SSA Blog: England's captain fantastic?

Harry Kane has been announced as England Captain for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia. The role of England Captain has long held an association, like the game in the UK, with the more physical aspects of the game. The captain is supposed to be the embodiment of the 3 Lions, the heartbeat of the team, the leader, based on a model seemingly drawn from a combative military history.

Football is now more professional than ever. Tournament football, which comes at the end of a long domestic season is increasingly demanding technically, tactically and emotionally. So, is a traditional chest pumping, hard tackling lead them over the trenches style of captaincy really the right fit for the modern game?

Harry Kane linkedin.jpg

The role of the captain has always generated debate. The build up to Russia 2018 has been no exception. Whether Gareth Southgate has added to the debate by not naming a fixed captain during his time as England manager is also a matter of opinion.

Part of the problem with naming a captain is the lack of clarity around the role. What is needed/expected from a captain, do different captains excel in different ways and do different teams and situations call for different types of captaincy and leadership?

Simple early research conducted decades ago highlighted that captains were often selected due to their high levels of performance and they tended to occupy central positional roles within a team. These basic propositions seem to have been followed to the present day with the majority of dissenting voices around Kane’s appointment pointing to his playing position rather than any lack of leadership quality.

In their 2014 study ‘The myth of the captain as principle leader’ Fransen et al, established four key leadership areas or roles that exist within a team, these were;

·       Task - linked to tactical advice and key in game performance decisions

·       Motivational – supporting and encouraging teammates to perform

·       Social – develops a positive team ethic and atmosphere

·       External – leads communications between the group and others such as coaches and media

In the same study, where the authors surveyed over 4000 team sport players, results showed that in almost half of cases the nominated captains were not perceived as the leader in any of the four categories outlined. This led them to conclude that a shared leadership model could actually be the most efficient way to maximise team cohesion and performance.

As mentioned earlier, Gareth Southgate may have added to the media speculation regarding the captaincy by sharing the responsibility around the group in the build up to the World Cup. In interviews since the announcement it has become clear that Kane knew his fate over a month before the media announcement. But has Southgate, by exposing Jordan Henderson, Gary Cahill and Eric Dyer to the role and formally establishing them in the minds of other players as captains, enabled him to build a wider leadership team which, according to the research can result in more effective outcomes?

Cotterill & Fransen suggested in their 2016 paper, examining leadership in team sports, that good captaincy can have a marked impact on performance. By identifying a number of players and sharing the leadership roles Southgate may have established a system that better supports the needs of modern international tournament captaincy.

Looking back at the areas identified as the role of a captain, in football, the tactical decisions are made by the manager and coaching staff so this area is of limited importance, particularly when dealing with elite well drilled players.

Under FIFA rules a captain must be named for the tournament to act as the focal point for officials. This then naturally expands to other groups such as fans and media fulfilling the external element of the job. But behind the scenes, as we have heard from so many previous tournaments, the motivational and social responsibility is key to establishing a happy and cohesive squad.

With three previous captains within the squad presented recently by the management team as leaders, the scope for effective leadership across these key areas is increased. Players are no longer limited in who they seek advice from, vent frustrations to, or socially engage with.   

Gareth Southgate has challenged the status quo in a number of ways since becoming England manager. In naming Harry Kane as his captain, it seems as if he has conformed to the old adage of your best player is the captain. However, the way he has developed other leaders within the group prior to the tournament shows his broader understanding of the demands associated with the role.

Should Kane be the England Captain? Of course.

Should Southgate be praised for the process by which he has developed this situation? Absolutely.

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