What Makes A Mentor?

All coaches need mentors. In fact, they need many different types of mentors throughout their careers. Here’s how athletic directors can fulfill this role, and watch their coaches benefit from it.

By Shelly Wilson

Shelly Wilson is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 14.4, June/July 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1404/mentor.htm

“I have had a number of different types of mentors in my life, and I’ve learned different things from every single one of them. My first athletic director was very autocratic in his approach. The second used a lot of humor to diffuse any message he was giving. The third was very professional in his manner. The fourth taught me about the importance of schmoozing and interpersonal politics. And the fifth one, probably the most valuable mentor to me, taught me all about confrontation and how sometimes you don’t get things done without it.” — Dru Marshall, former Field Hockey Coach, Assistant Dean of the Faculty of Physical Education, University of Alberta.

Whether you’re conscious of it or not, as an athletic director, you are also a mentor to many of your coaches. Some coaches you may mentor quite deliberately. Others you may be reaching in more subtle ways.

While mentoring has been a part of the athletic world for as long as there have been coaches, the term has also become a buzzword in the workplace. Researchers have found that employees with informal mentors report greater career satisfaction, commitment, and mobility, as well as more positive attitudes than individuals without mentors.

The benefits in the coaching world are similar. “For the protégé, it’s an opportunity to learn insider information,” says Marshall, who has also served as Head Coach of the Canadian National Women’s Field Hockey Team and recently authored an article on the topic of mentoring for the Canadian Journal for Women In Coaching. “At times, it allows coaches to avoid errors, but in a large way, it creates career satisfaction because they realize the people above them have a commitment to the organization. And people tend to be happier and more productive as a result.”

“Mentoring is all about helping someone grow, and coaches who have an athletic administrator as a mentor really get a better sense of the big picture, how the athletic department fits into the university structure, and how his or her particular sport fits into the total sports program,” says Dave Hart, Jr., Director of Athletics at Florida State University. “Plus, a lot of coaches have an eye cast toward maybe one day transitioning to administration themselves, and they can benefit if they have a mentor who’s in administration.”

But as an athletic director, how do you fulfill your role as a boss and also a mentor? Are there differences between the two? And what can you do to enhance your mentoring skills?

Boss & Mentor
According to most athletic directors, adopting the role of mentor does not conflict with one’s duties as head of the department. In fact, the best ADs spend the majority of their time mentoring, rarely invoking their authority as boss.

“Everybody has a boss. That’s just a fact of life,” says Steve Pederson, Director of Athletics at the University of Pittsburgh. “But there are times when you assist your coaches as athletic director and there are times that you provide them assistance as a friend. And I think you need to be able to do both.”

A boss helps fix a particular problem, but a mentor helps a person see how to fix it him- or herself, says Rick Mello, Director of Athletics at Florida International University. “The difference between mentoring and managing is whether the coach feels empowered to take the skill, practice, or lesson to the next level and learn it,” says Mello. “If you have to deal with the same logistical issues with your coaches over and over again, then you have to assess whether you are mentoring effectively.”

Mentoring means generating options collaboratively rather than providing answers outright, adds Marshall. “For instance,” she says, “a boss might use an annual review to say, ‘Here are a few things you need to improve on.’ A mentor would take that same information and expand the conversation to say, ‘Let’s talk about what you need to do to accomplish that.’ They wouldn’t be prescriptive in their approach. Instead, a mentor would use discussion over time to guide the protégé to find his or her own way.”

Another distinction between a boss and mentor comes in the actual interaction. As supervisor, you may discuss something across an office desk with examples in hand, while most conversations as a mentor should be less planned.

“Most mentorship happens on the spur of the moment,” says Mello. “It may be a casual conversation somewhere. Mentoring is not something you plan for. It’s something that is ongoing.”

And as an ongoing process, you shouldn’t put a time limit on the relationship, adds Hart. “In most cases, people have a vision in mind of what they want to [glean from you],” he says. “So I don’t think you ever really say, ‘That’s it. We’re going to close the door on this relationship.’ A mentorship is ongoing until they reach their goal. Even today, I still have a handful of people I trust implicitly and lean on for advice and counsel.”

The roles of boss and mentor can come into conflict, however, when you see the coach is about to make a mistake. As a mentor, you may want to let the coach learn through error. As an athletic director, though, there are times when you need to stop a mistake before it is made.

“We’re all trying to be successful,” says Pederson, “and if it’s an obvious mistake, it’s silly to let somebody fall on their face if you know they’re going to. That’s when you need to assume your role as athletic director and say, ‘You know what? We’re not going to go down this path.’ Hopefully, you don’t have to do that too often. But I don’t believe in letting people fall on their face to prove a point.”

Asserting your role as boss in a given situation, however, does not preclude using it as a mentoring opportunity. “If someone is about to make a mistake of magnitude, or it’s a serious situation involving student-athletes, then those are times when you need to be a little more hands-on,” says Mello. “But you can still use those occasions as teaching opportunities. You can discuss all the options collaboratively, and if it’s of big enough importance, maybe you make the decision of how to proceed for them. Then, next time a situation of similar proportion arises, you asses how they handle that.”

Setting The Groundwork
Key to forming successful mentorships is building relationships with staff and establishing an atmosphere conducive to open discussion. To achieve this, athletic directors encourage getting to know your coaches beyond scores and budgets.

“You have to understand that as the boss, sometimes you’re the hardest person to approach for advice,” says Mello. “A mentoring relationship is dependent on a coach’s comfort in coming to you, so you have to get out from behind your desk and find a commonality of interests that may have nothing to do with athletics.

“For instance, I’m an animal lover,” he continues, “and some of my coaches are animal lovers. So it may take a casual conversation walking in the hall. ‘How’s your dog today? I heard he was sick.’ There’s nothing phony about it. You just get to know your people on a different level, and that’s when trust develops.”

“You can have a lot of wisdom, but if people don’t feel comfortable seeking that wisdom or listening when you approach them with an idea or way to help, then very little mentoring will ever take place,” adds Joe Castiglione, Athletics Director at the University of Oklahoma. “But if people understand you really do care, they’re going to be willing to at least listen and think your suggestions over, whether they agree or not.”

“People are drawn to mentors who will stop and give them their time,” says Hart. “Talk with them. Accept their phone calls. Sit with them when they request a meeting. You have to be approachable. You have to be willing to make giving your time to this effort a priority. You have to be willing to give of yourself, your experience, and the knowledge you have accumulated over the years. People seeking mentors realize very quickly who are most likely to give in that vein.”

Rick Hartzell, Director of Athletics at the University of Northern Iowa, suggests demonstrating an interest that goes beyond the department’s success. “They have to believe that you are someone who wants to support them, who wants to see them do better, and who wants to help make their career path wider,” he explains. “I tell my coaches all the time, ‘If I’m doing a good job, you’re going to get some good job offers down the road because somebody is going to see you doing a great job, and they’re going to want you.’ And when it’s framed that way, and they know that’s your goal, most of the time they welcome your help.

“To emphasize that intent, I try to be around their program and practices every day,” Hartzell continues. “You don’t have to be there for an hour and a half, but if coaches see you there for 10 minutes, they feel you care and that you’re really interested because you’ve taken time out of your day. Attending games isn’t the same, because they know that’s part of your job.”

Be warned, however, that creating connections with your coaches does not happen overnight. “One of my basketball coaches and I now talk about things we never would have talked about before,” says Hartzell, “because he has come to respect my knowledge and understand that I do know some things about basketball. And I strengthened that relationship, as I do relationships with all my coaches, by getting them the things they need, trying to let them know I love and care about them, and then getting out of their way. But it takes time to develop those kinds of relationships.”

Effective Teaching
Along with creating the right atmosphere, there are concrete steps you can take to make yourself a more effective mentor. Below are key points of advice.

Encourage Dialogue. When coaches face professional challenges, mentors start the teaching process by encouraging discussion and listening well. The best mentors realize that a protégé isn’t always looking for an answer.

“A lot of times, we’ll talk about kids, playing time, dealing with parents, or motivating players,” says Hartzell. “They may come in with a notion of how the problem ought to be handled, and all they need is somebody to provide consensus.”

“The biggest part of mentoring your coaches is really listening to them,” adds Mello. “A lot of times, an athletic director will have his or her own background and experiences and want to interject what’s worked for them in the past. But sometimes, that isn’t the best solution. If you listen and observe, you really begin to see what’s going on and you can best ascertain how mentoring needs to take place.”

Offer Insight. Good mentors don’t only help to resolve specific challenges. They help coaches take a step back from their daily concerns and provide insight into a coach’s strengths and weaknesses.

“One mentor told me she thought I cared too much about my athletes and that eventually coaching would take a personal toll on me,” Marshall says. “And I think she was probably right. It wasn’t something I could change easily or permanently, but I was always very aware of that. Because of that discussion, I could see when I was getting too personally involved, and then I’d say to myself, ‘She was right. How can I do this differently?’

“Another mentor asked what I thought my strengths and weaknesses were as a coach,” Marshall continues. “I told her I thought one of my strengths was communication. And she said, ‘That’s interesting, Dru, because I would say your biggest strength is that you’re smart. But strengths can also be your biggest weakness. You’re going to have to recognize that you’re smarter than your athletes. Sometimes you expect them to be on the same level as you, but they don’t understand what you’ve said.’

“After that, there were numerous occasions when I’d recognize that my team hadn’t understood my point or instruction, and I’d hear her voice in the back of my head. That was a very valuable lesson that stuck with me for the rest of my coaching career.”

Be Open-Minded. When it comes to helping protégés generate solutions, good mentors respect that individuals work most comfortably and effectively according to their own style and that sometimes there’s more than one means to an end. “You can’t solve issues with a cookie cutter approach,” says Mello. “You have to assess the person’s personality, respect their approach to doing their job, and examine how possible avenues fit with what you’re trying to accomplish. If you micromanage people, you’re developing them to do things how you would. And then there’s no diversity within your department, there are no varying schools of thought, and the department is not as strong.”

“My best mentors allowed me to be me,” adds Marshall. “They were willing to let me develop, they recognized the strengths I had, and they didn’t insist I do things the same way they did them. The whole idea of mentoring is to help someone find their way, not help someone find your way.”

Follow Up. Part of building those leadership skills in your coaches is the follow up. In addition to giving coaches time to address the challenge, mentors check in on progress, bestow credit on coaches for positive outcomes, and remain available for redirection, when necessary.

“If a coach comes to you and says, ‘Just so you know, this came up and I’ve taken care of it,’ and your response is positive, that let’s them know they’re on the right track,” says Pederson. “And that builds their confidence to manage future problems.”

Facilitated Mentoring
Time constraints and personality differences make it difficult to act as a mentor to each of your coaches all the time. That’s why it’s important to promote the concept throughout the department.

Hart tried to foster mentoring whenever he addresses large groups of his staff. “I always encourage young administrators and coaches to gain the confidence of a mentor and develop a relationship with a mentor,” he says. “It’s incumbent on them to select somebody they respect to assist them as needed. And I tell them, ‘You be the initiator,’ because I think a mentorship is very difficult for a mentor to initiate. I don’t look at our staff and say, ‘I’d like these people to be mentors.’ I let it come from the mentee.”

Athletic directors can also generate more mentors in the department by stressing to senior staff the importance of mentoring others. “I tell my administrative staff all the time to take an hour and go for a walk once a week to hit six or seven coaches’ offices,” Hartzell says. “They don’t have to talk about any big issues, but I want them to get in there on their turf and let our coaches see that we care about them.”

Another viable option is to establish a facilitated mentorship program. This is precisely what the faculty at the University of Alberta has had in place since 1994, with great success.

Instituted as part of its annual orientation for newly appointed faculty, newcomers are given the opportunity to request a mentor from their department or outside of their department. In early October, Director of University Teaching Services Bente Roed, who oversees the program, contacts those prospective mentees.

“My opening question is ‘What is your dream mentor?’ Then we go for that,” she says. “Having each mentee come up with a dream mentor allows them to participate in the process and come up with criteria that will help foster a good relationship.”

In the meantime, Roed recruits volunteer mentors. She stresses that the process for pairing individuals is not scientific, but very subjective. After watching and listening to new staff members participate in the five orientation days, she gets an idea of what kind of person they are. Then, during her initial call, she uses the discussion to get an idea of whether the mentee is someone who is really sure of him- or herself or who requires a lot of hand-holding. With this information as a guide, Roed pairs individuals.

Next, she provides mentors and mentees with a six page booklet titled “Mentoring: A Strategy For Faculty Growth,” which her department developed especially for program participants. The booklet includes sections on the benefits of mentoring, personal and professional areas mentors can assist mentees with, tips for how to sustain the relationship, parameters for how and when to end a mentorship, and character traits of the successful mentee and mentor (see Sidebar, “Successful Traits” at the end of this article). It also suggests pairs establish regular interaction through weekly or bi-weekly meetings, which can vary from lunches or dinners together a few times a month or walking home together once a week to regular e-mail or phone conversations.

In the six years since its installment, Alberta’s mentoring program has created 102 pairs, and that, says Roed, is only one small indicator of the program’s success. “When we [first proposed] this effort in 1989, there was not a belief that mentoring was important,” she says. “Now, because of the environment our program has created, there’s an expectation that mentoring should take place.

“We also really promote it as a two-way street,” she continues. “It’s not the traditional program where the wise old sage spews wisdom down to the novice. It’s our hope that senior professors learn new things or are reminded of things they know but haven’t used in a while. And feedback from participants indicates that this is the case.”

The Outcome
In the end, mentorships with your coaches are both a duty and a privilege. The benefits to a program and to yourself can be unparalleled.

“Very few coaches fail because of the Xs and Os,” says Pederson. “By the time they get to be a head coach, they know how to coach the game. They fail because they also have to be able to recruit, run their program, handle public relations issues, handle their players, and interact with the university community. And the answers to problems in those areas are seldom found in the film room.

“But mentorship allows them to learn from the strengths of others,” he continues. “When everyone is pulling together, believes in each other, and ownership belongs to everyone, a department can do great things.”

Successful Traits
A fruitful mentorship requires both mentor and mentee to possess certain traits that enhance openness and the opportunity for exchange. Below are suggestions from the University of Alberta’s booklet “Mentoring: A Strategy For Faculty Growth.”

The mentor should strive to:
• Value the mentee as a person.
• Develop mutual trust and respect.
• Maintain confidentiality.
• Identify and model professional behaviors.
• Focus on the mentee’s development and resist the urge to produce a clone.
• Allow the mentee to take reasonable risks in meeting his or her objectives.
• Provide constructive feedback.
• Help the mentee solve his or her problem, rather than give direction.

The primary characteristics of a successful mentee include the ability and willingness to:
• Clearly articulate career and personal needs.
• Set attainable goals and make decisions to achieve those goals.
• Assume responsibility for professional growth and development.
• Be open and receptive to constructive feedback.