Do captains matter in youth soccer?
By Mike Woitalla
If you coach at the younger levels, this might be a familiar scenario:
You’ve done the warm-up, filled out the game card, delivered the player passes, set the starting lineup. And now they’re all raising their hands to be captain -- and you’re trying to remember whose turn it might be.
Because in those early years being a captain is all about the coin toss -- the coveted honor that is dished out evenly throughout the season.
But when comes the time that being captain should entail more responsibility? Does it benefit your team to bestow specific leadership responsibilities on individual players?
“The use of captains is one I think that is best done without a set formula,” says Ian Barker, the NSCAA’s Director of Coaching of Education. “Rather, the appointment of captains and expectations for them is in my opinion best managed on a case-by-case basis.”
Tim Carter, who heads Shattuck-Saint Mary’s (Minn.) U.S. Development Academy teams, places high value on captaincy roles for teenage players.
“It’s a leadership program in progress,” says Carter, who served as U.S. Soccer’s Director of Youth Development in 1995-2001. “Any club that is thinking to the future -- they’ll be embracing how do we do better at leadership as well. Just like in technical and tactical competencies, identifying the things we have to get better at, I think you have to get better helping people become better captains.”
THE VALUE OF AUTONOMY. Dave Chesler, U.S. Soccer’s Director of Coaching Education, says giving captains some additional responsibilities is a “fantastic opportunity.”
“A lot of coaches don’t realize how much of the learning process is giving someone autonomy to make decisions,” Chesler says. “And there are many ways of delegating responsibility.”
Laura VanWart, Assistant Director at East Bay United/Bay Oaks, says assigning leadership roles to captains sends a message to all the players that it’s their team.
“There’s a different ownership that comes when the team realizes everything is their responsibility and driven by them -- and I’m more of a facilitator,” says VanWart, who’s also an assistant coach for Cal Berkeley’s women’s team. “They get to have more of a buy-in because it feels like they have more of a say. … Teams get in trouble when the coach is the most competitive person out there.”
Carter meets frequently with his captains, gives them leadership articles to read and discuss, and provides examples of challenges they might face:
“Here’s a situation. How would you deal with this as a captain? What do you think your responsibility would be? You’re out on the field during a game and somebody’s losing it and talking in a bad way to referee. You’re job is to go over there and say, ‘Hey, we need you on the field!’”
For Carter, whose players are in residency, captains are charged with making sure players are taking proper care of themselves the night before a game. VanWart’s U-15 captains lead warm-ups and game check-ins, and guide the team for some practice activities. She also has them handle off-field activities.
“Having responsibility outside the field helps create a comfortable level to talk and be demanding during games,” VanWart says.
Chesler gives even very young players some responsibilities:
“One thing I’d do, with 9-year-olds, is tell the captain: ‘Get the team together and get some ideas which way to go if we win the coin toss.’ I believe in giving the kids some autonomy. It’s not the end of the world if the sun ends up being in their eyes during the second half and to learn from that.”
INCREASING RESPONSIBILITIES. Another way Chesler engages players in decision-making is telling his reserves to, just before halftime, discuss where to have the halftime talk.
“It might be sunny, it might be wet,” he says. “Let them look around and discuss it. Certainly, if it’s unsafe or unhealthy then I’ll guide them. … To make some decisions and collaborate makes them feel a part of the decision-making.”
Sam Snow, U.S. Youth Soccer’s Coaching Director, recommends a gradual increase in the use of captains. At U-8s: “Two captains for each game so that the kids build self-confidence as they represent their team at the coin toss. Being in a pair gives the children more comfort while interacting with the referee. Change the pairings each game so that by the end of the soccer year each child has had a chance to be a captain and perhaps more than once.”
At U-10, Snow says, “Over the course of the soccer year rotate each player as captain for each game. It’s an opportunity to give children experience at leadership and responsibility.” Besides the coin toss decision, for which coaches should give advice on what side they might pick but let them make the choice, “The captain should be the on-the-field source of positive encouragement to teammates during the match. … With guidance from the coach the captain should lead the pre-game warm-up.”
At U-12, Snow says a coach could allow the captain to make the first comment to the team at halftime. And, with the coach’s assistance, lead the team cool-down after the game. He says U-14 can be time to consider moving from a rotation system to naming captains for longer periods.
Tad Bobak, currently in his sixth cycle of coaching a team from U-11 to U-18 at the girls power So Cal Blues, says he used to observe who was a good leader and give them the captaincy for the season.
“In several instances, fortunately, it worked out well because they were leaders and good captains out there,” Bobak says. “But the last 10 years I’ve taken the approach that every game I’ll have two different captains. And I want them to exercise leadership qualities when it’s their turn to be captain, because I think I’m helping them to grow as human beings and be able to be leaders and fight for their own rights. So if I only appoint a couple players to be captains throughout the season, I feel that the other players aren’t getting a chance to exercise their leadership qualities.”
Whether are not players are “captains,” Bobak gives leadership responsibilities in certain situations:
“If I have a player who comes from a family that’s very much into athletics, and they understand how to do good dynamic warmups, I’ll say, ‘Ashley, lead the team in dynamic warmups.’ Because she’s got her act together because her dad’s an ironman or her mom’s a marathon runner and they’ve taught their child how to warm up their bodies in the proper way.
“If I have a player who comes from a regional camp, I’ll say, ‘Give us a workout you enjoyed very much at regionals and set it up over there.’”
VOTE OR ASSIGN? For sure, there’s a wide variety of opinions on how to use captains at the youth level. Barker says U13-U14 may seem like reasonable ages to identify a more permanent leader: “It could be an intelligent transitional opportunity to have blend of permanent and rotating captains.”
Some coaches assign captains while others believe in giving the players the vote.
“My personal preference is to solicit the ‘votes’ of the players, but to be explicit that the coach appoints the captain,” says Barker. “By this method you include the players, express sincere interest in their opinion, can learn something about the group dynamic and reserve the right to assign the role in a way that you see is in the best interests of the team.
“I think it is important to empower and include the team, but not to delegate away an important job of the coach in team management.”
Carter doesn’t have a vote, but asks players for their input: “Send me an e-mail why you think this guy or that guy would be a good person to captain.”
VanWart has her teenage players vote on two captains for the season after explaining the attributes of good leadership.
“Over the last 15 years, I’ve never had a team make the wrong picks for captains,” she says. “I give a talk that we’re looking for someone encouraging who sets a good example. You don’t want a captain who yells at you whenever you do something wrong.
“Lots of parents think it’s a popularity contest, but competitive players always tend to pick positive people.”
VanWart usually heads a youth team for three years and changes captains each season. The former captains, she finds, continue to provide valuable leadership.
“For some players finding roles outside of being captain is still a very positive thing,” she says. “There’s the time to step up, have a voice and lead. And there are times to step back, look around and think, ‘What I can I do to be a positive influence without being in control of every situation?’”
Carter sees captains as valuable assistants to the coaches as they try to keep the team on the right track and as an opportunity to challenge his players to lead.
“Life is not always one big happy moment,” says Carter. “You’re going to have good days and bad days. You’re going to have some guys who are going to be with you, and some guys who aren’t going to be with you. You might even have some guys who are going to be against you. How do you pull all these guys together?
“We try and prepare them by discussing the challenges they’re going to face. But we also tell them, ‘Don’t think you’re always going to have the answer.’”
(Mike Woitalla, the executive editor of Soccer America, is co-author, with Tim Mulqueen, of The Complete Soccer Goalkeeper and co-author with Claudio Reyna of More Than Goals: The Journey from Backyard Games to World Cup Competition. Woitalla’s youth soccer articles are archived at YouthSoccerFun.com.)