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:
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.
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.
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!
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