Most high school athletes never receive any type of formal leadership education.
Not so in Austin, Texas, where multiple times a year, captains of team sports at AISD high schools come together on the campus of the University of Texas for Captains Academy, a leadership training program developed by the Center for Sports Leadership & Innovation.
On Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019, the group of 60 student-athletes that gathered in Room 207 of the San Jacinto Residence Hall marked the seventh Captains Academy since the program’s founding in 2016. Seventy-five percent of the young people in attendance were participating in their second Captains Academy.
The focus of this particular session was mindfulness, self-awareness and goal setting. To get the day going, the athletes went through a series of icebreakers. They paired off and were instructed to mirror their partner’s actions, taking turns being the leader and the follower. Then, in their small groups, each athlete thought of an animal and had to put themselves in line according to the size of their animals, without talking. Two truths and a goal, a variation on the classic game two truths and a lie, gave the athletes a chance to open up and share some of their experiences and goals with their small group.
Simple as they were, these exercises helped the captains get over the awkwardness of meeting new people, and you could feel tension in the room dissipate as the athletes went from thinking of the student across the table as “that tennis player from Austin High” to “the girl who picked the rabbit as her animal” or “the boy who has always wanted to learn to play guitar.”
Bringing everyone together again, CSLi program administrator Taylor Brown led the athletes in a guided meditation and introduced the concept of self-awareness. For a number of athletes, it was their first experience with any type of meditation.
The session also included a number of hands-on team activities, including the clear crowd favorite, the marble challenge. Each student-athlete was given a 1-foot section of cardboard pipe, similar to an empty paper towel tube, and each small group of around six students also got a marble. The objective: to get the marble into a waiting styrofoam cup on the other side of the room by rolling it through the tubes.
“[The marble challenge] emphasized teamwork, communication, how to work within a group, proper group dynamics, how not to talk over somebody, how to be a good listener, how to throw out your ideas and then sit back and listen to other people’s ideas,” said facilitator Suneet Singh, an Austin-based emergency room physician who has volunteered at three Captains Academy sessions. “They got to work together as a table, and then they got to work as a team against the other tables.”
Groans were heard when the marble escaped the tubes and rolled across the floor, leaving the team to return to the starting line. Conversely, raucous cheers rang out when a team discovered a winning strategy and began to rapidly advance across the room.
Having facilitators with diverse backgrounds serves as another strength of Captains Academy. In addition to Dr. Singh, this session’s facilitators included a retired Army major general, the leadership development and assessment manager for Dell Medical School and the emergency preparedness coordination at the University of Texas, who previously served in the Air Force. One particularly dedicated facilitator flew in from Los Angeles where she works as an associate director of a Jewish sports academy.
“We bring our kids [to Captains Academy] because they run a great program and the University of Texas puts a lot of great financial resources behind it,” said Austin High head football coach and athletic director Mike Rosenthal, a former Notre Dame and NFL football player. “[Our kids] come back and I even notice [a difference] immediately. They just feel better, they kind of carry themselves with their head a little bit higher, their chest a little bit out, but just they almost feel empowered by what goes on in that room to bring that back on campus and help their teammates. So we see immediate returns on this.”
The session also included a number of activities and worksheets surrounding goal-setting and then concluded with a short presentation from guest speaker Kevin Washington, Texas Football’s director of player development.
Washington kept with the style of Captains Academy and included hands-on activities and back-and-forth chatter with the athletes in his talk, but still managed to cover a number of hard-hitting topics, including focus, the limits we put on ourselves and overcoming obstacles.
He encouraged the athletes to think about the challenges they will face when they return to their schools and are tasked with communicating the training they’ve received to their teammates and classmates.
“Do you know what you’re going to face, what opposition you’re going to face when you go back?” he asked. “Do you know what is going to be hard for you to implement when you go back? Because leadership isn’t this easy thing, right?
“It’s always the hits you don’t see that are the biggest ones, and so you’re trying to get to see, all right, what am I going to face going in here and how do I make sure I make plans to walk through it.”
In just four hours, Captains Academy gave all 60 students inside San Jacinto Residence Hall Room 207 the tools they’ll need to not only spot those hits, but to expertly navigate through them and move onto the next.