The Fine Art of Stepping Up – Captains Courageous

Feature by Michael J. Stott

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 2. LEADERSHIP is like obscenity. To paraphrase former Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, we know it when we see it whether it be in politics (or not), on the field or in the pool.

Admittedly successful leadership takes many forms. Denison did away with swim captains several years ago. Others, like Gustavus Adolphus (and now Denison), use a senior council system. UCLA women, Texas men and Grand Valley State vote for two or three captains. Yale has a one captain system.

Andy Boyce, head coach for men and women at Grand Valley, looks for captains to help guide younger athletes and foster a family atmosphere.

"We practice together and support each other in and out of the pool," he says.

Cyndi Gallagher at UCLA likes to assign captains for each dual meet because she finds the various leadership styles intriguing and division of labor helpful.

"It makes it so captains don't have to do everything themselves. Captains aren't always good at delegating," she says. "Sometimes the captains end up having to do so much, they forget about swimming. Assigning different captains throughout the year gives more people a role on the team.

"Everyone leads differently. You cannot expect 18-to-22 year-olds, even team captains, to know how to lead. You have to teach them how to lead," she says. "You are the leader. You are the leader and must communicate clearly with your expectations"

Captains have different roles at different schools. At Grand Valley, in the first week of school female captains make cookies and welcome new aquatic athletes to campus.

"It's nice to have a new friend right there at the beginning," says Boyce. Captains, by themselves, also organize the early-season retreats (men camping, women to the beach) in an effort to hasten the bonding.

At Gustavus Adolphus, all seniors are captains of the 80-member coed squad. One junior male and junior female sit on the council (and lead the following year) as does a diver. Meetings are held weekly.

"Whoever shows gets a voice in decisions. Some days there are 16, other days six. I don't want captains who don't want to lead," says coach Jon Carlson. "I want people to choose to lead."

Meeting structure never varies. Captains give shout-outs, discuss problems, review upcoming events and responsibilities (recruiting weekends, team retreats, etc.), behavioral issues, seek opinions and the like.

"These meetings last 20 minutes and are a great place to earn team trust. I think when I do earn their trust, captains are more likely to talk about things of a sensitive nature," says Carlson. "At the end I leave and give them a chance to talk about things among themselves."

Preseason practices at Grand Valley are optional but competition is keen to attract swimmers. Captains pair up to entice new team members to attend incorporating food, water polo and ultimate Frisbee as a way to mix and mingle.

At Denison, Gregg Parini employs a committee approach.

"We gave up captains because we thought we'd be more effective having our entire senior class provide the leadership vs. just two or three people. The process has helped solidify the class and diminished opportunities for dissension stemming from petty jealousies/turf battles/hurt feelings.

"As I anticipated, the cream of the class has still risen to the top and significant leaders have emerged. There has been a lack of ostracism among seniors and everyone feels like they have a voice in team matters. By empowering all members, we have been able to take advantage of the special gifts/talents of class members who might otherwise have been less willing to share. This has given us a unified and broader reaching leadership group," he says.

Ironically, notes Parini, several team members suggested recently that he designate team captains in addition to ‘senior council' members. Parini elected to reinstate a captainship this last year.

"The argument was that the current system made it too easy for the seniors to abdicate responsibility assuming that classmates would cover for them." he says.

Who's in charge begs another question.

"I tell our non-captain seniors that just because they are not captains doesn't mean they can't be leaders," says Boyce.

He gets whole hearted agreement from Cristina Teuscher, women's head coach at Yale. Teuscher herself was a captain at alma mater Columbia, the USA Swimming National Team (three years) as well as the women's 2000 Olympic team (with Lindsay Benko and Jenny Thompson).

"I think the best captains are those who don't go after the role at the outset. You are leading by example regardless of whether you get it. The minute you need a title to assert your power you realize you have no power whatsoever. I've had friends who were not named captain and did all they needed to support the team and were more captains than the people actually named," she says.

By the same token captains needn't be best friends. Leadership, role modeling and people skills remain key. On the National Team Teuscher saw her position as role model and big sister. In college she added the responsibilities of goal setting and disciplinary facilitator.

At Texas, men's coach Eddie Reese relies on his captains heavily during October through January when hard training is at its peak.

"If they get each other to do that part right, the end result takes care of itself," he says. Reese is also reliant on a tradition started under captain Nate Dusing, who following Friday practices would have locker room confabs and talk about the good things teammates had done.

"The most profound effect a peer has on a peer is to do something in a positive manner. We work really hard at saying good things to each other when they are doing well," says Reese. "And in those sessions if someone doesn't say something good about you, the rule is you must say something good about yourself. When they finish they all go out to eat together."

Coaches disseminate captain criteria in several ways. Boyce spells it out via email prior to a team vote emphasizing 15 specifics under the headings of performance, leadership and teamwork.

"I always give a lecture before we pick captains," says Reese. "I say ‘do not reward anybody with this job. It will not make anybody better. You want to pick someone who is going to make you better.'"

Gallagher's association with UCLA as a swimmer and a coach extends back to the early ‘80's and knows what it takes to "be a Bruin" as well as a captain.

"We build a team from character, so I look for swimmers that have character, work ethic, passion and patience," she says.

Communication skills help too. While next year's leader was already in place when she took the Yale job in May Teuscher has quickly learned what a communication conduit she has in captain Annie Killian.

"She took it upon herself to educate me on the team and what was important to them. Through Annie, I've relayed many ideas of how I see changes affecting the team and where I see the team going. I owe it to her how the girls have received me. She communicated a lot of my thoughts and opened the door for me. Annie has been enthusiastic about the things I was focused on and translated that enthusiasm to the team," says Teuscher.

Captains are a huge help when it comes to adhering to team rules. "I think every team has some behavioral issues sooner or later," says Gallagher. "It's a college campus, they are young adults, and there are all kinds of temptations, breaking team rules and just getting along.

"If we have an issue captains nip it in the bud pulling the person aside, talking about things," says Boyce. "We've been blessed with captains that understand our expectations, put a high emphasis on behavior, our traditions and what we stand for."

Invariably college coaches confront alcohol issues. "Instead of denying the fact that swimmers, even underclassmen, may drink," says Gustavus Adolphus' Carlson, "we talk about how to keep everyone safe and making sure that drinking isn't the activity of the party. We want drinkers and non-drinkers to have fun and feel welcome.

"As far as other behavior issues (other parties, academics, etc…), I expect captains to tell me about it. We have a no drinking policy starting in January running through our conference championship in February. Small stuff, captains deal with. Big stuff, they tell me and I deal with it," he says.

"I haven't seen much difference between the men and women in leadership styles," says Parini. "Leadership seems determined by personality more than gender. I have noticed that women tend to do a better job of publicly affirming their teammates with reassurance and encouragement. Likewise, I see them less often publicly criticizing or calling someone out compared to their male counterparts.

"In contrast the men seem less publicly demonstrative when offering words of encouragement or reassurance. This is not to say that it doesn't happen, it's just done in a more discrete and private manner. Men seem more comfortable with public praise and redirection than the women," says Parini.

Gallagher feels that most that "women want relationships, do a lot more communicating, have more meetings and want to know they are important beyond the swimming world. They need reassurance; and I believe men do too." Gallagher adds that "clearing the air is important to women – ‘Are we all OK now? Do we all like each other?' Whereas men are more like "It's over with, let's swim.'"

Gallagher's there's "no ‘I' in team concept fits her captain for a meet philosophy. "If people are going to be on a team they need to be accountable to each other. So when it's time to step up to swim fast on a relay, take care of a recruit, clean up after a meet or organize community service they need to be invested in the team. It's a great honor to be part of a university on a swim team. Just as it's a great honor to be a coach."

Not to mention a captain.