A Team Effort

You can’t control all of your athletes’ actions, especially those that occur off the field. But you can get them thinking more about their behavior by having each team develop its own social contract.

By Geri Knortz

Geri Knortz is Director of Athletics at Saint Michael’s College, an NCAA Division II institution in Hinesburg, Vt. She also serves on the College’s Strategic Planning Committee.

Athletic Management, 14.5, August/September 2002, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1405/teameffort.htm

Consider the following scenarios: Your soccer team just celebrated a huge victory by consuming alcohol on the bus ride home. The field hockey team held an initiation party where the rookies were required to participate in humiliating and degrading activities. One member of your football team is made to feel unwelcome by teammates who suspect he is gay. An athlete on your basketball team uses trash talking as a strategy to intimidate her opponents. Your wrestling coach calls his male athletes “girls” whenever he feels they are not practicing hard enough.

Are these incidents preventable? Not entirely. But as an athletic director you can greatly reduce the likelihood of these negative behaviors by educating coaches and team members about departmental expectations before each season begins.

At Saint Michael’s College, we accomplish this through our team social contract. Developed in response to an initiation incident in 1995, it has proven to be a valuable guide for varsity programs at our college today. It allows us to set minimum behavior expectations—in accordance with the mission, goals, and policies of the institution—and has also furthered team bonding, as it asks athletes to discuss and define their own standards.

A Basic Template
When the idea for the social contract was first implemented at Saint Michael’s, teams were given a list of required categories, guidelines, and a blank sheet of paper. While this allowed athletes to feel complete ownership of the process, there were some definite drawbacks. The quality of these contracts varied widely, and the documents were often sent back for rewrites because they were inadequate. In the past few years, we have found that starting with a basic template has provided a better structure to guide the teams and more consistency across the department.

The department template includes the minimum expectations set by the college, with space for each team to add more rules. These minimum expectations are non-negotiable—if an athlete feels he or she is unable to adhere to these rules, then it is not possible for them to participate in the program.

This template is reviewed by administrators on an annual basis and updated when necessary. We have found that rewrites of the template occur primarily to clarify issues that may need further explanation, or to add items that we have needed to address during the past year. (A copy of the Saint Michael’s template is at the end of this article.)

Each year, before their first competition of the season, the coaches and student-athletes of each team meet to discuss and develop their social contract. The expectations outlined in the template are read aloud to the team, and it is expected that all team members will have input, sign the contract, and adhere to the expectations outlined.

To make the contract their own, team members discuss each section and their ideas for further standards of conduct. They can add additional team rules under any or all of the mandated sections, and they can develop their own rules under the “optional” section.

The Process
The facilitating process varies from team to team. For most squads, the coach meets separately with the captains to discuss the social contract, then the captains lead the team discussion with the coaching staff present. For others, the coach plays the major role in presenting the contract and facilitating discussion with the entire team.

The process works best if it is a collaborative exercise, with a minimum of two hours devoted to the project. It is not unusual for our teams to take several hours developing their contracts. Teams should allow enough time for questions and thorough deliberation, as the social contract is designed to serve as a vehicle to stimulate open discussion among the team members.

“Developing the social contract has been a good experience, particularly in setting goals and expectations,” says Tim Kaleita, SMC Head Men’s Soccer Coach. “But it is the process itself—the discussion that occurs in forming the contract—that is invaluable.”

What’s more, team members often agree to stricter guidelines than the minimum outlined in the template. For example, while the dress code requirement for team travel is fairly basic, some squads will decide to be more specific and tighten the standard. Some men’s teams require jacket and tie, others khakis and polo shirts. Women’s teams might opt to wear dress slacks or dresses to the contest and team warm-ups on the trip home.

Another area where we have experienced a higher standard established by teams is in alcohol use. For those students of legal drinking age, we minimally expect responsible consumption (no binge drinking) and adherence to a 24-hour rule (absolutely no alcohol consumption 24 hours before any competition). Recognizing the extended effects of alcohol, many teams have agreed to increase that commitment of abstinence to a 48-hour rule.

Dustin Hess, captain of the SMC men’s soccer team feels the contract process is a great way for teams to define their own expectations. “More serious teams that want to fully achieve their potential will go beyond the basic template in order to achieve success,” he says.

Also, when athletes are a part of the process they are also more likely to abide by the rules and take pride in their team identity. “The real value of the social contract for my athletes is in the provisions added by each team,” says Joe Connelly, SMC Head Men’s Cross Country and Men’s and Women’s Nordic Ski Coach. “These additions tend to be items that they’ve come to think of as their philosophy towards their sport and how it fits in with their beliefs. For example, we’ve written in a hard-line stance requiring the evaluation of nutritional supplements because the members of each team see the problems when top athletes have tested above legal limits in these sports.”

Discussion of consequences for violating behavioral guidelines is also an important element of the exercise. At Saint Michael’s, although these disciplinary decisions are usually made on a case-by-case basis, there are standard consequences that are carefully explained to each team.

The final step is for all team members to sign the contract. This signed contract must be on file in the athletic director’s office prior to the first contest. In addition, team members are given a copy of the contract for their records.

Follow Through
Once the social contract process is complete, team members have a clear idea of what is expected of them. And everyone involved with the program is given the responsibility to confront behaviors that are contrary to the contract. This means that student-athletes who believe the behavior of any team member is offensive or violates the contract must bring the matter to the attention of the individual involved, captains, coach, or administrative liaison.

Responding to the behavior can be as simple as one athlete telling another to “knock it off” when he or she is using foul language. It could be the coach having a private conversation with a team member who is not conforming to the established dress code. Or, it may be the athletic director admonishing a coach for using sexist or derogatory language.

Sometimes the issues are severe enough to warrant disciplinary action. When this happens, the social contract again provides the starting place for beginning a serious conversation with the individual involved.

“As a team we confronted a team member who violated the binge-drinking and 48-hour rule in the contract, and let the team down in the process,” says James Donoghue, SMC Head Men’s and Women’s Swim Coach. “The discussion focused on the contract as a commitment statement to each other, and it became the basis for the discipline, correction, and elimination of the behavior.”

The social contract can also be used when a “teachable moment” arises during the season. As coaches and administrators, we have a responsibility to further the development of our athletes and to help them become better people. Select sections of the signed contract can be read aloud to individuals or the team when addressing issues. The social contract gives permission to everyone involved with the program to communicate when someone is not living up to the standard.

For Any Program
With a commitment to the process by the administration, coaches, and athletes, the social contract has the potential to be an effective tool for setting expectations for any athletic program, at any level. It is not a “cure-all,” but it does provide a means for all team members to be fully informed about the minimum behavioral expectations, eliminate ambiguity about policies, and serve as a vehicle for opening up lines of communication. More importantly, it will educate all coaches and players about their responsibilities as members of your athletic teams.

There are no guarantees, but if you use the social contract, I am confident you will reduce the incidents of negative behavior in your athletic program. And when they do occasionally occur, you will have a solid framework for promptly addressing the issues.

Special thanks to Zaf Bludevich and Sue Duprat, Associate Athletic
Directors at SMC, for their input on this article. Both helped develop the social contracts discussed in this article.

Sidebar: A Starting Point

The following is a copy of the template we use for the Saint Michael’s College Athletic Department Team Social Contract. Although we’ve omitted them here, note that each section has room for additional guidelines.

Academic Priorities:
Academic commitments will be held in the highest regard. As student-athletes, we have a special obligation to maintain constant communication with our professors and to abide by institutional policies regarding missed work and class attendance. Coaches will provide game and departure time information to team members at the beginning of the sport season. As student-athletes, we will share this information at a scheduled meeting with each professor and work out any necessary arrangements.

We understand that to remain eligible for competition, all student-athletes must be enrolled full-time students, with a minimum of 12 credit hours per semester. If at any time we become enrolled in less than 12 credit hours, we agree to inform the Head Coach and Compliance Coordinator immediately.

Alcohol and Substance Use:
At no time while representing Saint Michael’s College on team travel or team activity will we (as coaches, athletes, or support staff) allow, condone, or be associated with the possession, consumption, or use of alcoholic beverages, tobacco, or illegal drugs. We understand this is applicable to anyone associated with the athletic program, regardless of age or relationship to the program.

Additionally, we understand that violations of civil laws regarding underage drinking, providing of alcoholic beverages to underage individuals, or possession or use of illegal drugs at any time during the academic year, will result minimally with suspension from competition and may be cause for dismissal from the team. For those of legal drinking age, we agree to abide by a 24-hour rule, which prohibits use of any alcohol or any other substance 24 hours prior to competition. We agree that no team member will engage in binge drinking or become intoxicated, nor will possess or use any illegal substances for the duration of the season.

We agree to refrain from the use of banned performance-enhancing drugs or substances that are not permitted by the NCAA and understand that using them will result in the loss of NCAA eligibility for one full calendar year as well as dismissal from the team.

The language, behavior, and actions of our athletes, coaches, and staff will reflect our commitment to the Mission of Saint Michael’s College. We agree to exemplify the qualities of civility and decorum in our interactions with each other, opponents, spectators, or officials. We will not use language or gestures that are foul, vulgar, demeaning, hurtful, or divisive. Team members who witness offensive behavior will bring the matter to the individuals involved, captains, coach, or administrative liaison for their sport.

Sporting Behavior:
We will pride ourselves on promoting exemplary sporting behavior. We will behave courteously toward opponents, fans, and officials and will not engage in trash talk, flagrant fouls, or retaliation. We will also refrain from excessive celebratory display of individual or team success, for it can be demoralizing to our opponents and shows no class.

Initiation Issues:
We fully understand the College’s zero-tolerance policy towards hazing and initiation activity, and agree not to engage in those activities as defined below.

The College defines hazing as any action or activity that recklessly endangers the physical or mental health of a person, or that violates the dignity of another person. Hazing is further defined as any activity that is expected of someone to join a group or team that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them, regardless of intention or willingness to participate. The College enforcement of hazing will prevail regardless of whether it is conducted on or off the College premises.

We understand that the consequences for hazing or holding initiation activities will be severe and may result in suspension, probation, or expulsion from the team or from the College. In addition, the team may be disbanded entirely, and competition may be canceled.

Issues of Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation:
We will maintain a constant, vigilant sensitivity to issues of sexual orientation, race, and gender. Our behavior, language, and expectations will reflect a commitment to respect the dignity of all individuals. We agree to immediately confront any inappropriate behavior, language, or gestures. We agree to provide a welcoming environment for all individuals, one that is free from discrimination or harassment of any kind.

We understand the NCAA policy on gambling and the severe consequences that will result from the violation of the policy. We agree to not provide information to individuals involved in organized gambling activities concerning intercollegiate athletic competition, solicit or accept a bet on any intercollegiate team, or participate in any gambling activity that involves intercollegiate athletics or professional athletics through a bookmaker, parlay card, or other method employed by organized gambling. If we engage in these behaviors, we understand that the NCAA will rule us ineligible for any future competition.

Travel Policies:
We understand that team members are expected to travel with the team for practice and/or contests in the transportation provided by the College. We will abide by this policy unless the coach gives prior approval and there is a parent- or guardian-signed travel release form on file prior to departure. Upon return to campus, we agree to clear all litter from any vehicle used for team transportation.

Dress Code:
All team members agree to have a clean and neat appearance when representing the College. We understand that jeans are not appropriate attire for team travel.

Recruit Host Expectations:
We fully accept the responsibility associated with hosting prospective student-athletes. Under no circumstances will any team member offer a recruit alcoholic beverages or other illegal substances, nor will we bring them to a party or other gathering where alcohol/drugs are present. We agree to abide by the NCAA regulations regarding the hosting of a prospect.

Responsibility to Uphold the Social Contract and Decisions Program: We acknowledge that all team members have a responsibility to uphold this agreed-upon contract. As student-athletes, we agree to discuss violations of the contract with individual players involved, captains, coaches, or athletic administrators. As coaches, we agree to be outstanding role models and to confront team behaviors that are contrary to the social contract. We also agree to complete all aspects of the Decisions Program, including attendance at the two department-sponsored speaker programs and participation in a team-selected educational activity or community service.

Other Optional Sections:
Out-of-season conditioning, training rules, and injury rehab
Team locker room policy
Practice attendance and issues of timeliness
Expected level of effort
Individual commitment to safety
Care of uniforms and equipment
Fitness and rehabilitation issues

Printed Name and Signature of All Team Members: