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Danny Jackson on Being Great Team Captains in Youth Soccer
Danny Jackson on Being Great Team Captains in Youth Soccer | Korrio, Danny Jackson, Soccer, Seattle Sounders

Danny Jackson in action - Photo Credit: Jenni Conner

Danny Jackson on Making Strong Team Captains: What Makes Team Leaders Effective?

The Important Role of Team Captain - More than Prestige and Glamour, Being Team Captain is a Big Responsibility, a Leadership Role in Youth Soccer. 

Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer (MLS) star and was captain of the Seattle SoundersSN is pleased to bring readers Danny Jackson’s column with insights into the professional world of soccer.  So many kids dream of going pro, few accomplish this and fewer become team captains and then go on to become youth coaches.

Team captain looks like a glamorous job; it’s the position many young soccer players covet – the player who gets to wear the armband and accept the trophy after big matches. But coaches – and captains – know it’s about so much more. It’s a highly visible position, responsible for numerous important roles and tasks, from serving as the coach’s voice on the field and leading warm-ups and drills, to setting a positive example and inspiring fellow players.

In youth play, there is often a tendency to give the captain’s role to the most skilled player, a reward for talent. Other players naturally look up to gifted athletes, so this can seem natural. But frankly, the best players don’t always make the best captains. And it’s the rare player who can be the best on the field and share that leadership gift with the whole team, elevating the level of play. So let’s explore what makes an effective team captain and how to train youth players to fill this vital leadership role.

Different Styles

It’s interesting to note that while excellent captains may share certain characteristics, they do not share a personality “type.” Successful captains can have very different personalities – from quietly effective to flashy and vociferous. There are many ways to lead, both on and off the field. The key is being able to “read” your teammates, giving them what they need at just the right time to help them maximize their individual potential and come together as a team. You have to know what’s needed and when – whether it be a kick in the behind or an arm around the shoulder.

The captain’s real job is to help maximize the team’s potential, to inspire and support teammates and to raise the entire level of play – both on and off the field.

Liverpool’s captain, Steven Gerrard, is incredibly effective. He’s greatly respected as a player, hugely influential, and can galvanize players on and off the field. And he’s a local guy who embodies the club, winning the trust of his coaches and teammates. The fans see Gerrard as one of them, and his style of play shows a passion that extends far beyond the field.

Captains often seem to reflect their coach’s personalities and that of their club and team. Robin van Persie, the Arsenal captain, exemplifies his coach Arsene Wenger’s personality; he’s an elegant striker, technically very gifted, and not a “rah rah” kind of player. Former Manchester United Captain Roy Keane, on the other hand, was incredibly vocal, led by example and truly represented the demeanor of his coach, Alex Ferguson, on the field.

My Personal Style

I was lucky to serve as a captain on many teams I played on. My first team captain role probably came in the age range of 6 to 8 years old. As a young kid, being the captain is very exciting, primarily because of what you see on TV. Kids see the captain flip the coin, wear the armband, and hold up the trophy when you win. I remember watching the FA Cup Final and seeing the team captains climb the stairs to the Royal Box at hallowed Wembley Stadium to accept the trophy from a member of the Royal Family. They would turn around and hoist it high into the air to the cheers of thousands of fans.  I was fortunate to play at Wembley and see this all in real life – it was a dream come true. When kids fantasize about becoming team captain, it’s natural to think about these things. We all did it.

But as I got older – filling the role on my Leeds United youth team, University of North Carolina college team and with the Seattle Sounders – I gained a lot of insight into what makes a good captain and my personal leadership style. I learned I’m an organizer and deeply committed to making people around me better. As a defender, I liked to organize the players in front of me first, and from there, help organize the entire field. I had no hesitation demanding more from my players, pushing them a little harder, squeezing that extra ounce of quality from each person.

Soccer is a game where mistakes happen, due to the speed of the sport. It is non-stop, without time-outs, and strong reactions and decision-making are paramount. Mistakes occur in many forms, but there are two distinctive types. There’s the genuine mistake, in which players do their best but are just out-maneuvered. And then there’s the lazy mistake, made through lack of effort. And for that, there is no excuse. I cared intensely about the game and the success of the players and team. My motivation was to improve our performance and I expected people to do their best at all times. Being a teammate has responsibility and cutting corners does not fly – especially when it comes at the expense of the team.

So what makes a good captain?

While there’s no perfect “captain” personality, there are some key traits for solid team leadership.

Lead by example

Especially for younger players, it’s important to see established players work just as hard as they do. You can’t tell people to work harder if you’re not working hard yourself.

Organize yourself first

Then organize your direct sphere of influence. Then organize the rest of the field. It’s important to first get a handle on your own game, to insure credibility with fellow players. At younger ages, there’s a huge emphasis on technical and tactical development. As you get older, there is much more education around tactical play and positioning. And as the level of play increases, there is an important focus on game management. A captain should have expertise at all levels – technical, tactical, athletic and strategic.

When you’re captain, you can’t afford to let a bad game take you – and potentially your whole team – down. I remember the 1997 FA Youth Cup Final, when we beat Crystal Palace over two games. Alan Maybury was captain of the Leeds United youth team at that time and played poorly in relation to his usual high standards. But he used his natural leadership qualities to contribute and help the team. By motivating the players in front of him, he created a shield of protection around himself. He was then able to solidify his own game, and communicate positively. He didn’t let an “off” game stop him from organizing, leading and driving his team forward.

Respect the coach and your teammates

The captain is the coach’s voice on the field. You must both follow and give direction respectfully.

Maximize the potential of every player 

The best captains get the most out of every player on the field, guiding the team towards success. As captain, you must pull everyone along with you, enhancing the entire level of play.

Be a good citizen on and off the field

The captain is in the public eye. At the youth level, you represent your family, friends and community, and at the college level, your student body, alumni and faculty. As a pro, you represent the fans, your team and city, and you must be able to withstand media and fan scrutiny. Technical and tactical skills shine on the field, but parents want to know if this player can be a role model, someone their children can look up to.

Represent the personality of your club and coach

Exemplify the personality and spirit of your squad. Know who you’re representing and do so proudly. Be the voice of the coach on the field and the face of the team in public.

Communicate 

Whether a captain is talkative or quiet, he/she must communicate clearly with teammates. Gary McAllister, the ex-Leeds United and Scotland captain, was not a cheerleader-type, but he knew how to talk on the field and in the dressing room, and his mere presence was hugely influential.

Read people

Learn how to manage different personalities with emotional intelligence. It’s a huge plus to be good at reading people, knowing when to “bite” and when to encourage. Using the right approach for the right person at the right time is the key.

Be supportive 

When your teammates know you care about them personally, they’re more likely to listen to both criticism and praise.

Be team-first

Captains cannot be selfish players, they must put the team first. Other players must believe you are there for the team. That’s the mark of a genuine leader. It’s your job to help others better themselves.

Even very young players can learn to give each other advice; it’s not a bad thing for players to tell each other to work harder.

Step up to leadership 

Whether or not you wear the armband, you can be a leader. You can help others around you. Don’t wait for permission or an official role to exhibit leadership skills.

Assigning Captains

Developing leadership qualities takes time and there are many natural characteristics one must have to be a team leader. We can all improve our personal communication skills and how we motivate others, but not everybody is comfortable in the role of captain. They might like the imagery and what they think it represents. But the truth is, there’s much that encompasses a true leader.

When I’ve coached young teams, my philosophy was to rotate the role of team captain. My focus was on raising the leadership level of everyone and improving confidence in communication. I would give everyone a chance to experience the role, starting at the beginning of each week. I would designate two players as the captains for the week of practice and the weekend game. As I’ve mentioned, being a captain is much more than just wearing the armband and that education starts here. I’d instill responsibility in those two players to lead warm-ups in practice and before the game. They had to organize their teammates, offer encouragement when mistakes happened, and feel comfortable telling their friends to work a little harder. I would help guide each of them through these leadership responsibilities for an entire week, teaching them how to talk to each other constructively and positively.

Even very young players can learn to give each other advice; it’s not a bad thing for players to tell each other to work harder. It’s how you say it. Since we know kids can be blunt, it’s the coach’s job to manage players’ tone and language, teaching them how to deliver and receive constructive criticism. It builds confidence to learn how to communicate this way. As a coach, I mentor players around this kind of communication, introducing it in small doses. I counsel all my players to remember that critiques are offered not to be mean, but to help. This is challenging, of course, but the earlier this skill is introduced and developed, the better.

As previously mentioned, the captain’s role on younger teams often goes to the best player. Leadership is granted through ability. The most skilled players already have their teammates’ respect, but can they help others? That’s the question. By rotating the role, I was able to observe every player’s natural traits and learn who thrived and who did not. Some players don’t like to lead and their personal games suffer. Others are comfortable leading and supporting their teammates. It’s a special skill and it’s interesting to see who has it. Who can be the coach’s voice on the field and lead in the locker room? There are many factors at work.

In the future – somewhere in the U-12 to U-14 range – players will settle into these roles, with more permanent leaders emerging. When each player is exposed to the “true” role of captain, they can determine if they’re right for the role. There are often several candidates for captain, but one usually stands out. (It’s usually someone who is self-assured and who other players are naturally drawn to). As a coach, you can develop more leaders by including other skilled, supportive players in strategic talks and assigning them leadership tasks as well. You can and should nurture more than one or two official team captains; ideally, you want multiple leaders to take on responsibility.

The responsibility of captain should go to players who understand the role and thrive in it. Not just the most skilled players, but those who can lead others. Coaches should educate players early about what leadership and responsibility truly means. Great pride comes with the captain’s role, but you have to deserve it, proving yourself every day.

The captain’s real job is to help maximize the team’s potential, to inspire and support teammates and to raise the entire level of play – both on and off the field.

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Daniel (Danny) Jackson is a former Major League Soccer player and was captain of the Seattle Sounders for five seasons.  Jackson, the Colorado Rapid’s first round pick in the 2002 MLS draft, recently retired from professional soccer following a successful career in which he led the Seattle Sounders to two USL National championships. At the University of North Carolina, Jackson was a multi-year All-American, team MVP, and three-year team captain. His UNC team won a National Championship in 2001, and he was named Soccer America National MVP and National Championship MVP the same year. Danny was awarded the 2002 Patterson Medal as the UNC Student Athlete of the year.

Danny Jackson's recent coaching experience ranges from youth soccer at Eastside FC and the Sounders FC / ODP youth development program and speaks to high schools and youth clubs regarding the far reaching impacts of youth sports. Danny also is serving as the Director of New Business for Korrio.

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