For the Love of It

A look at the ups and downs of using volunteer coaches in your athletic program.

By Dan Cardone

Dan Cardone has been the Athletic Director at North Hills High School, in Pittsburgh, Pa., for nine years. He also has 17 years of experience as a teacher and coach.

Athletic Management, 12.6, Oct/Nov 2000,

Over the past five years at North Hills High School, we have been working hard to expand opportunities for our athletes, adding several girls’ sports along with more junior high teams. Although we have always secured appropriate funding before going ahead with our plans, we haven’t always had a budget allowing for more than one coach per team.
To remedy this situation, we often use volunteer coaches to assist with various teams. For example, we recently created a seventh- and eighth-grade baseball team. A paid head coaching position was approved along with the team. But it is extremely difficult for one coach to work with the pitchers, catchers, infielders, and outfielders at the same time. A volunteer coach was exactly what we needed for dividing the team into workable numbers.
However, we have learned that using volunteer coaches is not quite as simple as it looks. Sometimes, volunteers do not have the right motives and can be a distraction instead of a help. So, how can you make sure volunteer coaches work for you instead of against you? The following explains the strategy we use in the athletic program at North Hills to foster a consistent approach to bringing volunteers on board.

Examine the Negatives
The first thing to understand about using volunteer coaches are the possible drawbacks. What could possibly be negative about someone working for your program for free? Actually, there are plenty of pitfalls to watch for.
The first possible pitfall is the type of coach you hire. One “problem” coach I have encountered is the individual who truly aspires to be the head coach. He or she may feel the program is not going in the right direction. If a volunteer coach has motives beyond helping the head coach work with the athletes, a negative situation is inevitable.
A parent as a volunteer may also lead to problems. One example is the father of the football team’s starting running back who volunteers to help the coaching staff. He is assigned to the defense, but in staff meetings, he gives his opinion that the running backs should be carrying the football more in games. During a contest, this volunteer coach grabs his son and tells him he is not running hard enough. Ultimately, he spends his time coaching his son rather than giving the defensive players the attention they need.
Another volunteer coach who holds a red flag is the “know it all.” An example of this may be a former basketball player at an NCAA Division I institution. This individual has no prior coaching experience, but feels he knows the game inside and out. Comments like, “When I played at [name of school], we wouldn’t waste time doing those drills,” can undermine the program. This type of volunteer also tends to want to work with only the best player on the team. He may also overstep his bounds by giving the player scholarship advice—claiming he has connections and can get the star player a free ride.
You may also want to be wary of the hometown hero, the local youth team coach who is very well-liked and successful. This person may volunteer to help a struggling varsity program, and for fear of falling in disfavor with the feeder program, the head coach may accept the offer of the youth coach. However, the end result may be less than beneficial.
All these negatives are magnified by the problems presented by “firing” a volunteer. Parting with a volunteer coach who isn’t working out can be a complex situation. It is difficult to tell a volunteer who is a parent that he or she is doing something that is not in the best interest of his or her child. How do you explain to a volunteer coach who was an all-American as a player that he or she is not turning out to be coaching material? How do you tell someone with a stellar coaching record in your community youth program that he or she does not fit into your future plans?

Making It Positive
To make volunteer coaches a positive experience for everyone and not a hassle, the key is to be cautious, yet optimistic. Although they do provide you with free labor, they cannot be treated as invisible employees. Hiring, orientation, and training procedures still need to be followed—both to ensure their success and reduce liability concerns. (See sidebar at left for more on the
risks associated with using volunteer coaches.) It is also important that the head coach and athletic director work together on the hire.
If a head coach approaches you about a potential volunteer coach, start by asking the head coach two questions. Why is a volunteer coach needed? What qualities does the candidate bring to the program that would be beneficial? These inquiries can serve as a beginning discussion point on the topic.
You might also want to explain to the head coach your philosophy on what makes a good volunteer. I have found that the best volunteer coaches come from two categories:
1) Inexperienced coaches: This may be a newly hired teacher who desires to coach, but there are no openings. This person loves the sport and has the desire to be involved. I encourage such people to volunteer for a year in anticipation of a paid position. If they perform well, they have a distinct advantage over other candidates.
Or, it may be a former athlete from your school who wants to work with his or her former coach. He or she may be doing their student teaching in the district or may simply want to give back to the program. There are many positives to having this type of volunteer on staff. Besides the loyalty factor, it is nice for current student-athletes to see a young person coaching alongside someone who had a positive impact on his or her life.
2) Retirees: We have had success with retired teachers and coaches who volunteer (and with the early retirement incentives offered in our state, their numbers have grown). We benefit from a coach who has experience, and they are able to continue their interaction with the student-athletes.
Another example are people in the community who have retired from their profession and want to help with a specific program as a hobby. They are not interested in being paid, but now have the time to involve themselves in the interscholastic setting.
We are also finding more and more volunteer coaches from a pool of community members (nonteachers) who cannot commit to a paid position due to work circumstances. There are many people who simply can’t get to the practice field at our dismissal every day, but make excellent coaches on a limited, part-time basis.

Check ’em Out
If you agree with your head coach that there may be a viable candidate for a volunteer position, the next step is to pursue the person somewhat similarly to a paid coach. The head coach can start by sitting down and talking to the individual about the goals of the program and what types of tasks the volunteer coach might do.
I feel it is important for the athletic director to also conduct an interview with the potential volunteer. Most important, I ask his or her reasons for wanting to volunteer. If the individual talks a great deal about the problems with the program and how he or she could help solve them, I see this as a red flag. We don’t need two head coaches. The volunteer coach has to want to coach for the right reasons—to help kids grow, and because he or she likes to coach. He or she must also be willing to accept the role of a subordinate to the head coach.
Beyond a face-to-face interview, I may do some background research on the candidate. First, I find out if he or she has coached before. If so, I sometimes call administrators and ask how this person conducted him- or herself in that capacity. If they have never coached before, I may check their references at other work or school-based situations.
While it may seem like a lot of trouble to interview and check references on a volunteer, I have found these procedures to be worthwhile. Remember, a problem volunteer coach can be every bit as difficult to deal with as a problem paid coach.

Procedures in Place
If the volunteer coach seems to be a good fit with your school and the sport, and you decide to offer him or her the position, make sure you do not forget to follow standard hiring procedures. These can vary depending on your state, district, and conference guidelines. For example, in our district, a volunteer coach must obtain the proper clearances and the approval of the board of directors.
Next, you want to make sure each volunteer coach attends a preseason coaches meeting. At North Hills, we require all staff, including volunteers, to attend a coaches meeting prior to the start of each sports season. If any volunteers come on board late, I meet with them individually to review the entire process of coaching at our school.
Beyond the general meeting, the head coach must also talk with the volunteer about his or her role. There are differences between an assistant coach and a volunteer coach, and they must be spelled out. At North Hills, our volunteer coaches are viewed similarly to a student teacher in the classroom. They are not left alone to run practices or events, but often work with a small group of athletes on specific drills. If volunteers show a greater propensity for responsibility, then the head coach may delegate responsibility when it is evident the volunteer coach is ready to accept it.
Once the season is completed, we do not do a formal evaluation of volunteer coaches at North Hills. However, I do encourage head coaches to take a little time to sit down with the volunteer coach and review his or her work. If the volunteer is a young, aspiring coach, this feedback is critical to his or her professional development. If the individual is a retired or experienced person, the chat is a nice way to show appreciation for the individual and encourage him or her to assist again next year.

Finding & Keeping
Sometimes, good volunteer coaches appear on your doorstep without any effort. More often, a team desperately needs a volunteer and none turn up. In these situations, I try to scout around for potential candidates.
Besides contacting early retirees and newly hired teachers, I also seek out part-time teachers at the school, such as substitute teachers, teaching assistants, and student teachers. If their goal is to be hired as a full-time teacher and they have an interest in athletics, I encourage them to enhance their resume through volunteer coaching. Since we are a large school with a rich athletic tradition, it can only help to add this experience. As a volunteer coach, they prove their value outside, as well as inside, the classroom. If they hope to get a job in our district, their interaction on a volunteer basis will demonstrate a willingness to be involved. As George Allen, the former Head Coach of the Washington Redskins, preached, “The more you can do, the more valuable you are.”
I also encourage volunteer coaches to introduce themselves to athletic directors and coaches from other schools during the season. This method of networking can sometimes lead to an interview. I firmly believe I can help potential coaches with a solid work ethic enjoy greater opportunities to become a teacher and coach.
Whether someone is using a volunteer coaching job as a stepping stone or a hobby, it’s very important to let them know that you value their efforts. I like to tell them personally how much I appreciate everything they do. I also introduce our volunteer coaches to our principal and administrators as a way to single out their contribution. If we give the coaching staff a gift, we make sure we include the volunteer coach. The head coach and booster organizations can also show their gratefulness by recognizing a volunteer coach at the end of the season banquet.
In conclusion, a volunteer coach can either create a win-win situation or turn into a thorny problem for the entire program. I have found that taking the time to treat these individuals as people with important roles is critical to making the situation work. After all, if they are working with our children, no matter in what capacity, they should be treated in a manner so that everyone recognizes they are a part of our coaching family.

The Legal Issues
By Dr. Richard P. Borkowski

Richard P. Borkowski, EdD, CAA, is a retired athletic administrator who has served as a sport safety consultant and “expert witness” in the field of scholastic liability for the past 35 years.

Even though a coach may occupy a volunteer position, he or she can still be held to the same liability standards as a paid coach. Volunteers can be sued and so can the schools that use them.
Therefore, those in charge of the volunteer coaches have a duty to inform and instruct them in how to do the job. An administrator or coach must screen, orient, train, and supervise the volunteer. The best technique is to place volunteer coaches with experienced head coaches. The worst scenario is placing an unprepared volunteer in charge of a team.
Volunteer coaches should never be asked to do something they have not been trained to do. And, when possible, they should be given the same training as all other coaches—from CPR and first aid to teaching proper techniques and preventing sexual harassment.
Volunteer coaches should also be informed of their legal responsibilities when working with student-athletes. Here are the key points to go over:
• Because coaches are working with children, they are held to an even higher standard of care than a reasonable, prudent person. Coaches must be reasonable, prudent professionals. They must know more than the average person about what is or is not correct. For example, the average person may not be expected to know CPR, but a coach should be knowledgeable in this area.
• Foreseeability is a major factor in determining if you did or did not meet your professional standard of care. This is another term for common sense. Is it foreseeable that a problem could occur if there is no one lifeguarding at a pool?
• Coaches must supply athletes with appropriate equipment for the task at hand.
• The coach must be knowledgeable about the activity being taught, and the activity must be appropriate for the group.
• Coaches must be careful not to mismatch athletes during games, scrimmages, or competitive drills.
• Athletes must be prepared and conditioned for the specific activity they are asked to perform.
• When appropriate, athletes must be warned about the risks of the activity.
There is also a non-legal aspect for bringing a complaint against a coach and school. That is anger. If parents feel the coach did little to prevent their child’s injury and is not sympathetic to the child and family, the possibility of litigation will increase.
Meeting your legal duties lowers the chance of being sued and players being hurt. That’s what’s called a true win-win situation.