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What are the qualities a contemporary AFL captain needs to succeed?

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29th April, 2023

What qualities do we admire or expect in an AFL captain? Is there an ideal position to captain a team from? Why were forwards overlooked as captains this year? Maybe it’s time to question our assumption.

Whether it’s commanding a ship, an army, or a sport’s team we instantly associate captains as leaders of standing, people with certain character or demonstrated qualities. Decisive, charismatic, able to inspire those around them.

They usually communicate well and build positive relationships on- and off-field. Most are considered hard workers who put the team first, and lead by example. In short, a good captain embodies the values and spirit of the team they lead.

Even the pickiest of pundits would struggle to find fault in the current crop of AFL captains based on the above package of qualities. Some may fall short in one or two areas – no one is perfect! But there is definite room to explore and question what bearing a player’s position on the field has on AFL captaincies.

The first assumption is that captains need to be able to see the field of play from all perspectives. Midfielders and onballers certainly have that multidirectional view of the game. But an equally strong argument can be made for defenders who have a panorama of the whole match laid out before them.

If you flip the logic, a good forward reads the play coming into attack, so has a critical overview of the game’s up-field movement or flow. In fact, as candidates for a leadership position, all top AFL players are expected to have a fine-tuned game sense. So there should be no limit on where a captain usually plays.

And maybe the question of an ideal position is moot, because nearly two-thirds of the captains leading the 18 clubs this season are linked to on-ball or centre-bounce roles. We’re talking about the likes of Jordan Dawson, Patrick Cripps, Zach Merrett, Patrick Dangerfield, Marcus Bontempelli, Jack Steele, and co-captains like Touk Miller, Jarrod Witts, Luke Parker, and Lachie Neale.

Lachie Neale of the Lions handpasses the ball.

(Photo by Russell Freeman/AFL Photos via Getty Images)


Assuming that onballers are best-placed as captains because most of them are currently in that position is dangerous. Philosophers go to town on the such things, labouring over the distinctions between observations, inferences, and conclusions.

Complicating the argument, now, is the fact that a bunch of AFL defenders also wear or share the captain’s band this year. Names like Darcy Moore, James Sicily, Dane Rampe, Tom Jonas, Alex Pearce, co-captains Harris Andrews, Luke McDonald, Dylan Grimes, and part-time backman Callum Mills.

What’s more, not a single permanent key forward was named captain this year. (Toby Greene is perhaps an exception, but that’s open to discussion). It’s also hard to be too prescriptive about the position arguments in the modern game, because coaches are more willing to throw the magnets around, experimenting with player positions, both as a strategy and on the fly.

We’re seeing traditional key defenders suddenly become forwards, and vice-versa. Look at Melbourne’s use of Harrison Petty as a key forward against Richmond, and Zaine Cordy’s move to St Kilda’s forward line in recent weeks.

There isn’t a lot of analysis out there on the reasons why forwards don’t get the nod – something for researchers to look into perhaps – but a couple of ideas can be put out there for discussion.

First, much as a defender can see up the field and make decisions that affect the next attacking motion, a forward has a receiving-end role and is often forced to run with his back to the general direction of play, making it hard to communicate plans or adjustments to players on the fly.


A second argument is that forwards have been (rightly or wrongly) branded as ‘me-first’ players in search of scores and accolades. This is probably an outdated view because of the way modern teams are coached today – unselfish role-playing is rewarded above, say, individual acts of brilliance. But the legacy of this reputation may well taint team captaincy choices.

The archetypal qualities that a captain needs to demonstrate may also play against forwards. Here, the Association of Sports Psychology in the US notes that role of captain is usually given to athletes who have earned the “respect and trust to lead the team in the right direction” through what it calls the “three Cs” (being caring, courageous, and consistent).

Do AFL forwards stack up against this theory? A couple of candidates come to mind instantly. Players like Jack Riewoldt and Tom Atkins have been team leaders for years, but never worn the captain’s band per se. Maybe forwards turn down the captaincy. Such inner workings are not usually communicated. And of course, senior key forwards are well represented in leadership groups or usually lead the forward groups, anyway.

There are many ifs and buts in all these arguments and definitely scope for fleshing out the true qualities of a sports leader versus the merits of positioning on the field, and probably a whole host of other issues not adequately dealt with here.

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Professional leadership is a much-studied field in the business world, military circles and other sectors. With the growing importance of team coherence and leadership (both on- and off-field) in sport, there is definite scope for further reflection on this topic and especially in light of AFL captain selection.