Last weekend I was invited along to coach at a day-long training camp for the East Kilbride Pirates Women's American Football team. The women's game in the UK has its roots way back in the 80s but as an organised and structured part of the British American Football infrastructure, it's celebrating its tenth year in 2023 and the GB Women's team are currently the number two team in the world, having lost in the gold medal game to the USA last year and they're currently at the beginning of what they hope will be the road to European Championship glory (details of their forthcoming game are at the bottom of this post).
I've worked with the Pirates women before on a number of occasions - stepping in to cover Head Coach duties a few years back and running their training camp last year, so I know a number of the players well. The coaches include some former players who I coached in their early years in the game (that's something that never ceases to make you feel old!) and they have a really strong setup, so it was lovely to be asked to come along and get involved.
Having agreed to support, the Head Coach asked me if I'd be able to open the camp by speaking to the girls about a few aspects of leadership, which I narrowed down to accountability, habits vs expectations and the main theme of leading from outwith positions of authority. It's very common in sports teams to elect team captains and while in football or rugby there might be a single club captain, with the squad sizes of American Football and the fact that you have different units on the field at different times, it's more common to select three (Offensive, Defensive and Special Teams captains). Of course, as with any sport, that still means that there are far more people who are NOT selected as Captain on any given year than ARE selected and this can generate some challenges.
I've been part of teams as a player and as a coach, where there were people who felt entitled to be captains, based on any number of factors. Some believed their ability or performance on the team meant they were the right choice. Others thought their longevity in the team entitled them to the respect of a captaincy. And many more just felt they should be captains, for reasons that neither they, nor anyone else around, could articulate! Ego in sports is not uncommon, whether at the elite level, or at the grassroots level. A certain amount of self belief is helpful to push a sportsperson on to greater heights and to allow them to enter challenging situations with confidence, however an excessive focus on an individual's self importance and their need for validation can have incredibly damaging consequences on a team dynamic and often these players lack the self awareness to recognise that what they might bring to the team in terms of capability or skill, they detract from the team in terms of disruption.
The danger that's often posed by selecting captains is that you are, in essence, de-selecting a lot of other people from that role. And how they respond to that experience can be very telling. Some recognise that there's an opportunity for them to act more like a leader in order to perhaps put themselves in the frame for the role in future years, or to support the captains who are selected, whereas others at the opposite end of the spectrum can take the huff, act belligerently and, ultimately, justify the decision that was made to not make them a captain!
Being a leader isn't about having leadership and a title bestowed upon you. Leadership doesn't only happen at the top of an organisation or a group. It can come from anywhere, and that's what makes my work so interesting. The purpose of my talk to the women was to help explain that while you may not have been selected as a Captain, that doesn't mean you don't have the opportunity to be a leader. Lead by example - know your playbook, be first at practice every week, study film, get in the gym and exemplify what it looks like to be a great player. Lead with empathy - get to know your team mates, look out for them, put an arm around them when they're down, celebrate with them when they triumph. Leadership takes many more forms than just wearing a badge or armband and giving rah-rah speeches. Find your own way to lead and help the team move towards its shared goals.
Between playing and coaching, both at club and international level, i've effectively been involved over 23 seasons of American Football, which means that I've been involved with 23 different teams, because each year, players and coaches join and leave, each slightly altering the dynamic of the squad in such a way as to make them unique. Of those 23 teams, I'd struggle to name more than a handful of the players who were selected as captains. However I could tell you who the leaders were on every single one. The players who contributed most significantly and most positively to making that team gel, to making it successful and to bringing the very best from the people around them.
Whatever team you're a part of - work, family, sport, music, church, community - find your own way to be a leader.
If you're near Worcester, the GB Women's team play at home this Saturday (15 April) at Sixways Stadium. It's a 3pm kickoff and you can get your tickets here!