For Leah McCullough (COL ’18, GRD ’20), leading the Georgetown women’s varsity soccer team during a historic winning streak was all about maintaining the right attitude.
“When we did get on that streak, it was important to make sure we took every game seriously,” McCullough said. “We had a target on our back and it only got bigger as the season went on, so that pressure was there.”
McCullough served as captain when the women’s varsity soccer team went undefeated last season until a nail-biting overtime loss to the University of North Carolina in the national College Cup semifinals. The Hoyas also captured their second straight Big East regular-season title and third straight Big East postseason championship, the first team to accomplish such a feat since 2001.
But for captains like McCullough, the challenges of leadership go beyond hard-earned victories. Representing their team and their school is an important duty for varsity sports captains, according to Maya Ozery, executive director of the Cooper Athletics Leadership Program, a leadership development program available to student-athletes.
“There are a lot of expectations that go along with captainship, and at a place like Georgetown, a lot of traditions,” Ozery said in an interview with The Hoya. “Students recognize that they’re representing a lot more than just themselves, but at the same time they need to be themselves.”
To McCullough, being a leader meant serving as a model for her teammates.
“Even though I’m not the most vocal person, I always try to lead by example,” McCullough said. “I put the work in to just keep plugging away to stay positive and lead my team well.”
Leaders come in all forms, and other captains at Georgetown can relate to McCullough’s experience. Students looking for a competitive edge on the field or in the classroom often feel pressured to be the loudest voice in the room and make their presence felt among their peers. To several captains on Georgetown’s varsity sports teams, however, leadership is rooted in recognizing the needs of others and acting authentically.
Building a Team
In traditional team-oriented sports like soccer or lacrosse, wins and losses are felt collectively. However, for individually-oriented sports like tennis and track, captains face greater difficulties with uniting the team toward a common end.
Women’s varsity tennis captain Lilly Lynham (COL ’19) acknowledges the challenge of motivating her teammates to play as a team even in single matches.
“Tennis is very much an individual sport and for a lot of players, college is the first time you’re on a team,” Lynham said. “Once you finish a match, win or lose, you go cheer on your teammate. Hopefully I’ve done a good job of emphasizing that we lose together, win together, and support each other no matter what.”
Quincey Wilson (COL ’20), captain of the men’s track team, underlined the difficulties of adjusting first-year students to college-level competition.
“When we got our freshman this year, they weren’t used to being on a college team,” Wilson said in an interview with The Hoya. “They were probably at the top of their teams in high school, and it was like getting lions to be cubs again. We had to mitigate that pride a little bit, and it was hard but I think that our team is more comfortable with each other and willing to help each other out.”
Like Lynham and Wilson, Ozery emphasized the difficulties of holding teammates to a high standard and common goal.
“Every team has some type of team culture and values, and I think that at times the challenge is making sure the team is living out those values,” Ozery said. “The most effective captains have been willing to do that and understand the bigger picture about the team’s success. Still, it’s never easy to call out any behavior that may not be consistent with the values we’re trying to uphold.”
Athletes often grapple with enduring injuries, which can significantly affect both an athlete’s mental state and physical abilities.
McCullough’s tenure as captain began in her first year as a graduate student, coming off of an injury incurred in her senior year. At the time, she was not only figuring out how to recover, but also mentally preparing to lead a team of 30 players.
“When you’re injured, it’s the only time you have to think about yourself, but I had to lead the team as well,” McCullough said. “Being injured is a huge mental toll and can be really frustrating, but as a leader you can’t let your discouragement show.”
Even if a captain has never sustained an injury, they still must motivate injured teammates throughout the season, according to Wilson.
“We have a lot of people injured right now, and it’s really hard to switch their psyche from being sad to being hopeful it’ll get better,” Wilson said. “But at the end of the day, I want them to know I have their back no matter what.”
Another part of a captain’s responsibility is representing the team outside off the field or track. Captains have to be aware of how their actions in academic and social settings can affect the team.
Lynham has felt the pressure to always be mindful of her role as captain and her team in other aspects of her life as a full-time student.
“We represent the school 24/7, and I think that’s something people forget,” Lynham said. “When you go out you’re still representing Georgetown, and that’s a responsibility and a privilege. Being on the tennis team isn’t just those two hours of practice a day. I think my role might also be more magnified because I’m a leader and I have to be setting the tone.”
For any Georgetown student, managing homework, class, internships, club involvement and social life is always a balancing act. For student-athletes, hours of practice and traveling for games add yet another responsibility to an already long list.
Having played soccer since the age of five, McCullough is used to a busy schedule, though becoming captain tested her time management abilities.
“Adding on the role of captain, a lot of little things would come up that I had to take care of,” McCullough said. “I remember being really stressed because as captain you always have to be the first one to take on responsibility, and sometimes it’s not very convenient but you always find a way to get it done.”
With the challenges of leading a team, captains learn more about their own personalities and abilities. For Lynham, taking the role as captain meant inspiring her teammates to be successful at multiple levels.
“I hope I’ve inspired the girls and shown them that it can all be done,” Lynham said. “That you can get good grades, have a social life, get a job, and still play tennis full time. It’s hard but you learn what you can do, how much you can juggle and still have a lot of fun and be happy.”
Wilson felt that becoming captain taught him the importance of unity and the value of the team to each member.
“Being captain made me realize that it’s more than just me, or more than just the sprint team; it’s about the entire track team as a whole,” Wilson said. “I put others before myself a lot, but the team is always there for you on and off the track, and they make you want to be a better athlete and student.”
When feeling doubtful about her leadership, McCullough reminded herself about the qualities that led her to become captain.
“I know I’m not the most vocal, but I had to take that on even though it doesn’t come naturally to me,” McCullough said. “There were still times I didn’t know if I should be doing things like yelling at my team to pick up the energy. I just thought a lot about why people wanted me to be captain and I tried to focus on that.”
Barbara Barnes, assistant athletic director for communications, has enjoyed watching the growth of athletes from their first arrival at Georgetown to the day they become a captain.
“Sometimes we see kids who come in and are clearly the best on the team as a freshman, and we watch them become incredible leaders because they’ve been mentored by their captains and teammates,” Barnes said in an interview with The Hoya. “Sometimes you’re just thrown into being a leader because you’re the best, but sometimes ‘the best’ is not the best leader, and leadership doesn’t always correlate to athletic ability.”
Ozery agreed that leadership and talent are not intrinsically linked; instead, she highlighted a leader’s need to bring out the best in their peers.
“I think that’s something you learn really well here at Georgetown,” Ozery said. “It’s not always the best player, the most talented skill-wise who is automatically the leader of a group, it’s a lot more than that. Instead, the question is always, how can I influence people in a positive way?”