When Todd DeSorbo took over as the head coach at the University of Virginia, he instituted a “black caps” program to reward the team’s highest performers. The team announced the recipients of their black caps program for the 2022-2023 season on Tuesday as teams around the country prepare for the upcoming season, naming 21 athletes between the men’s and women’s teams to the program.
Virginia’s list of rewarded achievements is lofty:
- 3.75 GPA
- US National Team Member
- UVA team captain
- NCAA 1st Team All-American
DeSorbo says he doesn’t actually remember where the idea came from – whether he made it up or stole the idea from someone else – but he has been using the program since he started at Virginia in the summer of 2017.
“I just thought it was a great way to involve all aspects of being a student-athlete and allowed everyone, regardless of swimming ability level, to be recognized for accomplishing at a high level,” DeSorbo said of the program.
“We have a motto, “ALL DAY”, that involves carrying yourself like a champion all day in all aspects of your life. We want to help them become the most elite versions of themselves.
The program includes a number of successes that align with the program’s goals. That includes the obvious, a competitive component; the given, a leadership component; and the less obvious, an academic component. DeSorbo says that the different criteria allows “any and everyone” the chance to earn a black cap.
The program is a key to helmet stickers in college football: a public recognition of an athlete espousing the ideals of your program.
“They strive for it!” DeSorbo says. “When people accomplish it, getting that 3.75 GPA, or making the national team, both equally as challenging, they are excited and feel accomplished. We want to recognize them for accomplishing at a high level.”
DeSorbo says that they have had swimmers narrowly-miss too, including one case where a student-athlete had a 3.73 GPA.
“They wear the black cap with a lot of pride.”
While not all teams can use that identical set of criteria, this is a great program that teams at all levels, from summer league through college, can implement with their own standards as an inexpensive recognition program for their athletes.
How this can work for your program
Virginia gives out black caps out once a season, based on the previous year’s results. For other programs, awarding black caps on an monthly or seasonal basis might make sense as well.
The rewards should be scaled for where your program is at. If you are in a small town club where you’re trying to build a strong core of Sectionals qualifiers, that can be your goal. If you’re a mid-major college program, maybe top 16 at conference can be the goal. Start smart – make the goals attainable.
At Virginia, 15 out of 21 returning women earned black caps for this coming season, while for the men, 6 out of 22 returning athletes did. In total, about half of their returning athletes achieved black caps for the coming season. But it has taken time for them to get to this level, both this level of standards and this rate of success.
In your first period, maybe a third of your athletes should hit the achievement. Set the goals so that it approaches the top half, or so, of your athletes earning recognition.
The criteria should be objective and applied consistently. No caps for “great attitudes.” You’ll regret that when it creates animosity and complaints of ‘unfairness.’
It shouldn’t be so super-challenging either that you risk creating a super class of two or three swimmers who are viewed as the favorites.
It should also include standards that give every member of the team an opportunity through their effort. The reality is that not every member of your team is capable of hitting Junior Nationals or Nationals cuts because they don’t have the physical or genetic talent to do so.
But every member of your team is capable of hitting a 3.5 GPA if they work hard enough and ask for help. Every member of your team is capable of doing 10 hours of volunteer work every month. Almost every member of your team has the opportunity to hit perfect attendance. Most members of your team have the ability to show up and cheer at JV meets, or to come early to practice and help with the 6 & unders.
Figure out the results that are important to your team and your culture, and set the standards accordingly. Not every member of your team has to hit every criterion, but you should have enough of a cross-section of criterion that every member of the team has the opportunity to hit at least one criterion.
And above all else, make sure that your criteria demonstrate excellence. The key to this program is to motivate excellence in some key criteria – be that athletic, academic, service, or otherwise. Don’t set your criteria at 50% attendance if 50% attendance doesn’t say excellence. Don’t set your criteria at qualifying for the District Championship meet if most of your team qualifies to state.
Thread the needle and look for the sweet spots that give your athletes motivation, but without feeding them futility.
Don’t be afraid to use that as a reminder in a private moment if one of your ‘black caps’ starts developing some bad habits. “We’ve recognized you as a role model of this team, let’s remember that and get back on track.” Used sparingly and appropriately, it can be another tool in a coach’s toolbox to help drive athletes forward.
A final thought: in my opinion, this should be purely a recognition program. An athlete gets their black (or blue or red or zebra or whatever kind of cap you want to reward them with), and public recognition of earning the honor, but not special privileges. Inclusion in the program should be considered reward enough, without creating a sense of classes within your team. Remember: as a coach, you have an equal duty to every member of your team and making sure that they all are given the same opportunities. The recognition program shouldn’t impact how you treat the athletes; rather, it should recognize the work that you and your athletes are doing together.
Virginia’s 2022-2023 Honorees