Quick, what makes a great sports team? Is it superstar talent, brilliant tactics, money, a genius manager, or all four?
Way back in 2004, I covered an American baseball team, the Boston Red Sox. Early in the season, they struck me as a fun group, but woefully undisciplined. In July, when they dropped back in the league table and were left for dead, I wasn’t surprised. They didn’t fit the profile of the elite teams I’d covered.
In August, however, something clicked. The Red Sox developed a level of focus, confidence and swagger I hadn’t seen. They clawed their way into the postseason and went on to defy massive odds by winning the World Series. It wasn’t quite Leicester City, but it was obvious that something remarkable had happened to them.
What I wanted to know was this: How does a team make the transition from being merely good to being exceptional? What provides the spark?
To find out, I knew I had to create an objective sample of the greatest teams in world history across every major team sport from baseball to the Premier League to Olympic field hockey. I set aside a couple of weeks to create this list, which turned out to be daft. The research took 11 years.
Before I could begin evaluating teams, I had to decide what constitutes a “team” in the first place and after that, what constitutes excellence. I came up with eight tests any team would have to pass to be considered, ranging from how many athletes it must have per side (at least five) to how long its dominance must have lasted (at least four years). The final test was that the team’s accomplishments were unique to its sport.
After sorting through thousands of teams, I ended up with 16: The Collingwood Magpies, Australian rules football (1927-30); The New York Yankees, Major League Baseball (1949-53); Hungary, football (1950-55); Montreal Canadiens, National Hockey League (1955-60); Boston Celtics, National Basketball Association, (1956-69); Brazil, football, (1958-62); Pittsburgh Steelers, National Football League, (1974-80); Soviet Union, ice hockey, (1980-84); New Zealand All Blacks, rugby union, (1986-90); Cuba, women’s volleyball, (1991-2000); Australia, women’s field hockey, (1993-2000); United States, women’s football, (1996-99); San Antonio Spurs, National Basketball Association, (1997-16); Barcelona, football, (2008-13); France, handball, (2008-15); New Zealand All Blacks, rugby union, (2011-15).
Next I began studying these teams to find their moments of transformation. And after looking at just two teams, the answer leaped out. These historic winning streaks corresponded precisely to the arrival or departure (and sometimes both) of exactly one player. And that player was, or eventually became, the captain. In fact, nothing else – from the quality of a team’s manager to its tactics, financial resources, or executive management – was consistent throughout the group.
The presence of the captain was the only thing that was present on every team that had achieved and sustained freakish greatness. So who were these men and women and what were they like?
Bill Russell of basketball’s Boston Celtics, Richie McCaw of the New Zealand All Blacks, and FC Barcelona’s Carles Puyol were familiar to me already. Others I had never heard of. Mireya Luis of the Cuban women’s national volleyball team? Brazilian football’s Hilderaldo Bellini?
To my great surprise, these captains were rarely stars. They were defenders or support players who carried water for their teams, rarely scored, and competed relentlessly. They were not charismatic celebrities like Michael Jordan or David Beckham but were uncomfortable in the spotlight. Unlike other captaincy icons, such as Manchester United’s Roy Keane, they had impeccable emotional control and never got into dustups off the pitch.
The more I studied them, the more similar they seemed – and the more they defied my preconceived notions about leadership. I was stunned to find that they hated giving inspirational speeches, preferring to talk to teammates individually and constantly, always about the business at hand. I discovered that they often stood up to managers and teammates, and during competition sometimes pushed the rules to the breaking point. They might have been quiet and law-abiding people, but within the confines of sport, they were renegades.
In my new book, The Captain Class, I offer many anecdotes about the unusual ways these captains led their teams, and how they were often misunderstood. I explore scientific research that explains why their unorthodox methods were effective.
In the end, the book presents an entirely new theory about what great, enduring leaders really do. It also suggests that the conventional image of superior sports captaincy belongs in the rubbish bin.
Sam Walker is a deputy page one editor at the Wall Street Journal and the founding editor of WSJ Sports. His new book, The Captain Class, was published on May 18 by Ebury £20)