Team captains can be more than leaders on their own squads. At this high school, they are becoming leaders of their school and community.
By Chuck Karter
Chuck Karter, RAA, is Athletic Director at Mount View High School in Thorndike, Maine. He formerly served as Camp Director, Program Director, Assistant Executive Director, and Chief Operating Officer at the Waterville Area YMCA for 21 years. He can be reached at: email@example.com.
During my interview last year for the Athletic Director job here at Mount View High School, I was politely asked many of the standard questions. Then the issue of sportsmanship came up. Very quickly, it became clear this was a hot-button issue, and it set off a volley of questions. Most pointedly: what strategies did I have for improving the behavior of athletes and fans?
I replied that I would start by getting feedback from the people it affected most, the student-athletes. They would assist me in developing programs to improve sportsmanship in our school and be the key to addressing the expectations we had for the community. I had already reviewed the newly created student-athlete handbook and coaches policy handbook and realized all the right pieces were in print, but the next step was to enforce these guidelines and expect more from everyone.
When I was awarded the position last July, I was eager to back my words with action. My first thought was to assemble the captains of our athletic teams into a focus group and ask for their thoughts and ideas. How would they improve sportsmanship? And could I count on them to be part of the process of upgrading standards?
But I knew that simply gathering a group of high school students together and posing questions to them would not do the trick. I first needed to gain their trust and empower them to be leaders. I needed to form a group that would become a respected presence in our school.
From these thoughts, I developed Mount View's Captains Corner, a weekly meeting of captains from all j.v. and varsity teams. With our first year nearly complete, the project has proven to be a boon for our athletic department in many ways, from improving sportsmanship to developing school leaders.
SETTING THE STAGE
When I started in my position last summer, I began setting the stage for the captains group. I spoke to our coaches about my idea and listened to their feedback. Captains at Mount View had never had duties other than wearing the "C" on their uniform and calling pre-game coin flips, so this would be very different. Captains would have much more responsibility than what had been asked of their predecessors.
I also explained to our coaches what we were trying to achieve and how it might impact them. I emphasized that I was trying to achieve a goal that would benefit every team and every coach. Those talking points helped them embrace the plan and they offered their support.
When the teams began to arrive for preseason workouts, I introduced myself to as many athletes as I could and made a point of speaking with the captains about meeting with me and the other captains each week. They seemed to think it was a "cool idea" but I could also see that look on their faces that said, "Great, another thing I have to do." Some expressions were more skeptical: "Why do I have to do that?" Others may have been thinking, "What's this new guy trying to do at our school? He'll have a hard time changing anything or anyone around here."
So that any negative thoughts would be left unsaid, I didn't ask for athletes' feedback at this early juncture. I was determined to be consistent and positive with my plan. My passion and resolution about this new initiative were obvious to everyone I spoke with.
I began to call the program Captains Corner, thinking that we would meet in my office, which is located off one corner of the school gymnasium. But like many of the logistics involved, this needed more thought than I first anticipated. I soon realized my office couldn't accommodate all the captains that represented our varsity and junior varsity teams, so I moved the meeting place to the Performing Arts Center. Occasionally, we'll meet in the library to give the group more of a public presence.
The next hurdle was scheduling a time to meet. I envisioned a 30-minute meeting at a time convenient for everyone, but when could that be? Due to the way classes are scheduled here at Mount View, getting everyone together during the day was impossible. After school obviously couldn't work due to team practices. I eventually decided that Friday mornings at 7:15 was the only opportunity to meet. Since this is not exactly a popular time slot for most teenagers, I would need to make these meetings worthwhile from the start.
Another detail was how to include captains out-of-season. I told coaches that if their team captains had been chosen for an upcoming season, they should attend. I also encouraged captains to continue with the group even when their seasons were over. The idea is: Once a captain, always a captain.
One more key part of setting the stage was getting upper-level administrators on board. I explained to them that the goals of the Captains Corner link to the mission of our district: a student-centered approach to education with a focus on the core values of respect, responsibility, compassion, and honesty. I also took the time to clearly communicate the group's goals and objectives. In return, my principal and superintendent have been very supportive in the development of the initiative. This proved critical when community members, parents, and other school administrators had questions or asked why our school expects these behaviors from our student-athletes.
The first Captains Corner was held Friday morning, Sept. 17. My plan for the initial meeting was to get to know the student-athletes and, most importantly, start to gain their trust. It was critical that I listened to them with genuine interest and presented discussion points that were meaningful to them.
I took attendance and handed out the agenda. The focus for the meeting was: What is a captain? I posed these questions to the student-athletes:
• Why were you selected as a captain?
• What is your role as a captain?
• What are your responsibilities as a captain?
It was interesting to hear why these captains thought they were selected to represent their team. Typical responses included: I'm one of the best players on the team. My teammates feel they can talk to me. I've been on varsity since I was a freshman. I ran a good campaign. But none of the captains said anything about leadership.
After allowing everyone to be heard, I talked about how being a captain here at Mount View would require more than it had in the past. Leadership, citizenship, and sportsmanship were defined and expectations for each were laid out. I told them, "Popularity, athletic ability, or how many years you've played on varsity will not define you as a good captain. Instead, your commitment to the duties of leadership will make you a good captain."
I explained that sometimes the responsibility of a captain can be difficult. It can put you in a position to make a tough decision or have an uncomfortable discussion with a friend. I asked, "Can you do that? Will you accept this as being part of what's expected from a captain at Mount View?"
The captains accepted my challenge, and commitment to a common goal was established as a theme for our group. That common goal was to empower them with leadership skills and improve sportsmanship at our school. By the end of the discussion, they were beginning to understand what I expected from them as captains at our school and were motivated to rise to the occasion.
We wrapped up our first meeting with an exchange of contact information. I gave each of them my cell phone number and e-mail address and they shared theirs with me. I told them that if they ever needed to call me for advice, to ask a question, or just to talk to somebody, I would always be available to them. I said, "I will even text," which they thought was pretty funny.
Of all the challenges that face any adult working with students, the most critical is getting them to trust in what you say, believe in what you do, and appreciate how genuine you really are. I kept this very much in the forefront of my mind during that first meeting, and continue to do so every time I meet with them. (See "Gaining Trust" below.)
Our first meeting led to a second, a third, and soon we were all looking forward to Friday mornings. I have selected topics for discussion each week based on my experience with teen leadership development. As a YMCA Director for over 20 years before becoming an athletic administrator, I have had extensive experience in training programs specifically designed to provide high school students with the skills necessary to lead effectively. My focus at Mount View has been on two specific areas of need: sportsmanship and leadership development.
At our second meeting, we talked about dealing with tough issues as a captain. Questions included: When have you had to make a difficult decision as a captain? Who was involved (teammate, coach, parent)? How do you handle a teammate who needs an attitude adjustment?
The captains talked about teammates who were not working hard in practice, creating "drama" on and off the field, and complaining about playing time to other players. We discussed strategies for these types of situations, focusing on the need to talk with the difficult teammate about how their actions affect the common goal of the team. The common goal takes the personal influence out of the discussion and places the focus on team success. I also acknowledged that the social implications of fulfilling a captain's responsibility to "manage" a teammate's behavior, for the benefit of the team, can be challenging.
At the end of every meeting, I present the captains with a question to discuss at the next Captains Corner. Here a few examples of the questions posed:
• How do you handle the pressure of being a role model and example to your peers?
• How do you support a decision you don't agree with like curfew, roster selections, or playing time?
• In what ways can you try to improve the attitude or performance of a teammate? How do you get them to change?
Other topics explored communication; problem solving; having a positive attitude; setting goals; discipline and self-discipline; setting expectations for yourself, teammates, and coaches; perseverance; and random drug testing in high school athletics. These discussions often became passionate with many opinions aired, which gave each captain an opportunity to hear alternate points of view and the option to change the way they looked at the issue.
Social networking was probably the most polarizing discussion. They felt the use of Facebook and other social media sites gave great opportunity for everybody to "chime in" about players and teams. At the same time, they expressed concern that it could be impersonal and sometimes served as a cowardly alternative to standing face to face and talking about issues.
All the topics are deliberately chosen to provide the student-athletes with the tools they need to make positive change and communicate their opinions without resistance. During different sessions, I offer suggestions on how to present their point of view, ways to think as a captain, and alternate ideas. It was great to see everyone's leadership skills grow as the year went on.
Sometimes, a captain asked to meet with me privately. For example, one concerned captain needed to get some ideas on how to speak with another captain on his team about his attitude and play on the field. We met for about an hour, discussing strategies and brainstorming the best way to approach the captain in question. The following week, the two talked and resolved the issue, both better understanding each other's point of view.
In addition to the "Topic of the Week," we talked about sportsmanship at almost every meeting. At first it was a topic of discussion and now has become an expectation that influences our action plans, attitude, and how we resolve issues.
Four of our captains attended a sportsmanship summit put on by our league, and that event provided a springboard for our initiatives. From the conference, we learned that athletes as a whole want to see appropriate behavior from fans, want parents to be supportive and not critical of other athletes and coaches, and feel that unsportsmanlike behavior by the fans doesn't inspire or motivate athletes on the field or court. Our Captains Corner members agreed with those findings and were motivated to change the culture at Mount View.
The most important initiative the captains created at our school was a "Fans' Code of Conduct." My mentor, Waterville High School Athletic Director Doug Frame, sent me his school's code and I gave copies to Captains Corner members for discussion. At first, they didn't like how it sounded. But with a few suggestions from me, they realized how they could alter it to fit our school's culture.
After two meetings discussing what they thought it should say, the captains came up with the following: Mount View Schools demand good sportsmanship throughout the entire athletic program. We expect all spectators at our contests to be respectful of athletes, coaches, officials, and other spectators. Fans are encouraged to applaud the efforts of all teams and should not engage in any behavior that is critical, distracting, or derogatory towards opponents or officials. Mount View Schools will not permit any behavior that detracts from the proper conduct of the game or disadvantages an athlete or a team. Thank you for adhering to these guidelines.
A colleague gave me the idea of having the players deliver the sportsmanship message to spectators at home games, which our captains liked. Now, before each home contest, the code is read by the captain of the team. (The code was approved by administration before its first reading.)
Beyond the code, our captains have embraced the idea of improving sportsmanship in any way they can. They have established their role as change agents in redefining sportsmanship in our community and accepted their responsibility in managing attitudes. They understand the importance of this common goal and truly want good sportsmanship, as it is in their nature--they are all great kids.
In the future, we are thinking about having a parents meeting on sportsmanship, developing a "spirit" group, and starting a program for our athletes to mentor middle school athletes. But the main focus this year was to condition the athletes to this new concept, deliver it to people who may not know about it, and have everyone embrace it.
The effectiveness of the Captains Corner is demonstrated by the improvement in sportsmanship of the athletes on and off the field as well as the attitude from the fans at athletic contests. We hoped that parents and fans would reflect the behavior and attitude of our players, and they are. Everyone has developed greater expectations of each other regarding sportsmanship. I also feel that students and community members alike are clarifying our standards of sportsmanship to people from visiting schools. The ability to engage the captains of our school teams has been an extremely successful way to establish credibility and sincerity in improving sportsmanship at our school.
One of the exciting byproducts of the Captains Corner is that being selected as a team captain at our school has taken on new meaning. Our student-athletes now understand there is more to it than wearing the "C" and seeing your name highlighted in the game-day program. It now includes a social responsibility.
The captains are learning to be an extension of the athletic administration and to provide front-line guidance to athletes on their team. Their expectations for teammates and their community gives them the motivation to manage others' behaviors. It's not because they personally think their teammates should act a certain way, they actually feel it is their responsibility to remind them to act in accordance with the common expectations that have been set for everyone.
There have been a few captains who have not embraced this concept and extra responsibility. The attitudes and discussions often left them feeling like maybe this responsibility wasn't for them. Those captains elected to not attend the Captains Corner meetings and ultimately disqualified themselves from being a captain in future seasons. But most captains want to strengthen their team and have some influence on improving sportsmanship and the expectations of other athletes.
I have also worked with the coaches to choose those student-athletes who would best fulfill the roles now expected of a captain at our school. Our Varsity Boys' Soccer Coach, Chris Hink, has even created a selection process that includes evaluating the candidates' leadership characteristics throughout the season and off-season. Several players have indicated an interest in being named a captain next fall and understand that their actions between now and then will determine their chances to wear the "C."
A future goal for the Captains Corner is on-going leadership development. I'd also like to expand sportsmanship expectations to athletes and parents at the lower grade levels of our school district. This will better prepare them for what lies ahead and hopefully create a culture of sportsmanship within the 11 towns in our district.
I also hope that the Captains Corner will provide the athletic department with strategic and influential alliances when imparting change or developing initiatives in the future. As we move forward, the power of these student leaders to assist us will be important. Ultimately, many hands make light work.
Sidebar: Gaining Trust
A captains group can only be successful when its members trust you as the athletic director and believe in you. To accomplish this, I have focused on doing the following:
• I've tried to open up conversations--to let them talk and let them be heard.
• I've asked them for the answers to their own questions, and for their ideas on solutions to problems.
• I take each of their ideas and perceptions seriously.
• I make sure I am always available to discuss their questions, concerns, or challenges in relation to anything they want to talk about.
• I demonstrate that I stand behind my athletics philosophy and expectations with consistency and integrity.
• I show them my commitment to do whatever it takes to help them be successful as a student, captain, and good citizen.
• It's also important to enjoy a laugh with them, but not at them.
Chuck Karter is not only my mentor, but to many that he has taught valuable life lessons to. This community is very lucky to have him! As always, very nicely said~
Good luck on your upcoming seasons!
- Jessica Moore
Belgrade Community Center for All Seasons