Imagine a leadership training program disguised as a baseball team.
Gathered in the outfield after the championship game, the Captain stood and pointed to each player, citing their contributions throughout the season. Each player beamed with pride as some highlight of his performance was detailed. The victory had truly been a team victory, with contributions by everyone and the Captain let them know how much that was appreciated.
How old and experienced was that Captain? Was he the aging veteran, with a dozen years of major league experience? No? How about a college or high school senior who’d played for year in the same program, leading drills as a Captain, drawing on the example of the senior Captains from years before? No.
The Captain was 10 years old. He’d never had an example of a Captain to emulate on his prior teams. He did have some coaches who’d done similar citations of performance during the 16-game season. He’d often spoken at the gatherings, identifying some good play or extra effort by his teammates, but this final game was different and the words just flowed.
The simple answer is that he became a good leader the same way he became a good player. Practice. Repetition. Coaching. The slightly more complicated answer is… through the Captain’s program.
When I started coaching Little League, I’d already had 14 years as a Scoutmaster. I was used to being able to provide direction or guidance to one young man and having him lead all of the others in getting tasks accomplished. In Scouting, everyone expects leadership to be taught and the structure is already designed. It only requires proper implementation. So, in Scouting, we produce lots of good leaders.
Youth baseball doesn’t come with any leadership structure. If there is one, it’s usually an autocracy run by the adult coach. I’ve rarely heard of captains in talking to other baseball coaches and gotten raised eyebrows when I bring one of mine to the home plate meeting with the umpires. The coach who got me involved in Little League had suggested that each team bring a captain to those meetings, so I always did. That lead me to wonder how to make that role more meaningful.
The first part to understand about how Captains are used in this system is to understand the structure of the season and then how Captains are selected for each part.
During the COVID shutdown, I decided to maximize my unexpected free time. Since I wouldn’t be coaching baseball, I decided to take the Driveline course in Youth Baseball Development. In that course, they recommend breaking the season into three phases, each about a month long: On-Boarding & Baselines, Exploratory and Performance.
In the On-Boarding & Baselines Phase, you spend a month implementing your system and determining the beginning skill level for your players. The On-Boarding within a Little League season is bound to require also training the assistant coaches in your system. So, for the first phase, the head coach selects two Phase Captains and then one Game Captain for each game. The Phase Captains serve in that role for the whole month-long Phase and do so at practices and games. A Game Captain is named by the head coach for each game. This way, more players get to serve as Captain.
In the Exploratory Phase, the assistant coaches select the Phase Captains. They will have a slightly different view of the team than the head coach and have had an opportunity to see several players serving as Game Captains in addition to the original Phase Captains. During this Phase, the Head Coach continues to select Game Captains, to ensure that as many players as possible serve and that likely candidates for Phase Captain in the final Phase serve.
When you reach the final month of the season – the Performance Phase – it’s time to turn over the selections to the players. They’re seen a few serve as Phase Captains, and many as Game Captains, so should have an idea what they’re like as appointed leaders. It’s important to be hands-off in this, so that they can make the choice. Any imposed solution will make the players feel powerless instead of empowered. Sometimes, they choose the most talented, sometimes, the most popular and also sometimes, the ones who help teammates the most.
It’s important that you give the Captains some actual duties, rather than just ceremonial ones. My list started with going to the home plate meeting and calling out the lineup, which led to giving each Captain a pocket-sized copy of the lineup. Then, other things got added. Some in these lists are specific to our style of warmup and the gear we have, others are more universal. How strictly you monitor and pay attention to detail on these tasks is going to depend on their age and maturity, plus your own preferences. I’m easy-going and often busy around game time, so there is a lot of leeway for my 11u teams.
I did not email my players directly, which allowed the parents to monitor the communication and to be in the loop on the tasks to be performed. I emailed the task list the day prior to the game, so that parents could print it out for their player.
The use of these task lists be a little tricky, as some parents will be tempted to intervene and handle the tasks FOR the player instead of reminding the player to complete those tasks. Here, you have to make sure that the parents understand how precisely the listed tasks must be performed. The major goal is to have the PLAYER perform it, regardless of the quality of execution. The last thing the rest of the team needs is another adult bossing them around or doing what Captain is failing to do.
Once we got to the Performance Phase, my emails no longer listed the detailed tasks. Each email talked about how I’d like them to motivate specific players. These addressed things that the team needed the player to do (have confidence, hit the ball hard, throw strikes) as well as some methods. One of the most effective ways to express and instill confidence in a player is for the Captain to quietly praise them or say, “we’ve got your back.” The loud cheering helps pump everyone up, but those quiet moments often make a bigger difference. Having those things come from a peer who is a Captain instead of an adult Coach is really powerful.
It worked with Boy Scouts. It worked this season with my 11u team.
The Captain described at the beginning of this post served as a Captain for the entire season – having been selected by the Head Coach, then by the Assistants, and then by the players. He’s a talented player who grew in his understanding of his leadership role as the season went along.
Another player was selected as Phase Captain for the first two, then not voted for the Performance Phase by his teammates. He was a little bummed, but kept contributing as a leader as well as on the field. He liked being a Captain and has a better understanding of leadership.
The player elected in his place for the Performance Phase was not among the couple highest performing players, but is a great communicator. He talks to everyone and shares my generally rosy outlook on life (I don’t have a player on the team, so this isn’t me shining his apple!) They chose him because he was such a good teammate. He also grew in the role.
Additionally, all the players named Game Captain (everyone had it at least once in the 16-game season) took their role as a Captain seriously. They performed the duties with varying level of detail and diligence, but all within the range expected for 10- and 11-year-olds.
I expect this will be a continually developed process. I spent 14 years learning to do it as a Scoutmaster and got better over time. I expect that it’s going to continue to change and improve over multiple years of youth baseball coaching as well.