Question of the Day

Hey, so I’m team captain of a high school team in the South. Recently, we got a transplant teammate from up north. Though he was out of shape to begin with (the move having disrupted his training) he has worked really hard and put in a ton of effort at every practice, and has made a lot of progress in the limited time he’s been here. However, when our coach released the roster for the travel team (we don’t take the whole team to away regattas) the new kid wasn’t on there. I think it has been a pretty big disappointment – it denies him any chance at youth nationals and means that he will only race twice in the spring season, which doesn’t at all reflect his dedication and commitment.

My co-captain and I personally feel this is unfair, and there have been complaints from my teammates along the same lines. His attitude is better and his erg scores and technique are more competitive than some of the guys that have made the travel team, and I know that we have space in the bus/hotel/etc. However, who makes the travel team is 100% not my call. I definitely feel wary of questioning a coaching decision and don’t want to undermine our coach’s authority and respect. Should I say anything to our coach about possibly including our new teammate on the travel team? And if so, how could I approach it in a way that doesn’t seem like I’m out of line or being disrespectful?

PS – Thank you so much for writing your blog – it’s seriously helped my development as a coxswain in any number of different ways and now we’re using your recordings section to teach our novices. It’s definitely appreciated.

The first thing you’ve got to find out (if you haven’t already) is how your new teammate feels about all of this. Don’t assume he’s disappointed, actually talk to him and find out how he feels. Does he feel like he’s being treated unfairly given the hard work he’s put in or is he OK with how things worked out given the fact that he’s the new guy on the team? The only reason I say this is because you don’t want it to turn into a situation where you think you’re helping him out but in reality you’re potentially only making things worse. (If you’ve ever seen The Incredibles, it’s kind of like when Mr. Incredible saved the guy that didn’t want to be saved.) If he’s OK with you saying something, then fine. If he’s not comfortable with it, let it go. If he’s not comfortable with you guys saying anything but he’s still unsure of why he was left off the team, encourage him to talk to the coach and offer to go with him as moral support.

All that aside, I think being team captain gives you a little more … legitimacy, I suppose … in questioning your coach’s decision. Maybe not directly questioning it but at the very least, getting some clarification on it. I look at team captains the same way I do assistant coaches. I feel like assistant coaches are there to back up the coach’s decisions but at the same time, question them when they don’t feel like they were necessarily the right ones. The worst thing you can do as team captain, in my opinion at least, is be a lemming and not speak up for your teammates when it’s necessary. The coaches don’t always have an ear to the ground with the team like you guys do so if you’re hearing something that we aren’t, I would hope that you’d bring it to my attention so I can address it.

Like you said though, you do have to be cautious in doing this because you don’t want it to come off as you questioning or undermining their authority. Assuming you’ve been on the team long enough to know your coach’s personality, that’ll clue you in on how best to approach it. If they’re fairly laid back and you’ve built up a good relationship with them then you can probably get right to the point. If they’re more … aggressive … then you’ll probably have to spend some time carefully phrasing what you want to say so as to not come off as being (in their eyes) insubordinate. The coaches have complete discretion over their team and the decisions they make and I respect that but I also don’t think that that means they shouldn’t be questioned from time to time. And as I’ve said in the past many, many times, if they want to maintain an atmosphere where their athletes feel like they can approach them with issues like this or whatever else comes up, the willingness to be transparent about why they do the things they do is pretty important.

It’s also important that you go into this with the realization that it is very, very, very, very, very unlikely that anything is going to change. If someone’s already been told that they’re on the team that will be traveling, you can’t really expect the coach to take them off in favor of someone else unless they do something so egregious that the coach has no choice but to remove them. That’s not to say thought that it’s not worth it to speak up. The worst they can say is “no”.

My approach would probably go something like this. First, set up a captains and coaches meeting for either before or after practice (guesstimate that it’ll run for about 20 minutes and plan accordingly). Assuming you have a head coach and an assistant coach, ask both of them to be there, if possible. Go in with your co-captain (make sure you’re both on the same page with everything) and say that you wanted to talk about the travel team and get some clarification on how the coaches decided who was going to be on the roster because there had been some talk amongst the team about it and before you brought up the issues that were brought to your attention, you wanted to hear straight from them what their thought process was in determining who would and wouldn’t make the team. Listen to what they have to say and try to see if you can make the connection between why certain people were left off the roster and others were put on based on what the coaches were looking for during the selection process.

When they’re done, thank them for explaining everything (because they definitely didn’t have to if they felt it was unnecessary or none of your business) and then bring up the concerns you have. Preface it by saying that you’re obviously not trying to undermine them or anything, but over the last few days/week/whatever time frame you’re working with, you both heard your teammates voicing some discontent and felt that it was your responsibility as team captains to bring that to their attention. (I wouldn’t say anything about the people with lower erg scores, worse technique, etc. or knowing that you have space on the bus and in the hotel because all of that is beside the point.)

Tell them about what you’ve seen regarding your new teammate in terms of his dedication, effort, attitude, work ethic, etc. and based on all of that, in addition to him appearing to have all the qualities the coaches were looking for (assuming what you’ve seen aligns with what they said when they explained their selection process), you and your teammates felt that it was unfair to leave him off the team. (I know that if I were in charge of a decision like that and I had the team captains telling me that a significant portion of the team felt that someone who was left off the roster deserved to be on it, I would be taking a step back and reevaluating my decision.)

Let your coaches know that you understand that the decision on who does and doesn’t travel is completely up to them but because there are things that go on that you hear/see that they don’t, you thought it was worth bringing up to them in the hope that this particular teammate could be given additional consideration. At the very least, maybe propose the idea of using him as an alternate when you travel just in case something happens and someone from the original roster is unable to row. Once you’ve done all that, thank them again for talking with you and then leave. Assuming you finish the meeting feeling like it was productive and you handled the situation maturely, you don’t want to press your luck by badgering them for an immediate response. (Even if you don’t feel like the meeting went well, you should still leave without pressing the issue further.) After a day or two, ask them if they’ve given any more consideration to what you talked about and see what they say. Regardless of their final decision, you have to respect it and move on.

The other key thing is that whatever you discuss stays in the room you discussed it in. Don’t leave and then go tell your teammates what you talked about, what the coaches said regarding their decision-making process, etc. because inevitably someone is going to get pissed and say “well, I do all that stuff, why didn’t I make the team” or they’ll take what they heard, go tell someone else, and eventually what was actually said is so twisted and convoluted that it doesn’t even resemble the original conversation. If people ask you what you said or what you talked about, just say “nothing important, just team captain stuff” and leave it at that. The best way to shoot yourself in the foot is to have a productive conversation with your coaches, leave having them thinking that they made the right call in choosing the two of you to be co-captains, and then have them find out after the fact that you two were the start of the rumor mill that they now have to waste practice time shutting down.

I think it’s a good thing that the two of you are considering saying something. I understand why you’re cautious about doing so but I think if you approach it in a mature fashion, you’ll be alright. Like I said, it might not change anything but at least it won’t be for lack of trying. I’d rather have captains on my team that say something when they feel like something needs to be said and not get the results they want than have captains who just sit back and let stuff happen. It’s the act of being a captain vs. being a captain in title only.

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