6 Types of Team Captain No One Wants

Russia Cheering World University Games 2015
Photo Courtesy: Gwangju Summer Universiade Organizing Committee

By Annie Grevers, Swimming World Staff Writer

Some people are considered leaders because they are fast swimmers. Some are considered leaders because of the way they treat others. Some are considered leaders because of their work ethic in practice. Some are vocal leaders.

Leadership is a complex category. One that nearly everyone can fit into in some way at some point in life. In an interview after World Championships, Swimming World’s Jeff Commings asked Team USA veteran Ryan Lochte why he thought he had never been a team captain. Lochte responded that, despite his never owning the title, he believes “everyone on a swim team has some captainship.” Amen, Ryan.

Thousands of years of civilization have taught us that leadership is an integral part of the way we function as human beings. Without it, we’d be lost.

I am no expert on leadership, but there was one year of my life that I did devote to studying the topic. As a senior in college, I became a team captain. Yes, yes, very noble and exciting. But every team has them.

I took the designation very seriously. Too seriously, in fact.

We all have those moments in life where we feel utterly inadequate. My first semester of my senior year at the University of Arizona, I hit that point. I attempted to become this person who controlled every situation and was able to make every big decision.

My first and biggest mistake? That’s not me.

I think this is common with any promotion in life. We somehow think we were not initially worthy of the promotion and need to become something more in order to “earn” our position. Guess what? You would not have been given the promotion without someone admiring something that’s already inside you.

So since there are a thousand ways to lead, and I’ve already stated I am not qualified to define perfect leadership, so allow me to define what captains should not be…

1. The Entitled One

Look inside and think about those you admire the most– those you would take advice from and jot down their every word for future use. Those are not strangers who walk around dishing out advice and expecting you to soak it all in without knowing a thing about them. Typically, we need to know why these people are worth listening to.

I was grappling so much with the definition of a leader my senior year that I actually read books on leadership. Yes, it’s cheesy, but I read John C. Maxwell’s “21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership,” and it did me some good. I do not remember every wise line from the book, but I do remember the adage, “People do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

For some reason, this simple truth escapes us when we are trying to be the strong, stoic leader. Showing softness, empathy, and compassion make you approachable, relatable, and just downright more pleasant to be around. I cared, but I was showing it in all the wrong ways.

Want your teammates to respect you? Show each one of them you care for them as individuals.

Photo Courtesy: Hayley Good

Photo Courtesy: Hayley Good

2. The Disciplinarian

There are people in higher positions than you. It is fine for captains to be liaisons between the team and the coaching staff, but no one is asking you to become the team disciplinarian. One way to lose some teammates as friends is to become a threatening personality.

Rather than pulling your teammates aside and giving them a firm talking to, grab a cup of coffee with someone you feel might be acting out of turn, and let them know of your concern in a caring way. You are not upset with them strictly because they are doing wrong, but because of the effect some of their actions could have on the team.

3. The Life of the Party

Striving to be the most-liked person on the team is most likely not paving the way for a championship culture. We all know swim teams are a hodge podge of different personalities and attempting to please them all is an exhausting and impossible task. Stick to your guns. It’s likely that your teammates and/or coaches chose you to be a leader because you have a very secure sense of who you are. Do not let a title make you sway just to make and/or keep people happy.

4. The Control Freak

You can try to control that fit, energetic, headstrong group of young adults around you. I tried. And failed…miserably. Firstly, no one wants to be controlled. Stop that! Secondly, no one expects you to be able to control every situation. Thirdly, your teammates want to help.

Learn to delegate early and often. The more responsibilities you entrust teammates with, the more involved and invested they become. Yes, I know, you think you’re burdening others by not taking the reins of every situation. You’re not. When you try to row with one paddle and carry all the weight, your boat is going to go off course. And your arms are going to fall off. No person was designed to carry so much weight.

Your teammates want to help move the unit forward. When everyone has an oar, the boat moves in one direction, at a higher velocity, and everyone feels valuable. It’s a win-win.


Photo Courtesy: Arizona Athletics

5. The Perfectionist

I have an embarrassing example of this. I’ve always been a “lead through performance” person. At the 2009 University of Texas Invitational, our head coach came up to me and said, “OK, let’s get a cheer going here in the next three minutes.” Ugh. Inadequacy strikes. I should not have to be told to do a cheer. That’s something a good leader would have just done naturally. You messed up. 

I led the cheer, but my confidence was shaken. I did not want to miss any other opportunities I had to appear like the perfect captain. I had the 50 free fast-approaching. I’ll lead the team with a lights-out swim, I thought.

I stood by the bulkhead, waiting for my heat number to show on the board, so I could mount the block, and inspire my teammates.

Just as the starter said, “Take your mark,” the heat number changed to my heat on the display board. In a moment of panic, I saw that my block was vacant. I leapt toward my block and tried to crouch down in time to explode off, without anyone noticing my late arrival.

Oh, they noticed. “Swimmers please step down.”

I was disqualified for delaying the meet. Worst. Captain. Ever. Those were my thoughts. I was given adequate shaming from my coaches, and one coach joked that I needed to write my event, heat, and lane on my hand. I thought, “What kind of leader misses their race….as a senior in college?!”

It was one of my most humiliating swimming moments, and at the time, the feeling of inadequacy was overwhelming. I believe this entire situation could have been prevented if not for my mental approach to the meet. Since I was so concerned with my captain duties, I was paying very little attention to the way the meet was being run. I should have known the display system by the time my heat rolled around, but my mind was elsewhere.

6. The Insecure One

After my meet trauma, I was feeling insecure about the way the team viewed me. I wouldn’t look up to me. And there was my epiphany.

Why was I captain anyway? Because my teammates saw something in me last year that they thought was worth following. Huh….what was I like last year? And that’s when my sense of self-confidence started to re-emerge.

If you’ve been put in a leadership role, there is absolutely no reason to try to morph into someone else. People like you for you. As the wise Dr. Suess put it, “Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

If you are a new captain, ambassador, leader, whatever your title is, do not allow your title to define you. If you want to strengthen some areas, that’s wonderful. But do not try to become anything you’re not simply because you have a new role.

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