The Captain Class

I’ve just read Sam Walker’s book The Captain Class and mercy, is it a book to argue with. In a good way.

The project that led Walker to this book had two components: first, to identify the greatest teams in the history of team sports; and second, to figure out whether they have anything in common. That first one is where most of the debate comes in, especially since Walker does not think that Michael Jordan’s Bulls teams qualify. (Die, heretic!) Walker explains his reasoning here and here. The tl;dr: it’s pretty good reasoning.

But, for my money, it’s with Component Two that the book really gets interesting. What Walker discovered was that these wildly successful sports teams are also wildly divergent in character: for instance, some had innovative coaches, some had conservative coaches, some had mediocre coaches. But what they all did have in common was a Captain — an on-the-field leader. That might not in itself be wholly surprising, but what is surprising is that those captains almost never match the conventional picture of sporting leaders: they tend not to be dynamic figures, full of vim and vigor, cheerleaders, encouragers, sunny vocal outgoing types. Sometimes they’re grumpy and prickly, or quiet and reserved. How they managed to be powerful leaders anyway … well, you’ll have to read the book to discover that. And it’s very much worth your time.

Specifically for my fellow soccer aficionados: Walker is great on an obviously totemic figure like Ferenc Puskás — but he’s also illuminating on those who don’t get nearly enough credit for their leadership of truly great teams: Carla Overbeck for the USWNT and Carles Puyol for Barcelona.

It’s a book that gives you a lot to think about — expect more posts about it in the future.