Talent isn’t all it takes to make a great captain

Eric Flato ’08 and Will Engasser ’08 were named captains of the Yale basketball and hockey teams, respectively, last week. On paper the two have little in common, but are clearly both terrific leaders. Now, it’s just a question of whether they’ll be good captains.

Flato offers tremendous on-court production. He led Yale in scoring last season (15.3 ppg) and was the only Bulldog to start all 27 contests. For his efforts, the junior garnered Ivy League Most Valuable Player honors from CollegeInsider.com. Flato brings far more than good play, though, with his projection of a palpable intensity. He’s tenacious and quick to the ball, willing to get on the floor when necessary. What Flato does behind closed doors is something only his teammates know, but it must be positive; you know he must be one of the team’s respected leaders.

Engasser does not match Flato’s statistical contribution. Although his seven goals this past winter were good for fourth on the team, the Minnesotan has only tallied 14 career points. But what about his size, his presence and his willingness to back check and wreak havoc in front of the net? These talents and skills are less quantifiable and bear resemblance to the intangible skills displayed by Flato.

Compared to one another, Flato and Engasser appear to possess different playing styles and to contribute to their teams’ performances in different ways. But as leaders, they seem quite similar.

It’s useful to listen to what each player’s coach has to say. In a statement on the Yale Athletics website, Yale’s head basketball coach, James Jones, said he looks for Flato “to take a larger role and lead our team in a positive, productive direction.” Flato can clearly do this if he wants. If he takes the time, which you must imagine he will, he can make a big difference upon the attitude of the team — his team. He now has experience aplenty to share with younger players. If the team is to win next year, it will be with Flato out front. And that’s exactly what you expect from a captain.

And then there is what hockey head coach Keith Allain said about Engasser on the Yale Athletics site: “Will is going to be a great captain. He brings a vocal presence to our locker room and bench, he is a caring and concerned teammate and he fully understands the commitment I expect from him.” This is, perhaps, a more telling remark. Engasser’s understanding of what the coaching staff expects of him is possibly the most valuable trait he can offer to his teammates. Why? Because a good college captain must not serve as just a good leader, but also as an envoy between coaches and players. He must be able to walk into the coach’s office, articulate the mood of the team and then return to his teammates to translate the coach’s orders. He must be equally comfortable in each environment and quickly adjust between them.

Added experience often helps one become mature enough to handle this responsibility. Take the Yale football team, for example, where the three captains before Brandt Hollander ’08 were all fifth-year seniors. Maybe each of these players — Alvin Cowan ’04, Jeff Mroz ’05 and Chandler Henley ’06 — projected the qualities of a good captain. But they may have deserved election because of the added experience their extra years lent them. Since the Ivy League only allows players to play an extra year if they sit out due to injury, Cowan, Mroz and Henley all spent at least one term watching their team from the stands, allowed neither to practice nor to be involved in team workouts. A semester on the sideline could very well have provided each player with the perspective necessary to play the role Allain has laid out for Engasser.

And not every team has a personality appropriate for a captain’s duties. Many professional sports teams play without an official captain. The New York Yankees, for example, played eight years and won four World Series titles before replacing captain Don Mattingly, who retired in 1995, with Derek Jeter on June 3, 2003. Every good team naturally has a number of powerful leaders, but a captain is something special. And since different sports and teams require different leaders, a captain cannot always be pulled from a universal mold. If a person of the right character doesn’t present him or herself, then sometimes it is better not to thrust someone else into that role.

No one can really predict how Flato and Engasser will perform their duties as captains. While Flato will likely continue his production of the past three seasons, it’s unlikely that Engasser will suddenly become the Bulldogs’ leading scorer. But that’s not really important because, as the evidence suggests, what makes a leader a captain has little to do with the jump shots he hits or the goals he scores.

Nicholas Thorne is a junior in Pierson College. His column appears on Tuesdays.

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