Selecting A College Captain: Consider The Culture

There is no one kind of player that makes a good captain.

Pittsburgh after winning the 2012 USA Ultimate College Championships.
Photo by Christina Schmidt —

For most teams, the college season is over. This means that programs across the country will be selecting their captains for the upcoming season. No matter how a team chooses captains, people are weighing their options, trying to decide who will lead their team to success next year.

Unfortunately, there is no one kind of player that makes a good captain. While I don’t think that this is a novel or controversial idea, it is extremely important to keep in mind. The best captains are often those who have a good handle on the team’s unique culture, whose goals for the team fit with the mindset of its players.

When selecting captains, it can be tempting for younger programs to give the nod to their best, most experienced, or most driven player. While this is not necessarily wrong, the best player isn’t always the best captain. One reason is that on many smaller teams, captains have large off-field roles. In the absence of a coach, captains plan practices. In the absence of a Treasurer or a Club President, the captains track finances and do paperwork.

A great player might not be a great treasurer or a great practice-planner. At worst, a captain can feel trapped by his or her new responsibilities. The work might not get done and his or her play could suffer as well. When choosing captains, it’s extremely important to think about what responsibilities a captain will take on for your team and choose captains who can fill the roles they need to without taking away from what makes them good players.

Another dangerous trap is selecting captains based on the team you want them to captain rather than the one they will be captaining. It is dangerous to expect a captain to transform the team into your ideal. If you want to play for (or coach or be a former captain of) a disciplined, athletic team, that’s all well and good. But if your team culture is looser, more committed to having fun, selecting a disciplined lifting freak as a captain could make everyone miserable. If you want the team culture to change, you might just be out of luck. Culture changes from year to year as the makeup of teams change. It’s hard to control and unpredictable. Asking a captain to turn you into your ideal player or make your team into the program you wish it was is foolish. Captains can only accomplish anything based on what their players are willing to do. Don’t select captains based on what you wish the team was like; select them based on what the culture actually is.

Because of this, It is important that a prospective captain has a good sense of team culture. Captains must be able to achieve goals without trying to radically shift that culture. As much as one might wish otherwise, very few people are receiving an Ultimate scholarship. No one is going to lose their place in college if they quit the team. People play because they enjoy it — because they have found a place in their team’s culture. If a captain tries to change that culture overnight, players are free to walk away. Taking the risk to change team culture is courting disaster. It’s extremely hard to field a competitive team with only seven people. Rather, captains must be able to feel out and respond to team culture, basing their goals on what is doable within that culture.

Whether you elect your captains or they’re selected by coaches and/or former captains, you have to be aware of your team’s culture and needs. What makes for a good captain for one team might clash with another A great captain at Wisconsin would probably not mesh well at Haverford. Above all, captains must be aware of their team’s culture and able to shift their goals based on what their players want and the work they are willing to do.

  1. Alexander Palmer

    Alexander Palmer is an Ultiworld opinion columnist. He is the captain of Columbia University's Open team, Uptown Local. He has played in the Club series with Flight NYC. He lives in New York City.


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