonnegotiable behavior occurs. Have the courage of your convictions to have zero tolerance for intolerable behavior should it occur. Playing on and leading a team is a privilege people must earn and maintain, not a right.


1 oz of Prevention = 1 lb of Cure

Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as Ben Franklin once said. Captains, coaches, and athletic administrators all need to take responsibility to be the critical Caretakers of the culture. If you see something that is problematic, SAY SOMETHING!



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