USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities and play at the college level. Joe is a former college athlete and coach at the NAIA level, where he earned an NAIA National Championship. Joe is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience and dedication, along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community, have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
When talking about what it takes to put together one of the best teams of all time, most people would agree that a fantastic coach and a captain with incredible talent would probably be pretty important. Yet, after spending 11 years researching the greatest sports teams of all time, Wall Street Journal Deputy Editor and author Sam Walker would disagree with that sentiment. In his book, The Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World’s Greatest Teams, he goes in-depth about the one thing that legendary teams have in common, and it’s not having an MVP-level player.
For his research, Walker looked at every winning team in sports history, anywhere in the world in 37 different sports since the 1880s. He researched more than 7,000 teams and only picked teams that had sustained success and won championships over a span of four or more years. He eventually whittled the list down to 17 teams and found the thing that they all had in common: a tremendously driven captain with a willingness to do the thankless jobs in the shadows. Someone like Bill Russell, who said, “My ego demands for myself the success of the team.” Or Andre Iguodala, who keeps his NBA Finals MVP trophy in a garbage bag in the basement. But what other traits do these coveted captains possess?
Walker mentions a few examples of captains exhibiting extreme doggedness and effort. One was soccer player Carles Puyol, a defender for FC Barcelona. He wasn’t super-fast or very skilled, but he played without fear, going after headers and locking down the opposing team’s star player on defense. The common thread was that these captains were not usually superstar athletes, but they showed superstar effort.
Most people expect leaders to give rousing speeches, but the most capable captains did not do that. A lot of them actually avoided it, focusing on practical communication instead. In the context of the team and during games, they talked constantly and circulated widely among the team. Some would never shut up while on the court or the field. They focused on talking about practical things as they were happening.
Testing the limits
Some of the best captains had a reputation for being dirty players. However, it was not because they were playing to hurt people. Psychologists have found two types of aggression: hostile aggression, which is desire or interest to harm somebody; and instrumental aggression, which could be defined as causing harm to someone, without making harm the goal. Instead, the goal is simply winning for the team’s sake. These captains would save their aggression for the game but also knew how to shut it off once the game was over. They didn’t care what the public thought, or if they were called dirty players — they just wanted to win.
Henri Richard of the Montreal Canadiens had an incredible temper. He was a great goal-scorer while also being one of the most penalized players in the league. Eventually, the team brought in a new coach that focused on getting Richard to put his anger into the puck, and his penalty minutes started decreasing. When Richard was in control, he also stopped being the primary scorer and started getting his teammates involved. That’s when the team won their first Stanley Cup and Richard became captain. The team became unstoppable when he started to control his emotions.
Being an intermediary
Many people have an image of great coaches being unassailable or irreplaceable. However, the majority of the coaches studied in this book had little to no track record of success at the top level. In fact, some coaches joined their teams in the middle of their winning streaks. Instead, successful coaches usually had a great partnership with the team captain. They relied on the captain to enforce the team’s goals, even if the captain sometimes went off-script. The best captains are usually intermediaries between management and other players. They were essentially middle managers, arbitrating between the two sides.
These days, sports teams and companies often look for the obvious leaders with the greatest skills. But according to Sam Walker, the best leaders are not obvious. They’re not the most talented or charismatic people. They are very functional, they carry water and communicate constantly with the team. But if you want to put together a legendary team or become part of the captain class, what can you do?
One thing that may help is finding out your Athlete Type by taking the TAP Test, which integrates with your NCSA profile when you set one up. The TAP has a 30+ year record of success in player personnel evaluation with leading teams in the NFL®, MLB®, NBA®, NHL® and NCAA®. Made popular by organizations like the New England Patriots and San Antonio Spurs, Athlete Types has been used by athletes and coaches at the professional, college and youth sports to dominate the mental game.
Based on the scientific research of Dr. Robert Troutwine, this evaluation gives athletes, coaches and parents insights into a particular players mental strengths, weakness and how they can improve. Once you know your Athletes Type, you can compare to see what other famous professional athletes like Tom Brady (Rocket), Clayton Kershaw (Maverick) or Cam Newton (Trailblazer). It just might be your first step to joining the captain class.