It’s not easy being a collegiate athlete. You have to worry about practice, competition and class, and are expected to somehow excel at all of these things. There is also the issue of still having time for your friends and other hobbies you might have, as well as being constantly in the University’s public eye. The men and women of both of RIT’s hockey teams deal with these responsibilities for their entire collegiate careers, and do so extremely well.
If that isn’t enough, a few players pile on to their duties by actually leading the team as captains. This adds a whole new set of responsibilities, such as serving as a
role model for the team, leading practices, and making sure the team operates as a well-oiled machine. What does it mean to lead student athletes both on the ice and off? I had the good fortune to sit down with two of these leaders, Cassie Clayton (jersey No. 25) and Taylor Thurston (jersey No. 2), to talk about their experiences leading the RIT Women’s Hockey team as captains.
You may have wondered how someone actually becomes the captain of a Division I team at a major university and who makes that decision. The coach? The Team? Maybe some sort of circle of hockey elders in a cave deep under the Gene Polisseni Center? Turns out, it’s a bit of a combination of the first two. A captain is selected by a vote done by the team with heavy advisement from the team members who are graduating, and the appointment is made official by the coach. Once selected, captains will generally serve until they graduate. There is no special training once someone is named captain, but they learn from those who come before them. I was told by Thurston that “If there was training, it would be learning to be a good person”
What kind of person becomes a team captain, anyway? Possibly the biggest thing I sensed from speaking with Clayton and Thurston was the belief that the team comes before personal ambition. According to them, a captain is not some sort of all-powerful being who barks out orders at the team. A captain is someone who “Keeps an even keel,” as Thurston put it and leads the team by their own example, rather than merely telling the team what to do. They mentioned that the greatest asset a captain could have was kindness and understanding for other players. “Being captain doesn’t mean that much” said Clayton, “Anyone can have an opinion.” The captains are mentors and friends to the team, not their drill instructors.
Despite Clayton and Thurston’s modesty, captains have several roles that the other players do not have. Captains are responsible for leading practices, getting the team ready for games and often act as intermediaries between the coach and the team. This works both ways. The captains will bring things that the coach wants the team to practice and they will also take things to the coach that the team wants brought up. Captains are often the first to be called on when a problem on the team needs solving, and they are seen as examples for newer players to follow. Captains also serve as teachers to the team as a whole, helping to refine the skills of the team. It was made abundantly clear, however, that the captains do not have a monopoly on leading the team. Any team member can be a leader, teacher or role model. The camaraderie of the team was extremely evident, and it was clear that neither Clayton nor Thurston saw themselves as above their teammates. Rather, they are there to serve to better the team and try to learn from could the others as much as they teach them.
Clayton and Thurston the most difficult part of being a captain was often having to put what’s best for the team before their friendships, both on and off the team. This is always a difficult proposition, especially in the context of being as close as teammates are. However, they say it becomes worth it during times when the team triumphs. One of the team’s greatest achievements was winning the CHA championships two years in a row. Team leaders at the time emphasized this was a team effort rather than the sole efforts of any coach or captain. Clayton and Thurston captains must be role models to the team, sure, but at the end of the day it is the work that is done together as a team that carries a team to victory.
Understanding the nuances of leading a successful team can take years of experience. The RIT Women’s Hockey team is fortunate to have such wonderful friends, teachers mentors and teammates as Clayton and Thurston.