Making Connections

Taking the time to build relationships with your student-athletes today will make your life easier tomorrow.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 12.5, August/September 2000,

From coaches meetings to fund-raisers, the athletic director’s daily schedule is filled with tasks designed primarily to benefit the program’s student-athletes. But in the flurry of decisions, dates, and deadlines, how much time do you actually dedicate to communicating with the athletes themselves? And should interaction with these students be a priority on your daily to-do list?
According to top athletic directors, the answer is a resounding yes. Not only is fostering and maintaining relationships with your student-athletes a function of your role, but it is also an investment in the future of your program.
“It’s terribly important to connect with the student-athlete because, after all, that is who we are working for,” says J. Phillip Roach, Director of Athletics at Rollins College. “That’s our customer, so to speak.”
“Good athlete-administration relationships create an environment that is more comfortable, which in turn is more conducive to success,” adds Jeremy Foley, Athletic Director at the University of Florida. “If there’s always an us-versus-them mentality, I don't think that’s healthy.”
“It helps the athletic director to have a good feel for what issues and challenges student-athletes are dealing with on a day-to-day basis,” adds Tim Curley, Athletic Director at Penn State University. “And it gives you a pretty good pulse on what’s going on in your program.”
Such interaction also helps your student-athletes feel more comfortable with you and the overall administrative chain. “Student-athletes need to feel that there is someone in charge,” says Clint Bryant, Augusta State University’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics/Administrative Associate to the President, “that no matter what, there’s somebody other than their coach who they can go to. If the athletic director and his or her staff are available, it gives the student-athletes a certain comfort.”
“To me, it’s very important for the student-athlete to know who the person is overseeing the program,” says Joy Reighn, Director of Athletics at Rowan University, “to connect with that person, and to see that that person is really interested in their particular program: its rules, regulations, policies, and procedures. By knowing the athletic director, it helps student-athletes have a little more insight into why certain things are done the way they are and makes them feel more comfortable in coming to you if there is a problem.”
“They need to feel that they are supported, that you know what they’re going through, that you know their pressures and their stresses, and their opportunities for euphoria,” says Roach. “And trust is a huge issue, because they should feel that the administration is a safe-haven for them if they have a concern.”
And although student-athletes may sometimes seem too caught up in their own world to notice administrators, the reality is they do. “I have found that it means a great deal to a student-athlete that you’ve taken what they consider a personal interest in them and their program,” says Reighn. “It helps make their experience more meaningful. I’ve had so many student-athletes drop me a note saying, ‘Thank you for supporting us.’ They know who you are.”

Making The Time
Although building connections with your student-athletes should clearly be a top priority, even those who excel at bridging the student-administrator divide admit it’s not always easy. Professional duties and responsibilities, program size, and time crunches all produce sizable obstacles for athletic directors.
“This is an ongoing process, and it takes a lot of work to keep it going throughout the year,” says Joe Castiglione, Director of Athletics at the University of Oklahoma.
“The longer I’m in this business,” adds Roach, who has 19 years of collegiate athletics administration experience, “the more I find you have to work to make it happen. Even in my short career, it seems like there used to be more time to hang around the edge of practice or be more active at contests. Now there’s more paperwork, more meetings, and more pressure for fund-raising than there was in yesteryear. So you really have to almost schedule the time.”
“I think sometimes in athletic administration, if you’re not careful you’ll find that the only time you’re interacting with student-athletes is when there’s a problem,” says Bryant, “and that’s what you have to guard against. I don’t want my student-athletes to feel that the only time they see me is when I have a problem with them.”

Going One on One
So, when and where should an athletic director make his or her presence known? Besides speaking at gatherings such as freshman orientations and preseason team meetings, praising athletes at year-end banquets, and attending student-athlete socials—all of which are important for establishing your authority—athletic directors need to make the effort to interact one-on-one with as many athletes as possible. And this effort should start at the recruiting phase.
“I spend a lot of time with recruits because, as the athletic director, I have input into all aspects of their stay here,” says Foley. “The Saturday mornings before home football games I’ll spend in meeting after meeting with recruits. I try to convey commitment and support. I let them know that no matter what sport they play, they’re coming into a program that’s committed to their welfare, to their academic success, to treating them in a first-class fashion, and to winning with class.”
“Even if it’s for no more than two or three minutes,” says Bryant, “I want to meet and visit with every student-athlete who comes to our campus so I can shake their hand and meet their parents. It’s an important gesture.”
Castiglione agrees. “It reinforces the notion that it takes everyone working together to make the high level of success happen,” he says. “And it shows that the administration is squarely behind their sport.”
Once the recruit becomes part of the home team, athletic directors suggest doing more than just attending games in order to communicate with them. “I probably spend more time at practices than I do at athletic events,” says Bryant, “because I get better interaction there. At contests, athletes are too focused on the game to talk. But at practice, you might be sitting in the dugout and an athlete is waiting to bat or has an injury and you get to spend some personal time with them.”
Bryant also feels that making a personal connection is determined by the type of conversations you choose to engage athletes in. He uses these one-on-one moments to show interest beyond their life as an athlete. “I’ll ask them, ‘How are you doing in school? How are your friends?’ rather than questions about how many home runs they’re hitting or how the team’s doing,” he says. “I very seldom talk to them about how the team’s doing because that’s obvious. I can look on the Web page and see that.”
Besides practices, other effective locations to communicate are the campus weight room, the coach’s office, the athletic academic center, the athletic training room, and even the cafeteria. “I try to eat in the student center and be visible there,” says Roach. “It gives me a chance to stop by a table or allows an athlete a chance to stop by my table. And it gives me occasion to talk on the steps and congratulate an athlete on a game or wish him good luck that night.”
Another highly touted way to grab quality time and get to know your athletes is by traveling together. “The most important part of connecting with student-athletes is going on trips with them,” says Ted Leland, Director of Athletics at Stanford University. “When you have formal meetings, there’s always a sense of distance or mistrust. But if you go on a bus trip with them, the athletes know that you care about them because you’ve watched them.
“So much of an athlete’s life in sport is spent traveling and practicing,” continues Leland. “And to be part of that life is an important way to connect—much, much more important than any kind of captains’ council or formal set of meetings.”
As effective as interaction and communication with athletes in the athletic arena can be, administrators also point out that a great deal of personal understanding can be gained from situations outside athletics. Robert Peck, Athletic Director at Williams College, finds involvement in non-athletic campus organizations to be worthwhile in facilitating a different level of understanding between an athletic director and an athlete.
“On campus, I am involved in certain campus and international political activity,” he explains. “When you work with the students to bring in speakers or confront the university administration with certain problems, you are seen more as a whole person rather than just the head of the jocks. That’s valuable because it enhances the athletic director’s position on campus and gets you respect in more than just the athletic administration sphere.”
Sometimes simple actions can also keep the lines of communication open and let the athletes know you care about what they’ve done and how they feel. For example, Foley sends personal congratulatory notes (for both academic and athletic achievement) to student-athletes, and Bryant encourages athletes in his program to e-mail him.
“Student-athletes feel very comfortable e-mailing me about issues and suggestions,” Bryant says. “I think too many athletic administrators may feel that if they encourage office visits and dialogue, students will complain and gripe. But it’s not like that. I would venture to say that 90 percent of the communication I get is not negative at all. It’s all very positive—about how they can better help or serve the athletic department. I have come to find their input very valuable.”
Ultimately, though, the key to making a meaningful connection lies in being prepared and taking advantage of spontaneous opportunities as they arise. “There’s no question it’s important to try to know as many of the athletes as possible, but you can’t know every single facet of their lives,” says Foley. “In a town like Gainesville, Florida, you’re going to see your athletes at the mall, at restaurants, and at the movie theater. By knowing who they are, or at least what team they play on, you can establish that interaction. Instead of just asking, ‘How are you doing?’ you can have more significant dialogue. ‘Hey. How are you doing? Tough loss last night. How’s the ankle coming?’ And that’s probably the most effective way to reach athletes, because, after all, you’re expected to be at events.”

Is It Working?
Athletic directors gauge the success of these efforts in a number of ways. Some use year-end evaluations and exit interviews to determine if athletes feel supported by the administration. Others count on coaches to relay any problems in this area. But most also use instinct to calculate how they are being perceived.
“I think you can tell just by the response in everyday meetings,” says Reighn. “You see it in how they respond to you in different situations—the respect or lack of respect they show you when you speak or have to meet with them.”
“Body language is another way of assessing how you’re viewed,” adds Roach. “Do they look the other way or appear interested in a conversation with their buddies [when you approach]? Do they not look you in the eye?”
And finally, a good way to measure whether your relationship with the student-athlete population is valued and respected is if athletes feel comfortable coming to you with questions, concerns, or just to chat. If student-athletes are dropping by your office regularly, then you can be certain that your words and your actions are being interpreted as genuine and heartfelt.

The Pay Off
Obviously, being there for your student-athletes and establishing yourself as one of their college relationships contributes to their well being and success as an athlete. But what are you and your program to get out of these persistent efforts?
“I think if it all works,” says Foley, “there’s a benefit to the athlete because if the environment is comfortable, it gives them something to hang on to forever. And for ourselves, the benefit is not only having athletes who thrive while they’re here, but ones who will help us thrive in the future. They are the future supporters of the program. You don’t build relationships with them for that reason, but it’s a natural progression. If they feel good about their time here, they’ll feel good about it forever, and they’ll want to make sure the program continues to be successful. Conversely, if someone has a miserable athletic experience, and the administration was a part of that, you may lose that person forever.”
“When athletes make a choice to compete in our program,” adds Castiglione, “it is vitally important to provide the resources to help them develop their special talents. If that is done correctly, then people leave here with the greatest of experiences and the most enjoyable memories, and I think people look back on that throughout their lives. That makes them stay connected with the university and that’s what people refer to as tradition.”

Connecting Through the SAAC
Now that Student-Athlete Advisory Councils are mandatory at all three NCAA levels, athletic directors are finding them to be great places to foster interaction with their athletes.
“I think it’s important to make yourself go to SAAC meetings,” says Jeremy Foley, Athletic Director at the University of Florida “I don’t go to every single one of them because I think that would be stifling for them. But it’s important to go to them a couple times a semester and let them know that you are available and accessible.”
“I’ve always found it helpful to meet with our student-athlete advisory council because I can listen to the thoughts, ideas, issues, and rules that affect student-athletes’ experiences while they’re with us,” says Joe Castiglione, Director of Athletics at the University of Oklahoma. “They see that they are cared for and their concerns are properly considered. It’s not a democracy, but it’s certainly a process where there’s involvement and they feel that what they’re doing is respected.”
“Inclusion definitely has its place,” agrees Clint Bryant, Augusta State University’s Director of Intercollegiate Athletics/Administrative Associate to the President. “The chair of our SAAC is also a member of our athletic association. Whenever we deal with yearly NCAA legislation, we have the SAAC chair sit in on that discussion and we get input from the SAAC about those things.
“It’s very important to have some means of communication with your athletes,” he continues, “because as an athletic director, you cannot rely solely upon your coaches and administrators for information about all the things that are happening. The more interaction people have, the better the lines of communication are and the better you can head off the problems you often have in athletics.”