The role of the team captain

When we talk about leadership in sport teams, we often think immediately about the team captain: as formal leader of the team we expect that he/she is thé leader of the team, both on and off the field. We undoubtedly expect a lot of the team captain. But are these high expectations justified? Does the captain's armband always belong to the best leader?

We examined this question in practice by surveying 4451 players and coaches in different team sports in Flanders (Belgium): basketball, volleyball, soccer, hockey, handball, water polo, rugby, and ice hockey. In this research, we differentiated between four leadership roles that players can occupy: 

  • the task leader (takes the lead on the field, adjusts other players when necessary and provides tactical advice)
  • the motivational leader (encourages the other players on the field to give their best effort)
  • the social leader (cares for a good team atmosphere in the team off the field)
  • the external leader (represents the team towards club management, media, and sponsors)

Read more about the importance of these leadership roles.

Given the status of the team captain as 'leader of the team' players and coaches often intuitively expect their captain to occupy most of these leadership roles. But to what extent do captains actually succeed in meeting these high expectations? The results reveal that only 1% of the participants perceived their captain as best leaders on the 4 leadership roles. In only 4% of the teams, the captain occupies 3 out of 4 leadership roles. Even more noteworthy is that in almost half of the teams (44%) the captain is not even perceived as best leader in any of the leadership roles, neither on the field (as task or motivational leader), nor off the field (as social or external leader). Other players in the team appear to be the real leaders in the team: the informal leaders.

Read the full scientific article on this study here.

Why then does the captain get that title in the first place? Further research revealed that the only characteristic in which the captains did 'excel' compared to the other leaders in the team is their team tenure. An athlete who has been playing for the team for a long period gets thus often appointed as a captain, and then maintains the title year after year, without any consideration whether this is still the best choice. Given that other players in the team might not dare to step on the toes of their captain, this might result in a lack of good leadership in the team, which is detrimental for the team's functioning and its performance.

With respect to quality of the leadership of the team captain, it appears that the same holds like for other leaders in the team; cultivating a shared sense of 'we' and 'us' is the key to foster the team's effectiveness, but also the health and well-being of the team members.

Read more about the importance of identity leadership.

We can conclude that the captain's armband is only rarely attached to the arm of the best leader. Therefore, dare to look beyond the team captain when identifying leaders on each of the 4 leadership roles. The fact that the different leadership roles are only rarely occupied by a single person should not be a problem. In contrast, our research revealed that teams with shared leadership, in which the 4 leadership roles were occupies by different persons, are characterised by a enhanced team confidence, stronger cohesion in the team, and improved performance. 

Appointing the right leaders is thus the key to success. We would like to help you with this by using our Shared Leadership Mapping: validated in research ànd in the field!

Read more about our articles related to this topic:

Professional rugby coaches' perceptions on the role of the team captain.

Cotterill, S. T., Cheetham, R., & Fransen, K. (2020). Professional rugby coaches' perceptions on the role of the team captain. The Sport Psychologist, In press.

Making ‘us’ better: High-quality athlete leadership relates to health and burnout in professional Australian football teams.

Fransen, K., Haslam, S. A., Steffens, N. K., Mallett, C., Peters, K., & Boen, F. (2020). Making ‘us’ better: High-quality athlete leadership relates to health and burnout in professional Australian football teams. European Journal of Sport Science, 20(7), 953–963. doi: 10.1080/17461391.2019.1680736

Unpicking the emperor’s new clothes: Perceived strengths and weaknesses of the team captain.

Fransen, K., Vande Broek, G., Cotterill, S. T., & Boen, F. (2019). Unpicking the emperor’s new clothes: Perceived strengths and weaknesses of the team captain. Frontiers in Psychology, 10, 2212. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02212

When is a leader considered as a good leader? Perceived impact on teammates’ confidence and social acceptance as key ingredients.

Fransen, K., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2018). When is a leader considered as a good leader? Perceived impact on teammates’ confidence and social acceptance as key ingredients. International Journal of Psychology Research, 12(1), 1-21.

When do elite cyclists go the extra mile? Team identification mediates the relationship between perceived leadership qualities of the captain and social laboring.

De Cuyper, B., Boen, F., Van Beirendonck, C., Vanbeselaere, N., & Fransen, K. (2016). When do elite cyclists go the extra mile? Team identification mediates the relationship between perceived leadership qualities of the captain and social laboring. International Journal of Sport Psychology, 47(4), 355-372. doi:10.7352/IJSP 2016.47

Who takes the lead? Social network analysis as pioneering tool to investigate shared leadership within sports teams.

Fransen, K., Van Puyenbroeck, S., Loughead, T. M., Vanbeselaere, N., De Cuyper, B., Vande Broek, G., & Boen, F. (2015). Who takes the lead? Social network analysis as pioneering tool to investigate shared leadership within sports teams. Social Networks, 43, 28-38. doi:10.1016/j.socnet.2015.04.003