Last Thursday, University President Richard Levin invited the 33 varsity captains across all Yale sports as well as the teams’ head coaches to his house for a dinner in recognition of the student leaders of the University’s athletic programs. Levin, who described captainship as a “breeding ground for leadership skills” in an interview with the News last week, welcomed the approximately 60 attendees with a short speech and an informal buffet.
“It’s a nice gesture to know that the Athletics Department is not just the Athletics Department, but considered an important part of the campus as a whole, and a tradition at Yale,” former soccer captain Chris Dennen ’12, who attended the dinner, said.
Stehpen Gladstone, the heavyweight crew coach, said that in his two years working at Yale, he has come to find that students here attribute greater importance to the role of varsity team captain than students at other schools where he has coached did, including those at Harvard, Princeton and Brown.
With the conclusion of the winter sports season, varsity teams are now in the process of electing captains for the 2012-’13 season. Only athletes vote — the coaches have no formal say in who becomes captain — and Gladstone said that the captain chosen is not necessarily the best athlete on the team. Instead the captain needs to be an effective communicator, a good leader and an inspiring team member, he said.
“The position is really a tangible example of leadership at Yale, so its influence extends beyond the team,” said Allison Cole ’99, assistant athletic director for development and outreach, who meets with captains once a month.
Still, only nine of 51 students interviewed said they could name any of the current varsity captains, and most of those interviewed said that they perceive the role of a captain as a leader on the team rather than on campus. While five current captains interviewed acknowledged a necessary role they serve within the larger Yale community, all agreed that their main focus as a team captain is on bridging the gap between the coach and the team members.
BRIDGING THE GAP
Women’s hockey head coach Joakim Flygh said that he relies on the captain to relay information to the team and to get feedback from the players. Women’s tennis captain Steph Kent ’12 described the role similarly, adding that if the team is feeling tired, for example, it is her role to suggest to the coach that the team may need a lighter week.
“The captain is a respected member of the team and is a teammate before a friend,” women’s hockey forward Steph Mock ’15 added. “It is a difficult role to fill — to be approachable yet a venerated member of the team — but it is so important to the team chemistry.”
Kent and men’s golf captain Jeff Hatten ’12 said that their roles as captains for sports based on competition between individuals are “fundamentally the same” as those between groups, such as soccer and ice hockey: they said they try to make sure everyone on the team is working hard, even though they are not playing together.
Still, Kent added that overcoming the inherent competitiveness within the team can be difficult.
Heavyweight crew captain Tom Dethlefs ’12 described his role as the coach’s “personal lens into the team,” but added that the other team members also have strong relationships with their coach.
Gladstone, his coach, described the captain as the “symbolic contact person” on the team, someone who can tell him the thoughts and impressions of team members, but also said that this relationship is not necessarily unique to the captain.
“I form personal relationships with all of the athletes on the team,” he said. “A hierarchy of communication is really not the case.”
Lightweight crew captain David Walker ’12 agreed that while his role is somewhat unique in terms of communicating with the coach off the water, when racing he is just “one of nine people in the boat working together to try to win.”
ONE PER TEAM
On the team, the captain’s responsibilities include making sure none of the team members are struggling, fielding questions or concerns from teammates, keeping everyone motivated at practice and helping to organize practice times.
But all 33 varsity captains serve not only as liaisons between coaches and team members but also within the whole athletic community: the Captain’s Council, a group that meets monthly with Cole, who is primarily involved in fundraising for development and outreach for the Athletics Department.
“Yale Athletics wanted to give the captains an opportunity to learn from each other about best leadership practices and to share common issues or successes,” Cole said, adding that the council has been a tradition since before she was a student.
Cole, who served as the women’s lacrosse captain during her senior year, said the meetings provide a good opportunity to talk about issues affecting both the Athletics Department and the campus as a whole. In February, she said, the council discussed issues of sexual harassment and hazing.
Yale is the only Ivy League school and one of the only universities in America with an explicit rule that each team have only one captain, Cole added.
As a result, Cole said, “the captain is a very visible person.”
Benedict said that captains are often consulted by the administration for feedback on issues within the athletic community, due to their demonstrations of effective leadership. She and three other captains interviewed said that they feel captainship is an established position of leadership on campus, similar to leaders of political groups or student publications.
The administration required all captains to attend the Student Leadership Training sessions required for all leaders of registered undergraduate organizations earlier this year.
Hatten noted that besides participating in the Captain’s Council, there are no other duties assigned to captains on campus. Still, Walker, the lightweight crew captain, said captains have an opportunity to serve as role models for their team members, and other Yalies, on campus.
For example, women’s hockey captain Aleca Hughes ’12 has helped organize the Mandi Schwartz Marrow Donor Registration Drive at Yale for the past two years, and has founded the Mandi Schwartz Foundation, which aims to support youth hockey players living with cancer in honor of their teammate who died of leukemia last year.
Former soccer captain Dennen said inidividual teams take on many community outreach projects, which he said may not necessarily be noticed by other members of the Yale community. For example, the soccer team, led by Dennen, volunteered at a New Haven charter school for underprivileged students, and the lacrosse team has carried out similar outreach efforts.
“I hope captains are seen as leaders on campus,” Dennen said. “It’s a huge honor to be elected, and it requires a lot of hard work and determination.”
Captains also hold leadership roles in other areas. Women’s basketball captain Michelle Cashen ’12 and field hockey captain Erin Carter ’12 both work for Yale Sustainability, Cashen as the research assistant for athletics and Carter as the Sustainable Bulldogs engagement coordinator.
Still, many students are unaware of these projects carried out by the captains and other athletes.
“I think captains are more influential in the context of their teams,” George Ramirez ’15 said. “They represent Yale to the media, but toward the average student, they don’t really have much influence. I just haven’t met any — they don’t go around introducing themselves like YCC representatives or something.”
Rachel Miller ’15 said that she does view captains as leaders on campus. Though she couldn’t name any captains, she added that she cannot name the leaders of every organization on campus.
Diana Enriquez Schneider ’13 said she thinks the captains are very important in the Athletics Department, and as such hold meaningful positions in the eyes of those on campus. But varsity sailor Sarah Smith ’15 said captains are a source of untapped potential in terms of impacting the rest of the student body.
“I think they are mainly important for their teams,” Smith said. “Not that they couldn’t be great campus leaders — I just don’t think the position is utilized in that way.”