Coach on Jacks

Like a finicky sports car, some coaches can be high maintenance. Here’s how to be their mechanic—or determine if they’re better off in the junkyard.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, Ed.D., is Director of Athletics at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County, Md. He also serves as 2nd Vice President of the Maryland State Athletic Directors’ Association.

Athletic Management, 13.3, April/May 2001, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1303/jacks.htm

Most coaches do a very good job, are easy to work with, and cause absolutely no problems for their athletic director. Of the 62 coaches on our staff at Eastern Tech, almost all are energetic, positive people who do an outstanding job for our kids and teams. There are also, unfortunately, three or four of the “high maintenance” variety.

At our school, these coaches are very knowledgeable with respect to the skills and strategies of their sports. The players usually develop, play hard, and become more competitive under the direction of these coaches. However, these coaches also exhibit qualities that are detrimental to the department. For example, they may:

• Relate poorly with and be a disruptive force among other coaches on staff or at other schools.

• Be negligent completing necessary paperwork, meeting deadlines, and attending required meetings.

• Make outlandish, inappropriate, or inflammatory comments to the press, parents, or other coaches.

• Be abusive with officials and perhaps with fans.

• Fail to follow established policies and procedures of the school, league, or state association.

• Have difficulty accepting any errors they make.

• Use false information or omit some facts in order to promote their cause or cover up a mistake.

• See only their point of view.

• Be either unrealistic or oblivious as to how others perceive them.

If any of the above examples sum up one of your coaches, then you have what I call a “high maintenance” coach. And by now, you know full well that they take more of your time and energy than the coach with the losing record.

Often, the first impulse when dealing with these employees is to replace them. However, this isn’t always so simple. And there should always be an effort made to help these individuals. It’s important to work with these coaches while maintaining an optimistic attitude about their ability to change. The following considerations may assist you in your efforts to deal with high maintenance coaches.

Document Everything
As all human resource professionals will tell you, make sure you document everything when dealing with a difficult employee. If you eventually decide to fire this individual, it’s important to have written reports on his or her poor job performance. But, more importantly, documenting your communication with the coach ensures that you are treating him or her fairly and gives him or her the chance to better understand your concerns.

The first piece of written materials you must have is a job description for each coach, which includes coaching expectations, responsibilities, and policies. If these documents do not exist, create them. Then, make sure all your coaches read and understand them thoroughly.

It is critical that an athletic director be able to refer to existing expectations when citing problems. If expectations and responsibilities are not in written form, the high maintenance coach’s response may be, “I didn’t know that I had to ...”

Next, be sure to keep notes on this employee. Describe, and include dates on, any problem in much the same manner that is done with disruptive students. This is needed for end-of-season evaluations, in order to make prescriptions for improvement, and as documentation for dismissal, should it come to that point.

Finally, keep records of any significant discussion with the coach. From a short chat in the hallway to a planned meeting, write a detailed account of what occurred. Loopholes can often develop without this documentation.

Getting Help
It’s always helpful to seek insight from the coach’s academic department chair (if he or she is a teacher) and assistant principal when developing a strategy for dealing with a high maintenance coach. These people have probably experienced what you’re going through regarding this person and may have some good suggestions. There’s no need to reinvent the wheel if someone else has already figured out an effective method of relating to the coach. And, at the very least, they can provide some moral support.

You may also wish to ask an assistant principal to be present at any meeting you have with this coach. I would especially recommend this for a meeting that has any chance of getting heated. This third party can serve either as a facilitator or merely someone who can verify what transpired.

It’s also important to remember that the principal is the final decision-maker and, whether you seek other administrators’ help or not, the principal needs to be informed of this problem employee. In my setting, I report to the principal and can only recommend terminations or hirings. Ninety-nine percent of the time, my recommendation becomes the decision that our principal enacts. But he does have the final say.

Be informed, however, that occasionally coaches will use this procedural relationship to their advantage. They may jump over you and lobby the principal in order to maintain their position. Therefore, whenever I anticipate a problem with a coach’s evaluation and consider termination, I always discuss it with my principal first and get his approval in order to negate an end run by the coach.

The Meeting
If you have never confronted the coach about his or her inappropriate behavior, the first meeting may be the toughest. But, it is critical to set up a formal meeting and start the process of dealing with this person. And there are some things an athletic director can do to make the meeting a success.

First of all, script out the points to be made (and keep a copy of this script in your personnel files). The task is analogous to a teacher preparing a lesson plan or a coach creating a practice plan. Some suggestions include:

• Writing out the purpose of the meeting and its desired outcomes.

• Listing the specific problems with the coach’s performance and why they are detrimental to the department’s efforts.

• Listing the specific recommendations you will make.

• Explaining the changes the coach must make, and a time frame for making them.

The main purpose of the script is to keep the coach from manipulating words or getting off on a tangent—which are often prime techniques of high maintenance coaches. For example, one of our coaches constantly twists and manipulates words in order to gain the upper hand or to alleviate her culpability. When I deal with her, the approach of scripting out my comments really helps. When she says, “You said ...,” I can reply, “No, here’s what I said,” and read from the script. Whenever she wants further clarification on any point, I pause and search for the absolutely correct word, then jot it down on the script to avoid any further confrontation.

On many occasions, I actually give a copy of the script to the coach so that he or she can follow along. If the coach wanders, I use this document to reel him or her back in: “In deference to your busy schedule, let’s get back on track,” I say. “We need to cover these items—and to ultimately come to an agreement.”

The hardest aspect of this meeting is finding a way to confront the coach without being confrontational. Although I must admit I’m still working on this personally, there are a couple things I suggest. First, try to plan, prepare, and rehearse prior to meeting with the coach. Try to anticipate the strategy and arguments the coach might use and plan appropriate counter-strategies.

It’s also important to continually focus on the coach’s behavior and not his or her personality. As much as you may dislike the coach for all the trouble he or she has caused, the goal is to change his or her actions for the good of the students and the school, not for your benefit. Keeping this in mind should help you phrase your comments in a less accusatory way.

And what if the discussion with the coach gets heated? How do you calm the coach and get back on track? Start by realizing beforehand that the coach may very well become argumentative. Then, do your best to stay calm yourself. My mantra is, “Remember the source. Remember the purpose of this conference.” Realistically, you can’t control the coach’s behavior. But, if you can control your own, there’s a better chance of staying on course.

Finally, don’t forget to write down any comments or questions raised by the coach during the meeting. Do this as soon as possible after the meeting while the comments are still fresh in your mind. Make these notes as detailed as possible, because they may be needed for future reference. And, when reviewing the notes, if you feel you didn’t initially respond to a specific question or comment in the best way possible, follow up with the coach on the matter.

Specific Recommendations
The most important part of the meeting is giving the coach recommendations for improvement. The key is to treat the coach as an individual and focus on the overall goal, whether it is being a better role model for the students or contributing to department cohesion.

Ideally, try to find their individual source of motivation, goals, or reasons for coaching. Then, appeal to their needs through your recommendations. If your discussion can take this track, you have a good chance of reaching them.

When making recommendations for improvement, be as specific as possible and put your instructions in written form. If you have to, repeat a point in order to clarify it. By being very clear and concise, there should be no room for misinterpretation.

Since many high maintenance coaches will be very resistant to any new ideas, it’s often useful to find some common ground when making suggestions. The statement I most frequently use is: “Coaching is very important to you and I know that you want to improve in the position. Therefore, we have to come to a resolution on several points.”

Above all, the coach must understand the serious nature of the complaint. Clearly explain how their behavior is affecting others—that you are not just “picking on them,” but that their coaching position is in jeopardy.

When to Terminate?
Even with the above steps in place, the athletic director, perhaps in conjunction with the principal or superintendent, will have to determine how many problems caused by a high maintenance coach constitute too many. This is, of course, a very difficult decision to make. The upper limit or severity of the problems will have to be determined in the context of your individual setting and with the specifics of the individual in mind.

The first thing that should be considered is whether the coach is exhibiting any improvement. Has the coach used the suggestions from your meetings to try to change his or her behavior? Is there any indication that the coach really wants to change? Conversely, has the coach repeated any of the problems talked about during your meetings?

Since each coach and situation is different and unique, the question of where the upper limit lies is difficult to concretely answer. It depends upon many factors, but I consider:

• How much harm is this individual doing to the good reputation of our school?

• Is this coach negatively affecting the participation rate of the sport?

• Is he or she negatively affecting the student-athletes’ experience?

• Is there any indication that the coach will improve?

• Are the problems repeated or are they of a new and different variety?

Most important may be to consider the goals of your particular athletic program and how badly the coach is disrupting these goals. For example, if participation numbers are important and this coach still draws a great turnout for the team, you might put up with his or her faults. If improving relations with parents is a priority and this coach deals terribly with parents, termination may be needed.

Dealing with a high maintenance coach takes considerable time, much effort, and is often an emotional drain for the athletic director. While we may wish that these coaches did not exist, they do in most programs. As with any coach, the athletic director has a responsibility and obligation to help this individual to grow, develop, and improve. Understanding the problem and having a well thought-out plan of action should help in this difficult area of responsibility.





Sidebars:

Case Study #1

One of our coaches has great trouble controlling his team. This past season, numerous players were ejected from games, several displayed poor sportsmanship, and some used what I feel are dirty tactics. The coach blamed these problems on poor judgment by the officials.

In addition, this coach often yelled at the officials during contests. He set a very poor example for not only our athletes, but for the fans and our parents as well. Quite often, the fans followed his lead and the atmosphere of some contests became hostile and totally unacceptable.

Most of my postseason evaluation conference with him dealt with this topic. As part of this coach’s prescription for improvement, I suggested that he read two coaching textbooks. One is Coaching for Character by Craig Edward Clifford and the other is Successful Coaching by Rainer Martens. We had copies of both in our professional library, so I was able to immediately hand them to the coach. Also, over the next few months, I photocopied pertinent articles from professional magazines and newspaper articles which highlighted similar problems with other coaches.

The last step was to suggest that he observe one of our excellent coaches. This other coach is a great role model and exhibits all of the positive traits which I am hoping our high maintenance coach can emulate next season. —D.H.


Case Study #2

One of our young coaches believed that he was ALWAYS right and that everyone else was always wrong. This approach obviously caused numerous confrontations and problems.

One evening while I was supervising a home basketball game, this young coach turned the corner upon returning from an away contest and proclaimed, “Just want to let you know that there has been a problem at ______ school, but I had nothing to do with it.” He then proceeded to give me his version of what had occurred.

When I had an opportunity to call the opponent the following day, their athletic director’s viewpoint was completely different. This did not surprise me, since this was a common occurrence. This coach often told me about a problem as soon as possible, with the assumption that I would only believe the first version I heard.

In my conference with him, I obviously had much to cover and attempt to accomplish. Among the points were:

• The coach’s perceptions were seldom the same as others.

• I had absolutely no reason not to believe the other athletic directors because I had developed a very good working relationship with them over the years. They had no vested interest or ulterior motive for not telling me the truth.

• Providing his viewpoint first does not mean that is the one which I will ultimately accept as correct.

• Working with others in a non-confrontational approach is necessary for his development.

Unfortunately, my efforts were unsuccessful. At the end of the year, the coach decided not to coach again at Eastern Tech. His decision was based upon the belief that he would not be able to work under my suggestions for improvement. While I was unhappy that I could not help this individual overcome his faults, the meeting with him did make him clear of my expectations—and may have ultimately saved me from having to pursue termination. —D.H.


Case Study #3

One of our high maintenance coaches is argumentative, arrogant, and obnoxious with many individuals. A few athletes have stated that they will not play for her, some parents will not allow their daughters to join her team, and two faculty members approached me and asked, “How can you allow her to come in contact with our student-athletes and continue to coach?”

However, this coach does have a very good knowledge of her sport, our players generally improve, and the team has had successful seasons over the last two years. The coach and I have discussed this problem in our meetings, but it still continues. I struggle with this case constantly.

Because the participation rate is a very important standard within our athletic program, I’ve decided to make my barometer of this situation whether the number of participants decline in this sport. If there is a noticeable dip in the number of young women trying out for her team, I would feel compelled to make a change. In the meantime, I will work with her and monitor the situation. —D.H.