Deciding Captains: What Does It Mean For Your Program?

Recently the San Francisco 49ers and their new head coach, Jim Tomsula, announced that they will have nine captains for the 2015 season. According to the San Jose Mercury News story, Tomsula allowed the players to pick captains and did not put a limit on how many they could select. The result was nine captains: four offensive captains, four defensive captains and one captain on special teams.

49ers nose tackle Ian Williams, a selected captain, noted “that’s just Jimmy T’s (Tomsula’s) part of trying to show this is a team. He doesn’t want to single out any one player, and to show the 49ers are not just one player or two players.”

So what does this mean? What roles will these players have? Who will decide these roles (coaches or captains)?

As a 3-time alum of the Dynamic Leadership Academy, a professional development conference created by University of Maine, Head Men’s Basketball Coach, Bob Walsh, one of the leadership concepts that Coach Walsh adamantly believes in is that “leadership is a skill, not a rank.” Although older, louder and better players tend to be captains, age is not a prerequisite for leadership. It is interesting to note, that for Coach Walsh, being a captain means that those selected have defined duties/management tasks (meet with officials before the game, make sure equipment is put away after practices, etc.) and nothing more. All team members are expected to be leaders. Leadership is defined for the University of Maine Men’s Basketball program as simply “making the people around you better.” This takes trust, which takes time.

Obviously the leadership skills that men in an NFL locker room require versus those in a college basketball locker room are quite different. Nevertheless, if all nine of those captains do not have specific duties (leadership and/or management) then why name that many? What do each of them bring to the group and how can they shape the group into a high-performing team?

In addition, the selection process of the captains must also be examined. If players are not limited to a certain number of votes, then nine captains surely may result. Nine captains may be due to players wanting to spare feelings of their teammates and the fact that Tomsula allowed this voting process may have been his attempt to not have to make the tough choice himself. Tomsula states that “I stayed out of this for a reason, because I wanted them to do it .I saved all the voting forms and sheets in case we had a recount. This was solely the guys.” True teams can only be realized through openness and challenging of each other. Sparing feelings NEVER works. If the Head Coach was not involved in this process and the team members conducted a secret ballot, then nobody was challenged and group think may have ultimately resulted.

Whether you agree with the 49ers selection process or not, it is surely an interesting way for the selection process to occur. These nine captains along with the coaching staff, must now figure out the hierarchy within the nine captains through interactions, execute management tasks, allow freedom/creativity and ultimately bring each roster member into being equally committed to a common purpose for which they hold themselves mutually accountable will determine if Tomsula’s approach was successful or not.

What I am describing here is season long, never-ending process to turn a group into a team. It does not seem that nine captains are needed to do this, but rather the entire 53 man roster and coaching staff. However, if nine captains make the organization and its essential members feel good about their leadership, then not matter if it is necessary or not, it was a great leadership decision by Coach Tomsula.

Only time will tell.

Follow Bert DeSalvo on Twitter @CoachDeSalvo


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