The Captain Class

Captain Class: The Hidden Force That Creates the World's Greatest Teams

by Sam Walker

Bryant Wolf recommended this book to me in November 2019, and Bryant's 4 takeaways are:

  1. It's not the most talented people with the best pedigree who win. This is so important and so hard to internalize because it's so heretical. Young teams need to know that putting a bunch of stars in a room doesn't make a good team, and in fact, those teams frequently underperform and can be beaten. On the flip side it also means when you're the better team on paper, that's helping you less than you think.
  2. Carry water. Do the things that aren't sexy to help the team. Get hotel reservations. Carry the disc bag. Literally, make sure everyone has enough water. And also, drill the fundamentals, the boring stuff. Dump sets, in cuts, break throws. Create a space and culture where people are willing to do the unglamorous stuff is the thing that earns you the glamorous stuff.
  3. Be the one to try a little bit harder. There are times when everyone's tired, or it's raining, or you're losing by a lot. As people, we tend to pull back and try to preserve our energy. The only way to win is to create the opposite feedback loop. Be the one trying, lead by example and do more. It's contagious. When everyone is holding a rope in tug of war they're not trying as hard as if they were tugging alone, unless they see someone giving it their all, then statically they try harder.
  4. Lastly, the best players rarely make the best leaders, that's totally fine. Let the star athletes of the world focus on their game and let other people take on more leadership roles.

In the end, the world’s most extraordinary sports teams had exactly one trait in common. The most crucial ingredient in a team that achieves and sustains freakishly historic greatness is the character of the player(s) who lead it.

The truth is that leadership is a ceaseless burden. It’s not something people should do for the self-reflective glory, or even because they have oodles of charisma or surpassing talent. It’s something they should do because they have the humility and fortitude to set aside the credit, and their own gratification and well-being, for the team. The best leaders do this in pressure-packed moments and in every minute of every day.

The author examines the best sports teams of all time (methodology and top 16 teams at the bottom) and uncovers seven common themes that are present in the Captains of those Tier 1 teams.

Seven Characteristics of Tier 1 Captains

1. Extreme doggedness — They just keep coming. Tier 1 Captains are leaders who keep coming and do not lose their focus and do not give up. They are relentless. Persistence and keeping at it are great attributes of a leader and can quickly rub off on the team members. This attribute is especially important in the leader of an organization who aspire to solve difficult problems because that path is filled with disappointments, obstacles, and failures.

Social loafing occurs when people in a group do not work to their maximum capacity because they think others will do more work (i.e., team tug of war – most people pull less than their max effort – unless they see a team member clearly giving 100% effort – then they seek to match their teammate's intensity). This is required trait for the most fit teams who push one another to do extra reps in the weight room and on the track. You need Captain Class teammates who demonstrate consistently high levels of effort, even when folks are not watching.

2. Aggressive play that tests the rules — This looks at the mindset of pushing the boundaries, not accepting the status quo. Fighting the mindset of “we have always done it this way”. Challenging old ways of governance and risk management which come in the way of adopting modern technology or methods. Being able to reframe the problem by questioning ourselves and our teams to get to the root of the problem. Reframing the problem can offer a different perspective to solving the issue. Play physical and experiment with contact early in the stall count to pressure the thrower.

3. Carrying Water — Hydration is a process, not an event! One of my favorite memories playing for Georgetown Ultimate was the 4th game of the day on Saturday at Regionals in 2012. Winner advanced to Sunday at Regionals (our goal all season), and the loser goes home. Georgetown's D scored 6 points in a row in the second half to beat Clemson, and as an O-line player who didn't see the field, I used all my energy to refill water bottles from the big jug and run them onto the field for my D-line teammates to get a quick sip in between points. Identify ways that your energy can add value to teammates who are on the field of play.

The idea of leading with influence and not title or authority is a fantastic one. This is how people follow you because they want to. I have seen great leaders be great team players. They are ready to take one for the team and do thankless jobs (i.e., carrying the disc bag, bringing sunscreen, logistics emails, etc.). There is also the notion of servant leaders. As a leader, asking the question of how can I help? What can I do that will help the team be more successful? Being able to wear multiple hats and be a part of the team. A leader’s ability to operate with humility can be inspiring for the team. Remember: what's best for the team is always more important than what's best for the individual (you).

Tier 1 captains were exemplary supporting players, both on and off the field. Great captains lowered themselves in relation to the group whenever possible in order to earn the moral authority to to drive the team forward during tough moments. US women's soccer captain, Carla Overbeck, frequently carried her teammates' luggage into hotels on road trips, so later on the field she had earned the right to get in their face to push them to be their best and demand significant effort from those teammates who knew she was putting in work for them, too. The easiest way to lead it turns out is to serve.

4. Low-key, practical communication — Successful leaders have usually been great communicators. Not all start as being great communicators but over time, successful leaders seem to figure out how to be strong communicators. Leaders needs the ability to paint a vision for the teams and provide the context that the teams can operate within.

Most Tier 1 teams had open talkative cultures in which grievances were aired, strategies discussed, and criticisms brought up without delay. These groups allowed everybody to speak up and created psychological safety. Captains who are publicly reserved but privately talkative helps create this inclusive dynamic.

During the San Antonio Spurs 19 season streak of winning consistency, during which they won five NBA titles, the Spurs where never the stars of the NBA's offensive and defensive statistical tables. They were outliers in one category: Communication. They spent far more time talking among themselves mostly as a means of tightening their choreography together.

Tier 1 teams had talkative cultures where all the members talk to one another in an open and democratic way. The leaders of these teams circulate widely and communicate to everyone with enthusiasm and energy. They check-in with each of their teammates before, during, and after games. Tier 1 captains like Tim Duncan all fostered and sustained this communication culture despite any lack of enthusiasm for public speaking.

5. Motivates others with nonverbal displays — This one is an important one in the world of sports which is like a stage performance. The teammates and fans are always watching and looking for nonverbal displays. Pat on a back, high fives, or confident body language — these can be powerful tools to communicate endorsement or recognize team members.

Neuroscience is now proving that our brains are capable of making deep and powerfully fast acting and emotional connections with the brains of the people around us. Increase the amount of time you make eye contact with team members on and off the field and learn to read one another's eyes (and eye brows) for enhanced understanding and group coordination. In ultimate, spend more time looking at the thrower's eyes to see what he sees and what he wants to see develop next.

6. Strong conviction and the courage to stand apart — In the organizational context, this attribute is especially important for a leader who is driving transformation — cultural, technological or business. Strong conviction about your vision of the future state and the courage to see things differently and stand apart are critical for driving impactful changes from the status quo.

In order to be effective the team leader must operate at the margins of what members presently like and want, rather than at the center of the collective consensus.

7. Emotional Control — Being in control of emotions is extremely important for leaders. Leading people and working with people is full of emotional exchanges. People bring their whole self to work. People take pride in their work. Being able to understand personal emotion in a situation and then keep the conversation focused on the issue and not the emotions is very important. Being empathetic helps us see another person’s point of view and helps get to a better place and often, into win win position.

Key Takeaways

Great captains figure out ways to bring out the very best in the others on the team because everyone needs help to be their best.

Great captains know the individual motivational needs of the members of their team, and do what is needed to motivate each of them.

Great captains put in the time, do the grunt work, “carry the water,” to earn the right to push the others to the limit.

Great captains really are not in it for their own fame or glory or reputation. They care supremely about the success of the team.

Great captains are, by definition, not out in front. They truly lead from “the back.”

Great captains do. not. quit. They are relentless!

Leadership = Potential * Motivation * Development [L=PMD]

Performance = Attitude * Effort * Skill [P=AES]

[Note: Your attitude is simply + or -, you control your effort, and more positive effort will increase your skill over time to perform better]


The first part of the book looks at the research methodology for identifying the most successful teams looking at multiple sports over the entire period for which historical data exists. A team was defined as having more than five members, its members had to interact with an opponent and its members worked together, which discounts Olympic sports like wrestling boxing and gymnastics. Next step identify the most successful teams: by definition they had to play a major sport, which will ruled out some obscure regional sports with a narrow fan base such as curling and American lacrosse. Finally the team’s dominance had to stretch over multiple years. For a team to qualify as freakishly successful it had to have had sufficient opportunity to prove itself which implied major competitions against the very best opposition year after year. Next the team’s record had to stand alone, by definition of cumulative wins all titles their results had to be peerless.

After evaluating every team in sports history only 16 stood up to all eight of these questions tests subtests rules and claims. These teams were:

  1. Collingwood Magpies Australian rules football 1927 to 30
  2. New York Yankees Major League Baseball 1949 to 53
  3. Hungry international men’s football 1950 to 55
  4. Montréal Canadians National Hockey League 1955 to 60
  5. Boston Celtics National Basketball Association 1956 to 69
  6. Brazil international men’s football 1958 to 62
  7. Pittsburgh Steelers National Football League 1974 to 80
  8. Soviet Union international men’s ice hockey 1980 to 84
  9. The New Zealand All Blacks international rugby union 1986 to 90
  10. Cuba international women’s volleyball 1991 to 2000
  11. Australia international women’s field hockey 1993 to 2000
  12. United States international women’s football 1996 to 99
  13. San Antonio Spurs National Basketball Association 1997 to 2016
  14. Barcelona Fashion football 2008 to 2013
  15. France international men’s handball 2008 to 2015
  16. New Zealand All Blacks international rugby union 2011 2015

The most important thing that each of the 16 Tier 1 teams teaches us is that leadership matters.

The chief trait of a superior leader wasn’t what they were like – it was what they did on a daily basis. Habits and consistency matter.

Richard Hackman's theory has 4 principles that distinguish the personal qualities of excellent team leaders from those for whom leadership is a struggle.

  1. Effective leaders know some things.
  2. Effective leaders know how to do some things.
  3. Effective leaders should be emotionally mature. Leaders have to manage their own anxieties while adapting to the feelings of others.
  4. Effective leaders need a measure of personal courage. To push a team forward the leader must disrupt its routines and challenge the definition of what is normal or acceptable. Since this often generates resistance and even anger leaders must have the courage to stand apart.

Case Study on Tim Duncan

Buried inside an obscure 1997 clinical psychology textbook called Aversive Interpersonal Behaviors, there is a chapter titled “Blowhards, Snobs, and Narcissists: Interpersonal Reactions to Excessive Egotism.” The paper concluded that self-centered people who project arrogance through their speech and body language tend to be viewed less favorably by others and can weaken a group’s cohesion. The paper was written by 21-year-old Timothy Duncan. Duncan wasn’t just another psychology major at Wake Forest. He was the star of the basketball team. From the moment he arrived in San Antonio, Duncan seemed determined to abide by the conclusions of his undergraduate thesis. Duncan never asked for special privileges, never skipped practices, never bristled at being dressed down after poor performances. It’s as if Duncan had used his Wake Forest thesis as a blueprint for how to be an effective teammate in a league where “narcissists” and “blowhards” were the lords of the realm.

Tim Duncan basically later lived out that philosophy as the captain of his professional team, the San Antonio Spurs. Duncan did not give speeches to his team; he watched each player, learned what motivated him (and each player required different kinds of/approaches to motivation); he draped his arm around their shoulders, got in their face, or gave them that extra push, NEVER for any glory of his own, and always for the betterment of the team.

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