Are rugby team captains born or bred?

Some players exude captaincy ability early in their playing days, others grow into it. So what sets apart a good captain from a great motivational captain?

Simple, stupid

Whatever the captain says, it should be simple and understandable. When a captain starts to set complicated, over elaborate or over ambitious targets, players become demotivated.

The difficulty and the size of the task seem too daunting. To avoid this, on the pitch, the captain should translate targets into small segments of effort. For instance: “Let’s up the pressure for the next five minutes boys.”


A motivational captain keeps players feeling secure. A fear of failure will severely inhibit players – players need encouragement when afraid and the captain will often be the closest person of authority to ensure this happens.

A secondary message, a message passed via another player from the captain, can also boost player confidence should they feel under pressure.

Understanding fears from a player’s point of view is a skill a captain should develop. Often a player will fear for his place in the side. A captain will be able to communicate this fear to the coach and together they can work to make the player feel secure for this match.

Of course, should the player be too secure, then the reverse motivational talk might be required!


Once a player feels secure, especially in his role and position in the team, the next level of motivation is to build his self-esteem.

Key to this is to make the player understand his worth. You are born with self-worth and it grows as your ability grows. A captain can show the player what he is capable of and remind him of his best moments in previous matches or training.

It is a bit like the unconditional love of a parent – you actually make the player think he is wonderful and boost his ego without reference to his downsides.

And because the captain is on the same level as the player, it can be more effective than the words of the more distant coach. Plus, the captain can do it quietly and quickly in the game, judging the moment.

Examples include:

  • “Come on Johnny, I’ve seen you hit these penalties loads of times in training with your eyes shut, just do it again.”
  • “Richie, you’ve beaten faster wings than that on the outside, give it a go.”
  • “The lineout’s looked class all week in practice, let’s show them today.”
  • “Great tackle Gerry, I can see the fear in the eyes of the fly half now.”


A captain needs to help the players imagine their best. This prepares the mind and focuses the thoughts.

Former England head coach Clive Woodward certainly prepared the “top two inches” of the World Cup-winning squad in 2003, in other words – their brains.

Every player will improve with the ability to close his eyes and “see” the next process. And the captain can encourage this – “remember what it was like when… ” should be a well-worn phrase as the captain gathers the players at a stoppage.

Creates a challenge

A competitive player responds to a challenge – and the captain’s role is to create this challenge as the game progresses.

“Are you better than that player?” “Do you want to beat that target?” might be the words ringing in the ears of the good players as the captain individually addresses each man.

Takes responsibility

A good captain can be motivational to a team, because he is the “team”. When a decision is made, he takes responsibility and should an error of judgment occur, then it is the captain who shoulders this. The buck stops at the captain.

This article is from International Rugby Coaching.

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