Originally published in VolleyballUSA, Fall 2016
Christa Dietzen has been a captain – and a very good one – at every level of her impressive volleyball career … Hopewell (Pa.) High School, Penn State (two NCAA titles), the U.S. Women’s National Team (first World title) and the U.S. Women’s Olympic Team (2012 silver, 2016 bronze).
“It’s never a bad thing when a teammate earns the nickname ‘Mom’ from her teammates," U.S. Women's National Team coach Karch Kiraly said of Dietzen in 2016. "It means she’s looking out for them and notices if something is awry and checks in to make sure people are doing all right … And if things aren’t OK, she’s looking to help that person find ways to make things better. That’s one of Christa’s many strengths.”
Dietzen shares advice for current or future team captains:
- Find your strength as a leader. There are many ways to lead and many different kinds of leaders. You don’t need to lead the same way as someone else does. Be yourself. But also be sure to work on areas of leadership that don’t come naturally. For instance, your coach may ask you to be more vocal or tell you that the team needs more energy from you. Those may not be your top strengths, but as captain, your priority is what’s best for the team. If being more vocal and bringing more energy will help, step up to the challenge.
- Take younger players under your wing. If you’re a sophomore, junior or senior in high school or college, get to know the freshmen. I remember going out for pizza with the freshmen when I was a sophomore at Penn State. Sharing a meal with younger players is a great way to begin building a strong relationship. It takes away the hierarchy, opens lines of communication and helps build trust.
- Lead by example. When you’re the captain, more eyes are on you. The younger players are going to look up to you and seek you out for guidance. So, obviously, it’s important to set a good example. Be aware of how you handle yourself on the court, what you put on social media, what you say to the press. You’re under a different microscope. Don’t be afraid of it. Just be sure that you are a good role model, so you can help others and be a good representative for your team, your school, your hometown and your family. And remember, you can’t hold others accountable if you aren’t accountable for your own actions.
- Take care of yourself. You can’t take care of others if you don’t take care of yourself. Captains need mentors, too, so you should have people you can go to for advice who are outside the coaching staff. Find someone you look up to – maybe a former player or teammate who has been through similar experiences. It’s important for you to know that you’re not alone and have someone outside the coaching staff who you can bounce ideas off of.
- Embrace vulnerability. Just because you’re the captain doesn’t mean you have all the answers. If you’re leading by example and doing the right things, one of the best gifts you can give younger players is sharing a moment when you struggled. That will help you form a closer bond with your teammates and show them that you’ve faced frustrating challenges too.
- Get comfortable having uncomfortable conversations. This was an area I needed to work on. My whole life, I’ve gravitated more toward being the teacher’s pet, and I would often side with the coaches. As captain, you’re the liaison between your teammates and the coaches, so you need to be able to hear all sides of an issue. And you also need to be able to challenge the other side, whether it’s the players or the coaches. Sometimes, the issues are difficult. Sometimes, you have to hold people accountable. It can be tough, but to be a good captain, you can’t always take the path of least resistance.
- Go the extra mile. If you see someone struggling or having a bad day, spend a little extra time figuring out what’s bothering them. That might mean meeting them after practice or after class. Help them work through it as best you can. Show them that you’re there for them.
- Develop other leaders. If you see younger members of the team with leadership qualities, share what you’ve learned. Don’t worry that you might be training someone who could become an even better leader than you are. Part of your legacy will be passing the leadership baton to the next generation in a way that helps the program continue to thrive.
- Be open to feedback. If you take your ego out of the equation, listening to feedback from others can be a huge benefit. Our USA coach, Karch Kiraly, is really good about that. He’s always asking others for input. That’s how you learn and become better at whatever you’re doing. Like I mentioned earlier, you’re not going to have all the answers. It’s important to stay open-minded and take advice.