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O Captain, my Captain!


IN a poll of forty-nine historians and political scientists, organised by the Chicago Tribune in 1982 to rank all the Presidents of the United States, Abraham Lincoln came out on top though he was assassinated while in office because of his stance against slavery.

Walt Whitman, an American poet, wrote “O Captain! My Captain!” to honour Lincoln following his assassination, seeing the President as the captain of a ship who, in the process of bringing a great victory (in his case, the end of the American Civil War) has been killed in action. The poem ended with the lines, “Exult O shores, and ring O bells! But I with mournful tread, Walk the deck my Captain lies, Fallen cold and dead.”

It is a sad, but real fact in school sport that the role of captain also lays “fallen cold and dead”. Coaches have so taken over every team that the captain is so in name only and has no responsibility, other than perhaps tossing the coin at the beginning of the match (and even then the coach has probably told him what to do). The coach has failed to understand his role in school sport, where sport is a vehicle for children to learn more than just sport, and has failed to realise that the sports team is a powerful means for children to learn about responsibility and leadership. In fact, coaches would do well, especially in junior teams, to give the captaincy to different players for each match, so that each player can learn from the experience about leadership.

Of course, we all know why coaches do not do this — they want to win every match. They will set fields, show errors, explain moves, shout instructions, determine tactics. Yet that is to miss the point of school sport; it is not principally about winning but about learning. Children have to learn about responsibility and leadership and sport gives them a wonderful opportunity to do so.

School sports coaches would do well to learn from Lincoln’s own leadership qualities. Lincoln possessed a commitment to the rights of the people and coaches should show a similar commitment to give all players the right to experience leadership. Coaches, like Lincoln, must be able to show that an ordinary player is capable of inspiring others to greatness. Pupils who are given an opportunity to be a captain may well make mistakes but coaches must allow, as Lincoln did, their players to learn from them and must, like Lincoln, accept those mistakes as ultimately their responsibility.

What then should and can captains do in school sport? Coaches should be teaching all players how to read a game and how to make appropriate decisions (and not make them themselves). They must give the captain the right and opportunity to give the team talk before and after the game, as well as half-time, based on the coach’s input during the training sessions. In short, the captain should develop the following traits based on the letters of the word ‘captain’. The captain must learn to Communicate during the game; to Ask and Assess what is happening; to Play with responsibility as an example; to adjust Tactics if necessary; to Appreciate and Applaud the efforts and contributions of the players around him; to Include and Inspire his team-mates; to Navigate the way through the opposition with a Never-Say-Never attitude. CAPTAIN, my captain!

Coaches will do well to heed a number of well-known Lincoln quotes as being extremely relevant to them giving their team captains greater responsibility and opportunity. “I’m a success today because I had a friend who believed in me and I didn’t have the heart to let him down.” Our pupils can be a success because they had a coach who believed in them as a captain. Lincoln also said that, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today” – coaches must not escape their responsibility for tomorrow by not giving pupils the opportunity to learn leadership through captaining teams. “Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves.” “I will prepare and someday my chance will come” – our responsibility as coach is to prepare children for leadership through experience so that someday they will indeed have their chance.

Many of us with mournful dread walk the deck of school sport and see the Captains lie fallen. Our sports team may have won many victories but we cannot delight in the fact that the Captain lies on the deck. Coaches have assassinated the position of Captain in school sport; they prolong the slavery of players to the coaches’ whims. Arise, o captain, before the good ship sport is also cold and dead.

  • Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email:

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