It Takes A Community

Meetings and mentoring, teamwork and talking—the values your coaches are teaching their players can work just as well for them. This article explores the idea of starting a coaching community on your campus.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 15.2, February/March 2003,

One day last April, the University of Richmond football team interrupted spring practice. The Spiders’ women’s lacrosse team was playing in a big game nearby, and the football coach decided to take his team over to watch and cheer on the players.

“You don’t see that in too many places,” says Richmond Athletic Director Jim Miller.
He’s probably right. No matter the level of play, it’s hard for coaches of any sport to raise their gaze above the daily fray and see what their on-campus peers are doing. They may genuinely care about the success of other squads, but given the ever-growing time demands of their profession, it’s hard for coaches to cross the line and talk shop with peers in other sports.

Does it have to be this way? Isn’t coaching, when you get down to it, really the same no matter the sport? Wouldn’t it be better to work where there’s a buzz about the profession, a place where coaches soak up ideas from one another? Wouldn’t it be beneficial to think of your athletic department as a community of coaches?

“In the long run it makes it more fun to be a part of a program where there’s a healthy and positive relationship among the coaches,” says Al Dorenkamp, Director of Athletics at Iowa’s Central College, a consistent Division III NACDA Director’s Cup leader. “In the long run it saves me time to have a communication network that fosters team-building.”

“It’s certainly worth the trouble,” agrees Ned Doyle, Director of Athletics at Minnechaug Regional High School in Wilbraham, Mass. “There’s strength in numbers, there’s an idea exchange, and there’s a strategy exchange that can transfer from one sport to another. All that can be very helpful to coaches in their respective sports.”

Teaming-Up on Expectations
The best way to begin building a coaching community is to promote it as part of your department-wide philosophy. Let your staff know that this is a top priority from day one.

“You have to begin at the beginning, and by that I mean selecting personnel who fit your department,” says John Schael, Athletic Director at Washington University in St. Louis. “While you need experienced coaches who understand the game, you also need coaches who work as a team within your department. We spend an awful lot of time on the selection of personnel.”

University of North Carolina Director of Athletics Dick Baddour concurs. When he was interviewing potential candidates for head football coach two years ago, alumnus John Bunting talked about being at the UNC men’s lacrosse national title game in 1983. He got the job.

“He took great pride in it and made it known that he followed the team,” says Baddour. “We always talk about our commitment to a broad-based program in the hiring process. We talk a lot about ‘the Carolina family,’ and it really is like a family. Your relationships can’t always be perfect but we try to see how close we can get to perfect.”

Beyond having the right coaches on board, promoting a coaching community should happen in the day-to-day running of the athletic department. At the University of Northern Colorado, Athletic Director Jim Fallis has found the terms he uses can make a difference.

“We used to call them staff meetings. Now we call them team meetings,” Fallis says. “It’s amazing how much coaches better understand having a team meeting versus having a staff meeting. They’re all having team meetings, and they expect their team members to be there and they expect them to be on time. About a year ago we started using the term team meetings, and believe it or not, more coaches are coming to them, and more coaches are coming to them on time.”

Fallis also makes the department-as-team concept part of annual evaluations. “I try to explain it this way,” he says. “‘Look, I’m a coach, just like you are. You’ve got to get your team to play together, and if one of your team members doesn’t play together, you put them on the bench or get rid of ’em. That’s what I have to do. I’ve got 16 sports, so I’ve got 16 players. I need to have those 16 players be part of my team.’

“When you put it in that perspective,” Fallis continues, “all of a sudden, a light goes on. And I tell them the president is a coach, too, and when the president calls a meeting of her players, I go to that meeting and either I’m a team player or I’m not.”

Paul Sterling, Assistant Principal for Activities at Stevens High School in Rapid City, S.D., got the point across in one of his first meetings with coaches as their new supervisor five years ago. “We held a meeting for all coaches at the start of the year,” he says. “I asked them to think of the weakest coach here and the best coach here. Then I said, ‘What have you learned from the best coach?’ They all kind of hemmed and hawed. I didn’t make them answer; I just made them think. My final question was, ‘What have you done to help the weak coach?’

“I think that was the most positive thing I did,” Sterling continues, “because they realized then that I don’t want them to criticize the weak coach. I want them to help make that coach better.”

Sterling has since taken the concept further. “We’ve tried to stress the need for everybody to join together to say there is value to every program that we have,” he explains. “If I’m the football coach and they’re looking at cutting cross-country, I’ve got to be able to stand up and say, ‘These kids don’t compete for me, but their activity is just as valuable as mine.’”

Sterling lays out this scenario to his staff: When talk arises of budget cuts, coaches of the highest-profile sports, such as football and basketball, will assume they’re safe and be willing to sacrifice, say, gymnastics and cross-country. Then the next round of cuts will target sub-varsity levels of the most popular sports.

“You’ve lost your support group,” says Sterling, “because the other three teams that got cut were people who were supporting what you’re doing. Now they’re not there to say, ‘No, you shouldn’t do that.’”

At the college level, Miller does something similar by ensuring that there are no haves and have-nots in the department. He feels a big part of his job is taking a hard look at the competition in a sport, making sure each program has the funding it needs to be competitive, and then spreading the resources as equitably as possible.

“It’s very easy to be jealous and to not work together if there’s not enough to go around,” Miller says. “If you’re traveling in vans while somebody else is in a super bus, it’s easy to feel a little jealous.”

Miller preaches the idea of partnership: A large part of anyone’s success is how well you deal with other people—the head football coach, the equipment manager, the compliance officer. “You may not always agree with one another on everything, you may not always like each other,” he says, “but you know you have to get along and work together. I make that part of my evaluations.”

Promoting this partnership means the athletic director always makes time for his or her coaches, too. “I have an open-door policy and lots of individual meetings,” says Schael. “When people feel cut off from communication and input on decisions, that’s when fragmentation starts to come into your department.”

Retreats & Meetings
The next step in building a coaching community is to regularly bring everyone together, beyond preseason parties and holiday get-togethers. Athletic directors say almost any program can find time to hold start-of-the-year or season-opening meetings. There, you can set a tone, explain the expectations of sharing across sports boundaries, and get coaches talking with each other.

“We have a coaches’ retreat every summer,” Dorenkamp says. “It’s a two-day retreat and we have an agenda of big-picture issues in our department along with more specific things.”

Doyle holds a mandatory meeting for all coaches in each upcoming season. “We revisit the premises and shared values we’re all working with so everybody is on the same sheet of music as we step into the new season,” he says. “At that time, I also strongly encourage coaches to be supportive of each other, to share ideas, to share strategies, and to share concerns and problems, because a coach who is struggling with something can be helped by a coach who has met that same challenge in a prior season. What I try to do is set a stage where everybody realizes we are a team, and that we want to work together as we go through the season.”

Ideally, the meetings continue year-round. Coaches and administrators at North Carolina meet monthly. Discussions cover all sorts of issues, from dealing with parents to sharing recruiting success stories to handling a recruit’s official-visit weekend. Baddour supplements these meetings with occasional coaches’ lunches at restaurants, on-campus or at his house.

Central College coaches also meet monthly, joined by support staff—and often people from the college’s admissions office. Dorenkamp recently brought in a sports psychology consultant, and last year a group of Central athletics staff members led a team-building session in which they drew on their own experiences. Dorenkamp says the fact that everyone is talking can be as much a benefit as the substance of the discussion.

“I don’t think there’s anything that’s magic,” Dorenkamp says, “but these meetings are an effective and important way to foster an environment of team-building in our department. It gives coaches the opportunity to share what they’re doing in their programs, to talk about some of the successes and some of the frustrations.”

Richmond has held seminars for its coaches on a variety of topics. A recent one was on the psychology of recruiting, which delved into the psychology of sales—and how teenagers make decisions. The idea-sharing and questions raised helped both new and veteran coaches.

At the New York Institute of Technology, Athletic Director Clyde Doughty, Jr. sets aside much of his weekly staff meetings for roundtable discussions. As each coach updates his or her peers, common challenges come up.

For example, as the women’s basketball program began having some success, there was team friction between upperclassmen and recently recruited younger players—a situation the women’s soccer coach had already dealt with, Doughty says. They began the communication process at the meeting, then talked more afterward.

“They’re communicating now about how the soccer coach handled it and he is bringing to the picture any mistakes that he made,” Doughty says. “My basketball coach won’t make those same mistakes. The discussion has been wonderful for them.”

Ithaca College Director of Athletics Kristen Ford often gathers coaches for an informal off-campus breakfast before the monthly department-wide meeting. They’ve also begun holding regular meet-the-coaches coffees for non-athletic department staffers. “It’s an opportunity not only for the coaches to interact among themselves over coffee, but also for the coaches to interact with faculty and administrators across campus,” Ford says.

At Washington University, coaches themselves often hold seminars for one another. An assistant men’s basketball coach, for example, has begun a series of workshops on recruiting, once in the fall and twice in the spring.

“He just asked if he could set this up and I thought it was a great idea,” Schael says. “We do it over lunch. We order a couple of pizzas and some soda and they sit there an hour or so and talk. It’s especially valuable for new coaches but it’s also valuable for the veterans because they gain some insight and get some new ideas from others.”

One-on-One Connection
Another component of creating a coaching community is setting up programs for individual mentoring. When the soccer coach stops by the field hockey coach’s office to ask her advice on a recruiting strategy, the community is working at its best—and the athletic director is saving a lot of time mentoring each coach.

At Central, as at many small colleges, the compact nature of the athletic department’s physical facilities is a tremendous advantage in cultivating one-on-one connections. New coaches are often assigned offices next to veterans’. But Dorenkamp doesn’t stop there.

“When a new staff member comes in, we assign a couple of other department staff members to work with him or her,” he says. “A year ago we hired a new women’s basketball coach. The office is right next to our head men’s basketball coach. We asked our head men’s basketball coach to collaborate on things like travel, practice scheduling, and recruiting. We hired a cross-country coach a couple of years ago and he’s in the same office as our track coach, and they’ve shared ideas.”

Similarly, Washington University provides all new staff members with what Schael calls a “go-to person.” “It builds a positive relationship with another coach within the department and provides them insight into how we handle issues that arise,” he says. “Some people take advantage of it more than others, but that option is there, and those who take it are happy with that connection.”

Administrators are careful to not make pairings that would likely form on their own. “I wouldn’t have the women’s soccer coach go to the men’s soccer coach for mentoring,” says Schael. “One reason is they’re going to have that connection through their own sport, and it’s important that one gains a connection with another colleague within the department. Then there’s a bond that develops and there’s a greater respect for one another’s sport.”

At North Carolina, administrators often ask less-experienced coaches to find someone on the staff who’s dealt with problems they’re facing, Baddour says. “Especially if there’s a need, we ask a young coach to find some veterans to talk about things such as team leadership. We’re fortunate here to have a blend of new and mid-career people, so there are successes to draw on. The coaches we ask are happy to do it. We’ve never been turned down.”

Making connections goes beyond head coaches. Ford tries to meet with assistant coaches and has them report directly to her. They’re also included in the department’s monthly all-staff meetings.

“I think we’ve done a pretty good job of making the assistant coaches feel like they can have just as much of a say as the head coaches in the full group,” Ford says. “And I try to reach out to the assistant coaches individually, because their opinions are just as valued as the head coaches’ opinions.”

Sterling arranges for his coaches to go to clinics together so they have some one-on-one time to talk. “We have a state clinic that we send them to,” Sterling says. “We pay for their transportation, their rooms, their meals, and we encourage them to go together.”

Sterling also pairs head coaches in off-court activities. Instead of hiring a fund-raising firm to administer a restaurant discount card program, Sterling has coaches and athletes doing it themselves, and it’s pulling some programs together.

“At a lot of schools, the boys’ basketball program and the boys’ wrestling program fight each other for athletes,” says Sterling. “Right now, our head boys’ basketball coach and head wrestling coach are doing a fund-raiser together for both of their programs. They’re two young, energetic guys, and they just hooked up with this idea and ran with it. They’ve worked well together in contacting people and deciding what territories they’re going to sell to. It’s been a good deal for both of them.”

Just as important is setting up opportunities for chance encounters and spontaneous conversations. At Minnechaug, where athletic facilities are spread across a large campus and many of the coaches are non-teachers, Doyle has found that something as simple as having coaches come to the athletics office to pick up their mail creates opportunities for mingling.

“Many times the coaches will bump into each other,” Doyle says. “That reinforces the idea that they can exchange ideas, strategies, and if nothing else, say hello and realize that they’ve bonded with another coach.”

E-mail can be a great help, too. With separate offices for football, baseball, tennis, golf, and men’s basketball, North Carolina’s physical plant is probably the opposite of a community-building model, Baddour says. But coaches and other staff communicate with e-mail. The technology is also indispensable at New York Tech, where facilities are shared, but coaches’ schedules seldom intersect.

“We can send out an e-mail to the coaches and student-athletes on the drop of a dime,” Doughty says. “That mode of communication really helps get our message across and is a reminder that certain things are coming up.”

There are other ways to work around conflicting schedules and geography. When Washington University’s volleyball team went to the NCAA Division III Final Four in December, recruiting trips prevented football coaches from joining the send-off in person. But they made sure, Schael says, to send written well-wishes from the road.

The Long Run
Building a community of coaches takes more work than letting everyone go his or her own way. It’s an extra effort. But it’s worthwhile.

“In the long run, it saves us time because coaches have some intentional opportunities to talk about strategic issues, whether it be facility management or recruiting or two-sport athletes,” says Dorenkamp. “I certainly think that it makes it more enjoyable and fun to be a part of a program where there’s a healthy and positive relationship among the coaches.”