Tough Calls

Communicating with coaches can be a complex endeavor. Sometimes you need to be firm, sometimes easygoing. Sometimes you need to offer help, sometimes you need to stand back. A thoughtful veteran offers advice on making these tough calls.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, EdD, is the Athletic Director at Lock Raven High School, in Baltimore County, Md. He is the former Athletic Director at Eastern Technical High, also in Baltimore, and was named the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association’s Athletic Director of the Year in 2000.

Athletic Management, 15.6, October/November 2003, http://www.momentummedia.com/articles/am/am1506/toughcalls.htm

While athletic directors have many responsibilities, developing effective relationships with their coaching staffs may be the most important. The coaches, after all, come into direct contact with the athletes and their parents. And the image that a coach projects often becomes the basis on which the entire school is judged.

However, forging this working relationship isn’t always easy. Often there is a fine line between what could be, should be, and is done between the athletic administrator and his or her coaches.

Should you confront a coach about a certain behavior, or wait and see if it happens again? Would giving a coach tougher goals motivate her or overwhelm her? Should you always support your coaches publicly, whether you agree with them or not?

There are many question marks surrounding when an administrator should be tough and when he or she needs to be compassionate and helpful. In this article, I will take a look at the fine lines that arise for every athletic director and how to walk them with grace.

HELPING VS. DOING
A conscientious and caring athletic administrator wants to be available to offer advice, insight, and guidance to his or her coaches. Many of us see ourselves as the “coach of coaches” at our schools.

However, an athletic director cannot and should not end up doing the tasks that are the responsibility of the coach. Things like completing score sheets, submitting eligibility forms, and compiling lists of award winners should be under each coach’s purview. But this is not always obvious to the coach.

As an athletic director, what should you do about the coach who expects you to cross the line from helping to doing? A few years ago, when I reminded one of our young coaches of a missed deadline, her answer was, “Well, you are in charge. You should be able to do it.” In the moment, I explained to her that, yes, I was capable of handling the task, but that I have my own responsibilities, and if I undertake something that is clearly one of her jobs, then I would have to neglect mine, and that’s not right. Later in the day, when I went over that conversation in my mind, I realized I needed to lay more groundwork with my coaches on the difference between asking my help and asking me to do their work.

I now start by clearly going over my expectations of them in our preseason meeting. Coaches are required to attend, and I use a detailed agenda, which I strongly suggest that all coaches keep on file.

Last fall, I also began giving our coaches a letter of coaching expectations in addition to the official Baltimore County Public Schools’ coaching contract. This letter details many of the coach’s responsibilities and can be tailored to each individual setting. The coaches sign it and I keep it in their personnel file for reference. I have found that having a specific list of written expectations works really well.

If a coach does not fulfil his or her responsibilities, I allow the consequences to fall on the coach. This can also be difficult to do, but is a necessary step to keep helping from becoming doing. As a matter of fact, one of our coaches had to pay a state-imposed fine of $100 because she missed the deadline for filing our state tournament application. I had repeatedly reminded all coaches of the deadline.

However, if coaches ask me for guidance in working with athletes, or if they want my advice on a new idea they have, my door is always open. In these cases, I am careful not to tell them what to do, but ask them questions and help them think through their ideas. This helps them understand how to develop the right answers themselves, and be able to handle the next situation without my guidance.

FRIENDLY VS. FRIENDS
Being an athletic director can be a very isolated, lonely position. You aren’t really part of the upper-level administrative team or any academic department. Often your office is off in a remote area of the building and not near others. It seems natural to be friends with your coaches.

However, this is where I feel a lot of athletic directors cross a line that should not be crossed. Yes, you must be friendly with all of your coaches, but being close friends with coaches can be very dangerous.

The first problem is that it can become extremely difficult for many of your coaches to understand when you have to make decisions that they don’t like. They may say, “But I thought we were friends, how can you make that decision?”

The second problem is that newer coaches may view the athletic director and his or her coach-friends as a clique. This then leads to the perception that special treatment exists, which can be disastrous for an athletic department. As the athletic director, you must ensure that all coaches are treated equally.

Of course, this doesn’t mean you don’t genuinely care about your coaches and listen to them if they need to talk about problems in their lives. It just means you don’t cross that line where the friendship is stronger than the supervisor-employee relationship. I decline all social invitations from coaches and I don’t share confidential information with my coaches.

It is natural for a person to want to be liked, to fit in, and to feel that they belong. However, being respected by your coaches is much more important than being their friend. To be a peer or drinking buddy and then to be in the position to alter, control, and change a coaching career is an extremely difficult transition to make.

What is the solution to the isolation problem? Develop a circle of friends with other administrators and athletic directors from other schools. In this manner, you can decrease the possibility that you may rely on your coaches to fill this need.

ENCOURAGING VS. PLAYING FAVORITES
Is there a young coach on your staff who reminds you of yourself? Or maybe one who you feel has great insights and ideas? Do you find yourself talking more to this individual or holding him or her as a model to others?

We’ve already discussed why you don’t want to become friends with the individual, but it’s also important to realize when you’re treating one person differently than the rest. If you favor one or even a few of your coaches, you could create a major problem with your staff. And it doesn’t even have to be actual favoritism—simply the perception of it existing can cause a rift.

How do you avoid this potential problem?

• Cut back on public praise of any individual for whom you may be suspected of showing favoritism. (Obviously, it would also be good to privately explain your strategy to this person.)

• Consciously increase your praise of other coaches when warranted.

• Use a common classroom technique and make general comments to your coaches as a group instead of singling out individuals.

• Do not provide special privileges to any coach. All need to be treated the same.

NEGATIVE VS. POSITIVE
As athletic directors we bear the brunt of much of the negative that goes on in our departments. We’re the one contacted when a parent is unhappy with a coach, when a student-athlete does something wrong, or when a team is losing. Often, when our coaches hear from us, it’s because we’re communicating some of this negative information. More than one of my coaches has grumbled at me, “But you only look for the problems with my coaching.”

I always explain to my coaches that I don’t go looking for the negatives—they find me. But, I have taken greater steps in recent years to find positives to balance the negatives.

First, I take note of the many praise-worthy things that our coaches do. I then write them a thank-you or complimentary note, and with e-mail this is easy to do. I also promote the accomplishments of our coaching staff at parents’ meetings, in newsletters, and on our Web site.

I also try to find ways to compliment coaches in less formal ways. In staff meetings, I might mention an interesting solution one coach has shared with me (without showing favoritism!). In front of athletes or parents, I’ll show my confidence in the coach any way I can—sometimes by teasing or joking with them about their accomplishments.

If coaches have positive things “in the bank,” chances are they will not be as sensitive when I approach them with some negative feedback. They have developed an understanding that I am not only looking at problems, but I’m also aware of what they’re doing well.

What about when a coach is really struggling and it seems there is nothing positive to say about him or her? Find something. My approach is to make suggestions for improvement, but also mention as many positive points as possible. If they are receptive to suggestions for improvement—and this should be a major consideration—keep working with them. Explain the negatives, but also find some positives to talk about.

EFFICIENCY VS. ACCESSIBILITY
Inherently, most athletic directors want to help people as soon as practically possible. However, most athletic directors also have jammed-packed lists of duties that have to be accomplished in a set time frame. Attempting to handle a stream of impromptu requests by coaches can derail even the most organized athletic director. So how do you keep an open door yet still remain efficient?

I start by attempting to educate my coaches about exactly what is included in my job responsibilities. I also thoroughly explain how my day is influenced by priorities and time constraints. I give my coaches a sense of how I organize myself for efficiency and what does and does not constitute an “emergency.”

I give them some straightforward suggestions, such as when is a good time to talk to me and when is a really bad time to talk to me. And I convey that the ability to plan ahead is an important attribute for them to develop to help the entire department run more smoothly.

However, it is important to communicate all this in a non-threatening manner, even with some humor, so you don’t come across as the boss who’s too busy for anyone. For example, you can talk about or even diagram how there are 45 teams, 65 coaches, and only one of you!

Be careful that shy or novice coaches don’t take your efficiency message to mean “stay away.” You don’t want them to refrain from asking a question because they think it may be unimportant, and then get into the habit of not talking to you about anything. When I sense a coach might be reluctant to communicate, I reassure them with, “Please don’t hesitate to stop in with a question or concern!” and then repeat this often. I also try to “bump” into these coaches and subtly offer advice.

INPUT VS. EXECUTIVE DECISION
Obviously, an athletic director has to make countless decisions. Sometimes coaches feel that decisions are made unfairly and without justification. Individuals who have a chance to have input into a decision often feel a sense of ownership and are more in tune with the ultimate sense of direction, so I try to include my coaches in some of the decisions I make.

The fine line one walks here is between seeking coaches’ advice and making decisions in a timely and appropriate manner. If a decision needs to be made within a few days, for instance, if it regards policies, safety, and compliance issues, or if it is a personnel issue, I do not ask for my coaches’ advice. However, I make sure there are other areas where they can provide input.

For example, at Eastern Tech our Handbook for Parents of Athletes has been very beneficial to our athletic program and well received by our parents. Annually, I gave our coaches a chance to offer ideas for new items to be included in the book or any suggestions for rewording any of the text.

When asking for input, I always supply the parameters and give them a deadline for their ideas to be considered. The deadline is set so that I will have the necessary time to sort through and compile the ideas into one draft or proposal. It is also important to explain to the coaches that submitting input does not mean their ideas will be included automatically.

I’ve found that asking for input at staff meetings of 65 coaches can get out of control, so e-mail is my preferred method for collecting input. E-mail also provides a record of who submitted it and the time and date that they did. If any questions ever arise, I can go to the file and retrieve their original suggestions.

To keep things running on time, the key is to choose carefully what issues you ask coaches for their input on, and honestly listen to their suggestions. Consider analyzing what percentage of the suggestions you eventually use. If coaches perceive that it is extremely low, they may not be inclined to offer many in the future.

And don’t forget to recognize and give credit for any suggestions that are incorporated. This is the greatest form of encouragement and motivation for your coaches to be involved in the future.

SUPPORTING VS. HOLDING ACCOUNTABLE
Clearly, it is important for athletic directors to be supportive of their staff in order to build good working relationships. Being in a coach’s corner instead of a misguided parent’s, working for better salaries, and providing encouragement are a few ways that an athletic director can demonstrate support.

However, sometimes there is a fine line between supporting your coaches and holding them accountable for their actions. Before any incidents happen, I clearly explain to my coaches what is expected of them. I tell them that, when these guidelines are met, support will follow. But I also explain that a coach should not expect blanket, blind support.

If coaches are not sure whether I will support them in a particular course of action, they need to discuss the situation with me. My bottom line is, “I will support you as long as your objective is the best welfare of the student-athlete.”

For example, if a promising young coach lets his temper flare and verbally abuses a student-athlete, I would feel the need to privately reprimand the coach. If I feel it was a one-time mistake that he will learn from, I will support him in public. I will also support him in learning how to control his temper and work with student-athletes in a more positive way. But if it’s a pattern and he’s not working to change, I may not support him publicly.

The toughest situation is when a coach is working through a personal problem and his emotions spill over into his coaching work, or when her personal situation is time consuming and some of her coaching duties are neglected. This is where you need to balance compassion with responsibility. I usually start with, “I understand how it could happen, but you also need to be accountable while on staff here. We can find a way to help you out, maybe find someone to step in and take over some things until your personal situation gets better.” Then, the coach can decide for him- or herself where to take the discussion.

A CONSTANT EFFORT
Unlike managing the budget, preparing reports, or many of the other tasks that athletic directors are involved with daily, developing a constructive working relationship with coaches is never quite finished. Events, situations, and even people are constantly changing. No two days, or for that matter, two coaches, are alike.

Working with your coaching staff can be challenging, there’s no doubt about it. A lot goes into the formula and there is not one definitive approach for all athletic directors. In many cases, you’ll need to make tough calls when a situation sits on one of the fine lines we’ve discussed. However, examining the fine lines and improving your working relationship is worth the effort, because it will have a great impact upon your entire athletic program.



Sidebar:
AN ONGOING PROCESS

Developing more effective relationships with your coaching staff entails making decisions with thought and care. It also takes experience. The following are examples of instances where I needed to balance my role as supervisor vs. supporter in difficult circumstances. I’ll explain the questions raised and the choices I made.

Honest Evaluations
We had a coach who had several problems during his season and they were serious enough that they needed to be addressed in his annual evaluation. However, because he had not responded positively to his evaluations over the past three years, I was pretty sure that his only reaction would be to go to the principal and complain.

For several weeks leading up to actually writing the evaluation, I debated with myself about how to handle this. I considered a number of approaches:

• Should I include all of the shortcomings or limit the number I mention? Because if I included all of them, it would definitely cause a major uproar.

• If I took a different approach with this coach, was I being fair to all of the other coaches?

• Even though the purpose of the evaluation is to promote professional growth and development, it hadn’t worked in the past three years. Why go through the aggravation again this time, if nothing would likely change?

Ultimately, I decided that I needed to be true to myself and fair to all of the other coaches no matter how uncomfortable it might turn out. I did, however, write and then rewrite the evaluation over and over to try to put everything in the most positive language that I could.

The Professional Approach
With another coach, I had ongoing problems holding him accountable. When I pushed him on his issues, he complained to the principal. Conversely, I didn’t go to our principal about my concerns with this coach, because I felt it was unprofessional to taint his impression of the coach.

As the year progressed and I had to increasingly defend the position that I took with this coach, I wondered if I should have initially gone to the principal. While I honestly believe that I took the professional approach, hindsight shows that I might have prevented some of the problems if I had alerted the principal at the outset.

A Different Path?
A first-year head coach struggled greatly meeting deadlines. She was late with everything—eligibility forms, score sheets, officials’ vouchers, tournament entries, and awards lists. This meant that I had to almost daily remind her to complete a missing form.

While I always spoke to her with a smile and I never raised my voice, she thought that I wasn’t being friendly. Reflecting upon this coaching relationship, comments by three other coaches reaffirmed that my approach was fine. They individually thanked me for reminding them of deadlines, because they found it useful. However, all three coaches had extensive experience and obviously took a mature way of looking at my organizational guidance.

So while I was probably right in reminding this first year head coach of missed deadlines, could I have been more effective in reaching her through another way? Should I have altered my approach for someone I certainly wasn’t reaching in conventional ways? In the future, my goal is to realize sooner when my messages aren’t getting through and alter my approach when my usual communication style isn’t working.

When To Intervene
My philosophy is that head coaches should mentor their assistants, but this can be a double-edged sword. In one such situation, an assistant received a very biased point of view—one that was faulty in my opinion. Initially, it didn’t seem significant.

However, since this slanted indoctrination took place over several months, I’ve wondered if I should have intervened. But how might I have done this without disrupting the head coach-assistant formula? Should I have seen this developing sooner and, therefore, tried to speak with the young assistant? I plan to continue supporting head coaches in mentoring their assistants, but I’ll keep a closer eye on the type of messages the assistants are getting and won’t hesitate to step in if I feel like the learning is going astray.