Q&A with Marlene Kelly

Anne Arundel County Schools

By Staff

Athletic Management, 14.3, April/May 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1403/qakelly.htm

As Supervisor of Athletics for Anne Arundel County (Md.) Public Schools, Marlene Kelly oversees 12 high school programs. That means dealing with 12 principals, 12 athletic directors, 12 coaching staffs, and 12 sets of parents. Located just south of Baltimore, the Anne Arundel District is among the 50 largest in the United States, with more than 4,600 teachers and nearly 75,000 students.

This month, Kelly finishes a two-year term as President of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. She is also a member of the National Federation of State High School Associations' Equity Committee. In this interview, Kelly talks about the importance of communication, dealing with parents, and the challenges of recruiting new coaches.

AM: What is your role as the Supervisor of Anne Arundel County Athletics?

Kelly: My role is the maintenance of 12 senior high programs, overseeing the programs to make sure facilities are safe and coaches are properly certified. I also do preseason meetings with all the coaches to make sure they're aware of our county policies as well as the state policies. Then there's the maintenance of equity as far as financial help I can give schools, and I also go out there in the field making sure that suggestions are implemented in the schools.

Communication is a large piece of my job—talking with principals, making sure they're aware of anything that would impact their athletic program. But the majority of the phone calls that come in during the day are parents who have a concern with a program at a specific school and want to know what the rules and regulations are or what I can do to help them. A lot of it is a PR type of thing. It's kind of a jack-of-all-trades position.

What is the one most important strategy for any athletic director to follow?

I think communication is key. I think an athletic director who does not communicate with his or her staff is destined for trouble. And it needs to go beyond the nuts and bolts issues. Athletic directors need to be on the sidelines at games. After a close loss, coaches need to hear, "Hey Coach, good game. It was a tough one."

Unfortunately, with the financial and logistical parts of the job, it's sometimes tough to make time for this. But that personal connection is the key piece that keeps coaches wanting to coach in your school. Athletic directors are the people who establish that relationship, the sense that "we're all part of a family."

What kind of strategies do you advocate when dealing with parents?

I think a commonsense approach is always the best. Sometimes parents just want you to listen, so simply taking the time to understand what they're saying can be the biggest part of it. The second thing is to ask them what their expectations are and what they want from you. These conversations can last for hours if you never get down to "What is it exactly that you want me to do?" The last thing I would say is to try to give them multiple perspectives of why a decision was made.

Also, if something the parent says doesn't sound quite right, you've got to go out and do that investigation, and then get back to them. The greatest frustration I hear from parents is that they call school-based administration and don't get a call back or never get an answer, whether it's supportive to their cause or not.

Have you seen a change in the interaction parents have with administrators and coaches?

I think parents are much more demanding now. Everything is questioned. So coaches need to make sure that they're systematic in their approaches, and cautious and steadfast in their documentation of incidents and team selection. If they're not, it can become a "he said, she said" thing.

The idea of sitting around with a kid after practice and just talking—which I did with kids 20 years ago when I coached—probably doesn't exist anymore. Unfortunately, those one-on-one situations can be misconstrued by parents or whoever else.

What have your goals been as President of the MPSSAA?

You really don't have an agenda as president. The goals are dictated by the association and its members. But I guess if I had to state what my major emphasis is, I'd say it's more in my management style. I'm a person who gets the best people I can in a job and lets them do the job—I don't micromanage them. This is an opportunity for leaders to be born. That's the role I see as the president of an association or head of a county. You find the good people who are out there and you put them in situations where they can develop their leadership. You're there to guide them, but you also have to let them go.

How do you maintain that balance of guiding them without micromanaging?

You let them know what the job is and any parameters they have to work under, then you let those creative minds go to work and get the problems solved. You make sure you're supportive along the way by checking in with them to see where they're at and asking what you can do to help them. You look at what they're doing, but try not to be judgmental. You can ask probing questions that make them think the process out like: "Did you think of what impact that would have on the kids? How are you going to get the word out to coaches? How is this going to be done?"

It's hard to do that sometimes. It's much easier to say, "I tried that 10 years ago and it didn't work." But instead you can start giving ideas to them and let them create the solutions. Then there's a feeling of ownership for them. There are great leaders out there in young coaches and athletic directors, you just have to give them that opportunity to take the leadership roles.

What are the biggest issues facing high school athletics in your county?

A big issue we face is trying to entice teachers into coaching. Maryland has a specific regulation that 50 percent of the coaching staff has to be teachers. I'm sure it's a national issue, not just something in our county, but we have a lot of teachers in the 40-55 age group and some of them have coached and just don't want to coach any more.

So I'm always talking up coaching. I go to the new teachers meetings, meet all the new staff that is hired by the schools, and pass out pamphlets. We're trying to get new teachers involved in coaching while having the sense not to move them along too quickly.

Another issue—and I think it's a national issue and a Maryland issue and a county issue and a school issue—is sportsmanship. Maryland has initiated a sportsmanship improvement program where every school in the state has to submit a plan on how sportsmanship is going to be implemented in that school. That's required before schools can enter a state tournament. It addresses such issues as the structure of the school, supervision, and the nuts and bolts of working with coaches and kids on sportsmanship plans. Every two years it needs to be updated, saying how far you've gotten and where you are going from that point. Also, each of our state tournaments gives out a sportsmanship trophy.

In addition, we require players and coaches to follow the NFHS Code of Ethics, and we came up with one in our county for spectators. The code is posted at the ticket area and parents are encouraged to read and sign it. If you're signing your name to something, it at least makes you think a little bit when you go into that game about what your behavior is going to be. When I sat in the stands, I heard parents say, "I signed that thing, did you?" Or even in a teasing way, "You can't say something like that. Didn't you sign that poster?" It might have been a little humorous in some respects but it made them at least think about it.

How do you balance the demands of communities to have winning teams with the reality that not all teams come out with winning records?

We strive to have good programs coached by good coaches so kids have a good learning experience. The other stuff comes with that. So if one of our programs is struggling, what I try to do, and what the school tries to do, is make an analysis of the program to see what could improve that program. It might not be the coach. It could be that there is no feeder system, for example. We try to give athletic directors and coaches the tools to pick their program apart to see what aspect needs some added emphasis and go after it.

What sorts of professional development activities do you do?

Currently, I'm working on my doctoral dissertation in Educational Policy and Administration. My paper is titled "The Journey of Women in Athletic Leadership." I've tried to look at why, since Title IX, we have tended to lose women in coaching rather than gain them. I also attend the NFHS and NIAAA conferences to get some perspective of what's going on around the country.

What kind of steps can be taken to address the decrease in female coaches?

I think there are some things we can't control. In the '70s, teaching was a natural channel for a lot of women who were interested in athletics. I think now business and other aspects of society have picked up on women who are involved in athletics and are capitalizing on some of the skills these women have. Therefore, these women are going into the business arena rather than just the educational arena. But that business arena limits the ability for women to coach.

So in order to attract women to coaching, we may need to be a little more flexible in some of our time commitments. Certainly game times can't be changed, but maybe we need to be a little more flexible with practice schedules.

Even for those women who go into the educational arena, the time demands of coaching can be difficult since many are also responsible for getting kids to or from daycare and other things. Sometimes there are so many hoops for women to jump through in order to coach that they get tired of coaching. Men are sometimes in that situation too. I don't want to isolate women and say they are the only care-givers with those responsibilities. But in a lot of families they still assume these traditional roles, and I think we have to try to be a little more flexible.

One other thing I think we need to do, with young male coaches too, is be careful that we move them along slowly. Oftentimes, especially when you have a young woman who comes into a school, it's "Oh my gosh! We have a woman who can coach girls' basketball. We're going to move her into that varsity position." But maybe the best thing for her would be to work as a junior varsity head coach or an assistant varsity coach for a few years until she gets her feet on the ground.

Sometimes we're so excited to have them that we move them along too quickly and they're not ready to take all the other baggage that comes with being a head coach. Then they get upset and frustrated and they leave us.

Do you see yourself as a role model for younger female administrators and coaches?

I try to encourage people by example. I think just being out there and being involved is important. Both men and women can see me working with men's and women's teams and helping men coaches and women coaches. They can see that the coaches have trust in what I do and that you can still be a woman, a mom, a wife, and all those other things I am, and somehow all those balls get juggled.