what are the leadership qualities

One of the FIRST decisions a coach will make at the beginning of the season is appointing the captain of the team. For many teams, this is somewhat of an automatic decision. It’s the seniors on the team, or the most talented dancer, or the cheerleader who has been on the team all four years. We don’t always consider all of the important leadership qualities when making this decision. I’m here to say, this is no small decision!

There are so many important things to consider when choosing a captain.  A coach should consider many different leadership qualities, what you need from your captain, and also be mindful of the process you decide to use. The actual procedure of choosing a captain, if done right, will set up your team for success and happiness all season. So…What are the leadership qualities to look for when you choose a captain?

leadership development

Why the Right Leaders Make a Difference

Peers play a vital role in an athlete’s development. They provide emotional support and friendship. They are also an important source of self-esteem, often more so than the coach. Captains are so much more than the most experienced or most talented athletes. leadership qualitiesFor high school and college athletes, peers are an incredibly strong source of influence. A captain’s influence can be either positive or negative, but it’s never neutral. Captains can determine if the team learns cooperation, teamwork, passion, and motivation, or if they learn to be lazy, complacent, and unmotivated.

A positive team leader can encourage a team with less than ideal technical abilities to rally and reach unimaginable competitive heights. On the other hand, a team captain may be apathetic and ineffective or actually harmful to a team’s success. (I’ve seen both first hand, and they have a lot to do with my favorite years and the years I had to drink too much wine to stay sane). Captains are an ESSENTIAL element on your team’s road to success.

Three Types of Peer Leadership

Just like different coaching styles, there are three types of peer leadership, and it’s important to consider what role your captain will play, and make sure you have all areas covered by one or more leaders.

Some captains are in charge of “task behaviors” including setting a good example on and off the field, offering instruction and teaching of skills, constructive feedback for their teammates, and possibly structuring team meetings.

Other leaders are in charge of “social behaviors.” This doesn’t mean planning social events, but that could be included. These captains focus on the social relationships of the team by providing feelings of acceptance and belonging and offering general support all year. what are the leadership qualities

The third realm is “external leadership” because while task and social roles are two important internal functions, leaders must all help the team interact with the outside environment (think alumni events at college football games, media interactions, pep rallies, school-wide fundraisers, etc.)

A Team Needs Balance

All three of these types of leadership are important, and while one person may not cover all three, what matters is a balance of all three across whoever makes up your leadership team. For many teams, the most talented dancer is also a great captain for the task behaviors. She has the technical knowledge to answer questions for other dancers and her teammates appreciate her feedback because they trust her ability. It’s all in the delivery.  Not every talented athlete has the character to be in charge of task behaviors, so don’t automatically make your most talented team member a leader!

Story Break

During one of my first years as a coach, the most talented dancer was a captain pretty much automatically because I didn’t know any better. We’ll call her Ashley. As a dancer, she was beautiful to watch but lacked the maturity to be a leader. Ashley assumed she would be in the front of everything, and never helped a friend who was struggling with a skill, but rather got mad it took her so long to figure it out. She was also a terrible example outside of the team, breaking team rules and getting in trouble with the school multiple times. When I needed help to motivate the team as we got closer to the state finals, Ashley sent a text to other upperclassman saying “Why bother with an extra Saturday practice, we’re not going to win anyway.” UGH REALLY! What I didn’t fully understand then is that CHARACTER TRUMPS TALENT always. When you are making cuts for the team, and when you are deciding who will lead, choose character first.

Character Trumps Talent

So instead of considering talent alone, consider what role they will serve. Is he the cheerleader that will rally the troops when things get hard? Will she be the ‘team mom’ and make sure everyone feels included and supported? Will she be the organized one that gets things done for you?

(Speaking of: Thank you to all my former captains who graciously accepted my texts with the random assignments: “please go do X before practice.” I appreciate you!)

Will she be the one who positively represents your program in all of the outside events? Or will she be the one who leads by example in every way: being on-time, going full out no matter what, never forgetting the right shoes or team clothes etc. Decide what role your captain will fulfill and make sure your leadership team covers as many qualities as possible.

There is no ‘Perfect Leader’

The most important information about the three types of leadership is that no one type is better than another. Rather, achieving a balance in leadership behaviors will make everyone happier. (NERD ALERT: This isn’t just my experience talking, there is actual research on it. When a team perceives a balance in leadership qualities, they report higher levels of satisfaction with their team!)

Beyond looking for a balance, what are the leadership qualities to look for in your captains?

Top 3 Leadership Qualities in a Captain

Research in this area has surveyed thousands of athletes across different sports and different levels and found some key qualities of successful captains:

1) Effective communication skills

2) The ability to control his or her emotions and remain respectful to teammates and coaches

3) Works to maintain a positive general attitude

In one specific study about communication styles, researchers noted that the timing and quality of statements were more important than the quantity.  So captains who understand when it’s important to speak up and when it’s important to keep your mouth shut are more successful than captains who need to hear themselves talk!! (Raise your hand if you’ve had that leader on your team before… ME!)


College Athletes are Unique

While coaching college athletes is unique for a lot of reasons, when considering leadership, being the most talented on the team is NOT what athletes want in a peer leader.  For COLLEGE athletes specifically, research shows the #1 thing athletes look for in a good captain is HARD WORK. Not necessarily talent, but work ethic. The second most frequently desired quality is someone who leads by example. For the sake of interesting information, the research with college athletes showed a little bit of a gender difference. So for those of you with male athletes, things look a little different for them.

When asked about the most important characteristics of a captain, female college athletes reported (in order): working hard, being vocal, encouraging the team, and leading by example. Male college athletes reported (in order): working hard, leading by example, and performance. That means when talking about leadership qualities, women put more emphasis on personality traits (they didn’t even mention talent!), while men placed more emphasis on being a good role model with skill performance ranked last.

Positive Motivational Climate

Teaching responsibilityWhile a coach plays an essential role in creating a positive motivational climate, so does the captain. What many coaches don’t realize is that your choice in captain can either support the motivational climate that you are trying to achieve, or destroy it. There are three things essential to a positive motivational climate: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. (Lots more on that here, but essentially it’s when athletes feel like they have self-control and choice, when they feel capable, and when they feel connected to the team.)

A team climate in which captains place more emphasis on cooperation, putting in a solid effort, and personal skill improvement, makes teammates feel like they are more capable. When they feel more capable, they are more willing to put in the hard work and strive for personal growth.

Want your team to be more motivated?

Choose captains who help improve the positive motivational climate:

Lead by example

Offer choices and listen to teammate’s ideas (no dictators!)

Put the team first

Encourage everyone equally

Focus on skill improvement (themselves and others)

Make sure everyone on the team is connected and no one is left out

  These behaviors can dramatically improve the motivation on your team. But beyond personality and good character, there are other key things to consider that are a little more unique to our world of cheer and dance.

Other Key Considerations

Teaching Ability

Consider their ability to teach others. For many teams, a captain will often choreograph a sideline or halftime routine, or be asked to teach the fight song or any traditional routines to the rest of the team. If teaching is an important part of your captain’s duties, make sure they can do it! This may take some education on your part, but it’s worth it in the long run! For example, if you have a dancer that can’t count, they often struggle to teach no matter how talented they are and that can be frustrating for everyone all year!

Choreography Skills

Similarly, consider their choreography skills. If captains will ever be expected to choreograph during your season, make sure you like what they do. Yes, they are young, and maybe inexperienced in this area, but make sure they are capable of putting together something that won’t embarrass you on the football field. If you’re scared, this is a good time to remember the balance of leadership aspect I was talking about at the beginning. Make sure at least one of them will keep an eye on things if the group has to put together something new.


Especially for high school athletes, think about how they are perceived outside of your team. Ask teachers for recommendations. You want to know that the person you choose as the ‘face’ of your team treats her teachers with respect. That she has integrity in the classroom and demonstrates a hard work ethic in all aspects of her life.

Work Ethic

Finally, and I believe most important, is a captain’s personal work ethic. When you have a leader who pushes the team by always giving it everything they have your team has the best chance of happiness and success. This means everywhere (in practice, the weight room, sidelines, game day, and not just competition). When a leader is the lazy one, get ready for a year of frustrations and subpar performances.

Story Break

Over the years, the two captains who stand out to me are the ones who had the most personal discipline. One girl, we’ll call her Jen, was one of the weakest technical dancers I have ever had.  Another girl, Heather, was one of the best. But they were BOTH amazing captains during their respective years. When my team would watch Jen struggle to get the turn section but fight with everything she had, it made them want to fight too. At the same time, when my team would watch Heather, the dancer they all wished they could be trying a new skill over and over again, it inspired them to never give up. “If she’s still working hard, I better be too!” Jen and Heather never skipped a rep in the weight room. I know they never went less than 100% during practice. Gameday was just as important as competition. It was personal work ethic and dedication that made them superior leaders.

To vote or not to vote? The best way to choose a captain.

what are the leadership qualitiesLots of teams chose their captain either by coach appointment or by a team vote. Both are viable possibilities and work for many teams. Coming from a sports psychology point of view, I’m here to say there is a “best way” to choose a captain (if you want team cohesion all year). Allow for a team vote, but have the vote be only ONE piece of the puzzle.

Think about the roles of your captain and include evaluations of those skills. A captain tryout could include teacher evaluations, demonstrations of teaching abilities, examples of choreography, grades, technical scores, public speaking ability, etc. Choose the things that are the biggest duties of a captain on your team. Then make an evaluation of those skills all a part of the captain selection procedure.

But don’t exclude a team vote.

When your team feels like they had a voice and a part in selecting their leader, research unequivocally shows higher levels of team cohesion and camaraderie. Especially compared to teams where the captain was unilaterally appointed by the coach. That said, your opinion counts! Especially when it comes to the all-important aspect of character. You may be in the best position to recognize it and make sure you have the right person for the job.

Related Posts by Passionate Coach

Developing Leadership Skills: How to Prepare Your Captain to be an Influential Leader

Personal Coaching Philosophy to Happiness & Fulfillment

How To Be a Motivational Coach

2 replies
  1. Alice Kelson-Williams
    Alice Kelson-Williams says:

    How do you feel about a head captain and a Co-captain? I have to girls now that both have strong qualities that the other does not. I am thinking of making both of them just “captain” what is your take on that?

    • chelsea21
      chelsea21 says:

      Hi Alice! I personally think there would have to be a good reason to keep them with different titles, and in general it would be beneficial to have them each as ‘captain.’ Especially if you feel like they compliment each other, there isn’t a reason to divide the hierarchy. Even if they are different grade levels or experience, they are both contributing positively to your leadership and I would recommend having them on the same level. If it’s been a tradition on your team for a while to have those different titles, just explain your reasoning behind the change to them and the team, make the change and move forward. If it’s well explained and the captains are good leaders (so they shouldn’t care what the title is anyway) I imagine a smooth transition and improved leadership experience for your team. Good luck!


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