By Jed Blanton
MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
What does it mean to be a team captain?
When I was in high school, our team captain was the best runner. There was no vote, no question. The best runner after the team time trial took over for the year. They led stretches, told the freshmen what to do, and did their best to stay in front of the pack.
And that’s what I did when I emerged first in our time trial. It was my team and my season now. The position was a status, a marker of my dominance, and a free pass to be a jerk. And I did it well.
When I went to college on a cross country scholarship, I was at the bottom of the totem pole again, and was nervous about how my captains would treat me and what a year it would be adjusting to college training and racing … while carrying the water and catering to our top runners. I wanted to be the fastest, so that it would be my team.
But in college, the team voted for our captains, and along with our coaches’ consensus, a leader was chosen. It wasn’t the best runner. Our team time trial had nothing to do with it. In fact, our women’s team captain didn’t even score for our team.
I asked one of the seniors, and one of the fastest runners, why these people had been chosen when there were several people faster. They answered simply, “They earned it, I respect them, and don’t mind being told what to do by them.”
I learned throughout the course of the year that the captain of this team had a lot to do, far more than I had ever done in high school ... when I thought I knew how to be a great captain.
When I earned the captain’s position on my college team my senior year, after a less-motivated try at captaincy my junior year, I had a completely different outlook on what needed to happen. For one, I wasn’t the fastest on the team anymore. An injury had prevented me from a successful offseason training regimen. But it was a new role and new challenge that I decided to have some fun and make my senior year memorable. But how could I make my team successful, even if it wasn’t by running fast?
That year I spent more time with the freshmen than I ever had, even more than when I was a freshman myself. I went to the dining halls, and invited them to my house for dinner. I went running with them on the weekends, and didn’t mind not being with the fastest guys on the team. I took an interest in our women’s team and how its training and experience was going. I went to study hall, which was an enforced weekly gathering for freshmen and anyone with lower than a 3.0 grade-point average, although I was about to graduate with honors and had twice been named “major of the year” in my department. I learned that being a captain was not a prize reserved for one person to selfishly hold. Being a captain meant being the ultimate teammate.
Since my college cross country days, I’ve spent the last six years in graduate school, researching and studying team captains. I’ve learned more about the position than I ever thought possible, but nothing I’ve read or discovered has been as powerful as seeing what it’s like to be respected as a captain. I keep in touch with far more teammates from my senior season than I do with anyone who graduated before me. Being a captain is far more than a title; it’s a calling. I whole-heartedly believe that anyone can become a great captain. They are made, not born. The difference is those who want it and those who don’t. Earning the captaincy position is not a status symbol, it’s not a recognition; it’s a job with a long task list.
The best captains I’ve met are the most organized, and also the most caring teammates. Placing the team before themselves is not the cliché; it is expected. And while I never was busier as an athlete than my senior year of college, I’ve never appreciated any other athletic achievement more than the friendships I made and the experiences I had leading my team through our season.
Blanton is a doctoral candidate at Michigan State University in the department of Kinesiology, specializing in the PsychoSocial Aspects of Sport and Physical Activity, and a research assistant for MSU's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports. He has served as a facilitator at MHSAA Captains Clinics the last three years and currently is assisting the association with its student leadership programs.
This week's edition highlights the MHSAA Girls Volleyball, 8-Player Football and Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals.
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Nov. 15: Football record breakers, 2022-23 MHSAA postseason attendance - Listen
Nov. 8: MHSAA Boys Soccer, Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals reviews - Listen
Nov. 1: MHSAA Girls Volleyball Tournament schedule, Football Playoffs first-round review - Listen
Oct. 26: Lower Peninsula Girls Golf Finals, Boys Tennis Finals review - Listen
Oct. 18: MHSAA Football Playoff selection, Bear Lake football coach Sam Mullet - Listen
Oct. 11: Upper Peninsula soccer, MHSAA sports participation excels nationally - Listen
Oct. 4: Jackson Lumen Christi's Herb Brogan, MHSAA Sportsmanship Summits - Listen
Sept. 24: All-woman football officiating crew, Powers North Central's record winning streak ends - Listen
Sept. 21: 35th MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards, Grass Lake QB Brayden Lape - Listen
Sept. 14: Athletic director education, MHSAA video library - Listen
Sept. 7: Adjustments to 11-player football, boys soccer Finals schedules - Listen
Aug. 31: New out-of-state opponents rules, football record book updates - Listen
Aug. 24: MHSAA.com coverage ramps up, "Made in Michigan" tells us where they are now - Listen