In Olympic qualification year, the USA sevens team continue to show great progress with a top four finish at this year’s Las Vegas stop on the HSBC World Sevens Series. Leading the team is Madison Hughes, a player I know very well.
— USA Rugby (@USARugby) February 15, 2015
Madison Hughes Captain America
I have been Madison’s Coach at Dartmouth since Fall 2012 and was part of the coaching team of the 2012 USA Junior World Trophy winning side which included Madison at full back. I have seen him develop as a player, a person and as a leader, on and off the field, so I wasn’t surprised when “Maddy” was named US captain. Much was made of the appointment of a player who is still in college and is the youngest player in the USA squad. However new USA 7s Coach Mike Friday was quick to point out that for him, a captain isn’t about age.
“I didn’t realize he was the youngest guy on the team. That’s how much age means to me,” Friday said to Reviewjournal.com. “Age is just a number. It’s about the qualities he has as a man, the way he leads, communicates and carries himself. Some say leaders are born, not made. He commands the respect of the players around him, and he gives respect back, and his work ethic is second to none.”
“Madison is a selfless player who has both the respect of the squad and the ability,” Friday told UR7s.com. “He is not a shouter but understands the game and speaks with authority, calmness, and clarity on what he wants from the boys and has shown the leadership in driving the squad in what we are looking to achieve with the ball and without the ball.”
These are the qualities Mike Friday highlighted but what do other coaches value in their captain? This is a question I asked some of the most experienced international coaches for my forthcoming book and here are some of the qualities they look for.
As with any position on the team it is important to know and understand your role. Being captain should be no different from being a leader within the team. Rugby, both 7s and 15s, is very much a team game and while other sports level sole responsibilities on their captains, rugby tends to be more democratic. A rugby captain is part of a leadership team not a dictator.
“It’s not just about one player; the team is led by a group of decision makers from your captain, to the guy who runs the lineouts, to the fly half who calls the shots. It’s important to have more than one within the team and not rely on this perceived iconic captain.”
England Head Coach, Stuart Lancaster
“Having the understanding that a captain doesn’t do everything,” is how Harlequins Director of Rugby Conor O’Shea sees it. This is important to remember when choosing a captain. They have to show an aptitude to lead and be willing to take on the responsibility. A Coach always looks to put a player in the position that best suits their skills and this includes their leadership abilities.
— Sports Tap (@SportsTapApp) February 9, 2015
On a practical level, the captain ensures that the coach’s tactics and game plan are executed during the game. He is the coaching team’s representative on the pitch and this is something that the captain does both in training and during a game explains USA Eagles Head Coach Mike Tolkin.
“A captain has to bring the coaching staff’s tactics onto the field and the players have to feel him as a coach on the practice field and playing field.”
Gary Gold, Director of Rugby at Super 15 side The Sharks believes “it’s important that the captain speaks sense, understands the game and can be a link between the coaches and the players.” He highlights the captain’s ability to translate instructions and mediate between the two groups as a part of their communication skillset.
“Having an understanding of where coaches and players are coming from and being able to bridge that gap is important. Coaches and players both have expectations and demands that are not always realistic, so to find a leader who can bridge that gap between the two and doesn’t compromise himself leads to him having outstanding leadership qualities.”
— Super Rugby (@SuperRugby) October 24, 2014
With the title of ‘captain’ comes expectation and pressure. The coach and players look to their captain to set the tone in tough times. The captain must act as a stabilising influence and provide an example for his team mates to follow. This comes with experience and testing yourself, not just in rugby but in all aspects of life.
“Rugby requires big people to stand up in the middle of the game and make big decisions and if you have no experience in life of doing that then it’s hard to do it on a rugby pitch in front of 80,000 people.”
At a packed Twickenham the intensity is undoubtedly high but at lower levels of the game the decisions can be just as stressful when they have to be made in front of a crowd of friends and family who you have to face after the game. Having the courage to make mistakes and learn from them, coupled with the strength of character to make decisions and the ability to remain composed during tough moments, all have to be high on the list of skills of any potential captain.
Respect is one of rugby’s core values and a captain must command respect from those around him to be effective. They should inspire their team mates through their actions, their effort and commitment. Eagles Coach Mike Tolkin believes the captain has an important role in setting the standards for the team.
“He has got to set the example for how the team runs and what they expect from themselves, so he has to be hard on himself and toe the line for the rest of the guys as well. There has to be accountability and that starts with him and he has to let the other players know that they have to be accountable.”
“A captain should lead by example in all areas,” says Gary Gold. “You do not have to be the best rugby player on the field, but consistently, at every single training session, weights session, video session and every time he takes to the field he gives 100% of himself.”
Gold goes on to highlight the All Blacks record breaking captain as an example of a player who exemplifies a player who gives it everything.
“You can never say Richie McCaw doesn’t give 100%, or Paul O’Connell or other great captains around the world don’t give 100%. They might not always play well but that’s not what it’s about. Not everyone can play well in every single game.”
Bath Director of Rugby Mike Ford believes that a good leader motivates not by what they say, but what they do. “It’s not about saying anything inspirational, it’s about getting stuck in, saying follow me and doing your job.”
The Complete Package
In addition to his USA duties, Madison is also Captain of the DRFC Men’s team, and is one of very few players in Dartmouth’s long history to be given the position in his Junior year. As Coach of Dartmouth, the role of Captain is not my honour to bestow. It is his team mates who vote for the player to lead them. Being awarded this role is a reflection of the impact Maddy has had on his fellow players here at Dartmouth.
For Madison, he sees his role as captain as being the conduit between the players and coaches with the aim of delivering the game plan.
“The captain has to be able to put what the coach wants, into practice, while still making sure the players are all on the same page. When it comes down to it the coach can give you the game plan and shape of what they want, but it is up to the players to execute the coach’s strategy.”
An experienced leader in both forms of the game, Madison outlines the key differences between his role as a 15s and 7s captain.
“7s is such a quick game that you are making instantaneous decisions. You go into the game with a set pattern of play and there is less variation in that, there are not going to be huge dramatic changes over the course of the game because you don’t have time to assess those changes. When it comes down to it, 7s play is very instinctual and you go with instinctive decision making. Whereas in 15s you often have 30 seconds between plays to work out what’s the score, what’s the time in the game, which play do we want to go with. In 15s it’s slower, so the decision making process can be more thought out.”
What Qualities make a Good Captain
It is clear that being a captain is not about being the biggest, strongest, loudest or quickest. There is not a height, weight or age requirement for the job. It takes a rounded individual who earns the role with their attitude and effort. In Madison Hughes, Mike Friday has made a good choice.
Gavin Hickie, USA Rugby Collegiate All-Americans Forwards Coach, is a former Ireland A & 7s, Leinster and Leicester rugby player now Head Coach of Dartmouth Rugby. He writes for RugbyToday.com and other publications when not coaching and blogging on lineoutcoach.com