It Is Not Just The CEO That Matters – Coaches & Team Captains Are Key Too!

Apr 14, 2017 1 Min Read

Coaches and team captains are critical cogs to team’s success


A few weeks ago, I met up with an old student from the University of Bridgeport, where I played soccer in the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association). We talked about that one season when our team – the Purple Knights – had a winning season and almost reached the playoffs. And of course, the conversation drifted to the person who pushed us to our full potential: our coach Henrik Svatborn.

Several years ago, I heard Usain Bolt’s coach Glen Mills speak about how he enables Usain to not only train hard but also enjoy his training. Usain Bolt was in Malaysia recently, and he spoke about his coach being the only person for whom he would do whatever is instructed. He trusts his coach completely, and feels that he is who he is today partly because of Glen’s encouragement and relentless pushing that enabled him to achieve superhuman performance.

Usain Bolt

I coach young children, but have also been captain of many football teams. I know that there is a huge difference on the pitch where the presence of a team captain is felt and heard. This week, Eva and I explore how leadership in sports (i.e. sports coaches and team captains) are critical factors in the success and failure of a team. Let’s start with exploring coaches first.


The coach

The coach who had the greatest impact on my life was Mokhtar Dahari, a Malaysian football legend and my first football coach. He drilled in me the importance of hard work, perseverance and relentlessness; to keep going despite challenges. Malaysian goalkeeper R. Arumugam was another who coached me. His sudden death shocked us, but he remains a constant inspiration to all of us.

This might interest you: Malaysian Star Athletes Share Their Pillar Of Strength

Ken Carter, was raised in an abusive family, and focused more on academics while growing up.

However, he found a liking for sports, particularly, basketball. As a coach, he insisted that his team members should take their studies – in addition to their training – very seriously, to allow them access to college and other opportunities.

When he found out that many of his team members from the winning Richmond High School basketball team were failing their classes, he stopped training and matches until the team got back on track with their academic performance.

The community was initially outraged; in fact, they voted for the team to go back to practice.

But the players themselves saw his intention, and refused to play until their academic results improved. In the end, he was praised for prioritising good values for his team. The 2005 film Coach Carter, starring Samuel L. Jackson tells this story.

John Wooden was the first person to be inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame; he was also ranked by ESPN as ‘the greatest coach of all time, across all sports’. Wooden was the UCLA basketball coach for 40 years, not moving on to NBA or more high profile roles because he also had a passion to teach English. He wanted his players to win in life, not just in basketball.

He would pull theories out of his conversations with his father as a small boy growing up on a farm. “You should never try to be better than someone else. Always learn from others, and never cease to be the best you can be,” he said in a Ted Talk.

“Success is peace of mind, which is a direct result of self-satisfaction in knowing you made the effort to become the best that you are capable of becoming.”

Vince Lombardi, one of the most successful American football coaches, was famous for his temper and the high demands he placed on his team. However, it seemed as if behind the scenes, he understood the need to connect with each player differently, and the need to treat each of them as individuals. A study by Kramer and Shaap notes that Lombardi had in fact known which players needed to be encouraged by criticism, and which ones needed more positive reinforcement to bring out the best in them.

Over at the other side of the Atlantic, Alex Ferguson started his football career as a forward player in Scottish teams, and then went on to manage football clubs – first in Scotland, and then for Manchester United, from 1986 to 2013.

Sir Alex Ferguson. Source: Flickr | Andrea Sartorati

He is seen by many players, managers and analysts as one of the greatest and most successful managers of all time.

“When I was a coach, everyone had to have a short haircut, all shaven. I don’t know how managers allow players on the bus with a beard, but that’s not for me. What I liked to see is my team coming to the ground with the United blazer on, white shirt, and a tie, because they represent Manchester United. I think it’s part of the education that you give them; the responsibility as a Manchester United player. It’s just the discipline.”

Every coach we have studied has done things differently, yet they had a profound influence on the players’ motivation, the environment and the system of learning and growth. All of them were consistent about what needed to be done and what was to be expected.

These coaches were more than just coaches; they were teachers, mentors, friends, even parental figures for many, and showed emotions, passion, authenticity, honesty and patience. They were also non-judgemental.

Some were perfectionists and organised, while others had special abilities (like the ability to evaluate player potential, read and analyse the game, help players overcome their own shortcomings, or effectively integrate all support staff).

But most importantly, they were good at establishing an athlete and team-centred environment that was structured, and family-like. They could establish strong and lasting professional relationships with the athletes, but were also personable and approachable.

And even when they coached, their actions had elements of teaching, communicating, motivating, responding, preparing, performing and disregarding the irrelevant. And they could seamlessly move from demanding and pushy to confidante, counsellor and personal advisor.

As we studied coaches in sports, we tried to make a comparison to business. Over the past few years, I have been meeting various English Premier League clubs. Having studied their set-up, we see how it varies from the way businesses are run.

Most businesses have a CEO in whom all the power resides. Most sports clubs have team managers or coaches who manage the teams and their performances, whilst the CEO manages the business. Businesses have managers that have operational duties.

Although coaching seems to be a word used often enough in business these days, very few managers truly coach their employees as sports managers do. Most managers are like team captains, who play and instruct while the game is on. In sports though, coaches make the biggest impact before the game, and during breaks.

Related infographic: Infographic: Top 10 Traits Of Winning Coaches

The team captain

Paolo Maldini – the AC Milan and Italy captain for many years who was fondly called ‘Il Capitano’ – is considered a leader by fellow footballers. As a permanent name on the Milan roster, he inspired everyone by the way he played, as well as his dedication to football and his team.

No matter what offers were made, he rejected them all and stayed with the club all the way.

Maldini, in his role as captain and beyond, always gave his very best to rally the team when facing a tough opponent, and always took the risky tackles for the team. From an unassuming start, he became very vocal, always standing up for his team.

Gheorghe Hagi and Paolo Maldini (left). Source: Flickr | l3o_

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, an attacking right-handed middle-order batsman and wicket-keeper, is widely regarded as one of the greatest finishers in limited-overs cricket. He captained the Indian team in limited-overs formats from 2007 to 2016 and in Test cricket from 2008 to 2014.

It was under his captaincy that India climbed to No. 1 in the ICC Test Rankings in December 2009.

After that, he managed to lead India in a series-levelling world championship of Tests against the South Africans in February 2010.

India also managed to draw the Test series 1–1 in South Africa later that year. After the 2011 ICC Cricket World Cup win in the final against Sri Lanka, Sachin Tendulkar proclaimed Dhoni to be the best captain he had played under.

He noted that it was Dhoni’s calm influence that helped all his teammates during the competition, and he noted how incredible Dhoni was in handling the pressure. Dhoni was also the kind of captain who, when the team won, would let someone else from the team go and face the media to share the pride and achievement. When the times were tough, however, he would take up the responsibility of answering the hard questions himself.

Dupuis, Bloom and Loughead set out to explore leadership behaviours shown by leaders in athletics (those assigned the honorary title of ‘captain’ by their institution), looking at hockey teams specifically.

Their findings categorised the influence these captains exerted on their teams in the following areas:

1. Interpersonal characteristics and experience

This refers to the type of player the captain is, and the experience they have within the sport – most of them grew up playing the sport from a young age, having worked with a variety of captains in the past which then gave them the opportunity to learn and derive from the styles of others.

Qualities such as communicating effectively; being honest and respectful; having a positive attitude; being able to control emotions; remain positive and exhibit trust and respect seem to be what the interviewed captains identified as keys to their successes.


2. Verbal interactions

Their patience in observing the teammates’ attitudes and performance before giving feedback; their ability to identify when to be more autocratic in communicating a message and when to adopt a more democratic approach; and the ability to choose the right time to communicate, was found to have made a difference. Additionally, it was important for captains to work well with the coach to effectively relay messages from the team to the coach, and also work well with the informal leaders in the team – players that have the ability to influence others and help you with a message.


3. Task behaviours

This refers to activities that are administrative in nature, such as helping the coach with off-season planning, fundraisers, meeting the fans, representing the team in media sessions, meetings with sponsors and award ceremonies. During games, it’s dealing with referees, or resolving team issues on the spot. Essentially, this is about setting the right example – willingly helping in all the activities that do not actually have to do with training and the game itself, but are crucial to the success of the team. This is also a way to set the norm for the team, and to mentor younger members.


Bring it all together

While coaches have a significant effect, team captains play critical roles during the game. When the team is down, or when the referee seems to be against them, it is the captain who makes a difference. On October 26, 2008, I was watching an Everton game, at a point when their entire season seemed lost, and over.

They were playing Manchester United with an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo and were down 1-0. Captain Phil Neville, whom the crowd never felt was an Evertonian, tried to rally the troops but seemed to have failed.

Then, he decided to take action himself – he flew in and slide tackled Ronaldo, causing him great pain. His team saw his passion to make a difference. After that the game swung over – Everton scored shortly after and the season suddenly came alive. Captains can make a huge difference.

Although coaches define the philosophy, tactics and game play, captains ensure that they get executed. A big question we ask ourselves is: In business, who are the coaches and the captains?

We know that the CEO sets direction in business, but do they play the same role as a coach? In businesses with hundreds of people, the CEO hardly has the bandwidth and ability to influence and hand-hold each employee. So, who are the coaches in business? Coaches manage a small group of players, and tirelessly work to get the best out of the group.

Are the managers in the businesses that we run considered great coaches? Do they enable their teams to outperform the competitor? Do managers help to establish winning environments and sustain them? Do they push their employees to excellence, but at the same time show enough care to counsel and offer parent-like love to them? Are they able to integrate the support team (backroom services) with the actual field team (sales or operating teams) to form a cohesive winning team?

And more importantly, do they have great captains in their teams that enable leadership to be permeated in the field? Many teams have great managers but lack captains on the ground who can help drive performance in a just-in-time manner. How do we develop this form of leadership in all the teams within our organisation?

This article poses more questions than answers. We hope this reflective piece will enable each CEO, business leader, manager and team lead to reflect on your own leadership. Are you a great coach like Sir Alex Ferguson and do you have a great captain in your team? If you don’t, maybe it is time to explore how you can grow yourself into a coach or captain that makes a difference in your team.


Roshan Thiran and Evangelia Christodoulou spend a lot of their free time (i.e. late nights and weekends!) researching leadership, and are always amazed that the more they research, the more questions are uncovered. Roshan comforts himself with the saying: “questions change the world, not answers” and looks forward to hearing your responses to this article. To connect with Roshan, go to or via LinkedIn to follow his research and findings. He is also on Twitter (@lepaker)

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This article is published by the editors of with the consent of the guest author. 

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