Saturday, May 28, 2016

Uneasy Lies the Head that Wears the Crown: Some Thoughts on Captaincy

By Abby Whiteley

I sent a survey to captains in QuidditchUK, and I draw on the results here as well as discussing my own experiences.

There is no role quite like captaincy. It is, although instantly recognisable, a very peculiar blend of many disparate responsibilities: figurehead, coach, administrator, Agony Aunt, and dogsbody. But captaincy loses something in the dictionary definition; no summary or list of tasks can quite capture the specificity of a role which looks so much larger on the inside.

When you run for captaincy, you have a fairly simplistic image of it. It’s talking to refs and handshakes and armbands and sitting in the middle of the team photo. It’s congratulating the other team, choosing squads, leading chants, and with a bit of luck everyone knowing your name. It seems to be something that should appeal to confident, outgoing personalities and, from anecdotal evidence, that seems consistent with what we know of captains in the community. These people also tend to be exceptionally energetic; looking over the people who have captained in the past season, it is striking how much executive work they are taking on in addition to traditional duties. Many captains double as their club’s president, coach, or even treasurer or tournament director. Some also volunteer with national or journalistic organisations. Part of this is a natural part of the territory; when no one is going to do a job that your club needs, it always becomes your problem, whether it is part of your job description or not. Charlie Taylor, of Southampton Quidditch Club, acknowledges that it is a “full-time job,” and notes that you are always expected to set an example to the rest of your club. The feeling that you must attend every single training, for example, even if your other commitments or personal life put you in a position where you do not feel you want to, is something that can put a drain on you from day to day. People stepping up to captain are, unsurprisingly, those who are highly-motivated and involved in the community though we can admit some selection bias in that only very engaged people tend to fill out research surveys. Taking a step back from this colourful image, however, most captains place the emphasis on more affective aspects of the job.

Jackie Woodburn, captain of Durhamstrang (purple) | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography

One of the most surprising aspects of captaincy is the amount of emotional labour that comes with it. No one tells you how much you’ll worry. Bangor Broken Broomsticks captain Jay Holmes said, “the emotional strain that it [the captaincy] has had on me was much more than I ever thought it would be.Jackie Woodburn, captain of Durhamstrang, elaborates on this: “I found it massively rewarding to be able to help people in that way, but equally I think having to take on so much of other people's problems had a big impact on my general well-being and stress levels.” Every health complaint and card hazard becomes your problem; you know at any given time who has a minor injury or cold, where people are most likely to commit fouls, who hasn’t been to training, and which players have had an argument. Sometimes you can help resolve the issue especially if the problem is confined to the pitch but sometimes you just have to stand back and fret in the background while you hope that things sort themselves out.  All questioned captains rated pastoral care such as this between a neutral and positive experience, but there was an even spread throughout the degrees of positivity. Caring for players, noted by nearly 80 percent as a reason for applying, is one of the most draining but fulfilling aspects of the role. This dynamic is summed up well by Tom Ower, two-year captain of the Bristol Brizzlebears: “I've been called Dad so many times, it really is like being a dad: full-time, full-on work.” One of the privileges of being an ordinary player is being able to decide that something isn’t your problem; one of the pains of being captain is never being able to do that. The work the role demands is complicated, unpredictable, and can get extremely personal.

Tom Ower, Brizzlebears Captain, embraces Steve Fung after Fung’s last tournament | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography

As a captain, you always have to know what to say. Alix Marie d’Avigneau of the St Andrews Snidgets notes that she disliked public speaking before becoming captain, and many new captains are intimidated by the prospect of having to be a figurehead. The words come easily when you win; it’s all clich├ęs and fluff and platitudes, but no one expects anything different and no one cares anyway.  Empty words sound a lot emptier when you’ve lost. They sound even worse when you’re having to take your friend off the roster when you know how badly they want it. Of the first and second team captains coming from clubs with more than one team, 75 percent rated the experience of negotiating their team’s position within the club between negative and neutral; Chris Lawrence of the Keele Squirrels admits that “toeing the line between being people's friends and objectively analysing their abilities was a challenge,” and Ronan Smith refers to the struggle of reconciling the second team’s aims and desires with those of the club overall. Captaincy is, in many ways, about performance, and it’s for that reason that it attracts so many big personalities. However, there is something very valuable in a captain who has no bluster or big speeches but has patience and a genuine desire to do good. You don’t captain a team; you captain a group of individual people. There is nothing wrong with captains who have their eyes fixed on the big picture, as long as they do not forget the individuals who make it up.

Perhaps more obviously, tournaments look very different on the day, too. As a player, you care deeply whether you win or lose, but as a captain, you take it personally. Your name will always be attached to the final ranking of your team at their most major tournament, and whether victory for you means gold medals or just winning one game, it’s hard not to feel personally responsible for anything that happens. If things go well, you can sleep easily (maybe with the occasional tense moment reminiscing about where things could have gone wrong). If they go badly, it’s hard not to assign all the blame to yourself. I had my first real test as a captain when our seeker got a yellow card in the SWIM-range final of our regional cup, and I told the team not to concede a hoop for the purpose of getting our seeker back. The time ran down and we eventually caught the snitch having been just ten points ahead but if we had lost due to my decision, I knew that most of the blame would lie solely at my door, and it would probably still haunt me today. But where you take so much of the blame, you can also take a great deal of credit; there is huge pride in watching players reach their potential, knowing that you taught them that move or encouraged them as a new player. Every captain who offered comment said that captaincy was very rewarding. Holmes referred to new and promising players being spotted at merc tournaments, and Sophie McKenzie of the Bristol Brizzlebees says that, although she felt dropped in at the deep end, she would recommend the role to others after her time as captain, despite her initial reluctance. Others referred to how enjoyable it was to be able to give encouragement to new players and see how much their input was valued as a figure of authority. It cannot be assumed that every captain leaves the role feeling the richer for it certainly those who feel positive about their experience are more likely to give feedback on it but, with a bit of luck and a lot of care, it can be a great experience.

An emotional Sophie McKenzie, Brizzlebees Captain, after her team’s success at BQC 2016 | Photo Credit: Ajantha Abey Photography

We all know that we will eventually move on from quidditch, and the league rankings and upsets and tears will seem somewhat insignificant with the passage of time. So much of the captain’s fear is not that you will go down in history as a failure, as that history is by all accounts short and self-contained. It is more the fear that you will have let down a group of people whom you care so much about. Almost every captain cited the desire to give back to their club as a reason for applying. In a couple of cases, their personal reluctance to take on the role was placed second to recognising the club’s need for them to step up. You don’t run for captain unless you have real respect and affection for the people you will be captaining, and the thought of wasting all their hard work is much more painful than the fear of a mediocre reputation.

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