Coaching With Kids

More and more coaches are looking to balance family lives with their careers. Forward-thinking athletic departments are finding ways to help them.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management and can be reached

Athletic Management, 17.5, August/September 2005,

On top of the normal pressures of college coaching, Kathy Litzau has added a grand experiment: Can she lead an NCAA Division I volleyball program while raising four children, all under the age of 7?

As Head Volleyball Coach at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Litzau is acing the test so far. Every year since becoming a parent, Litzau has led her team to the conference championship, the NCAA tournament, or both. And she seems to be succeeding on the other side of the parent-coach balance beam as well. When her oldest daughter illustrated her what-will-you-be-when-you-grow-up wish, she drew a volleyball team with herself as a player. “And underneath it she wrote, ‘My mom is the coach,’” Litzau says.

Litzau credits her husband for yeoman service in child care and logistics, but she says the support of her athletic administration, particularly Bud Haidet, Athletic Director at UW-M, has been crucial. He has created an atmosphere, Litzau says, in which she feels confident she can effectively juggle coaching and parenting.

“I have a boss who’s so supportive of what I’m doing that it makes it easy for me to keep going,” she says. “If my child is sick and I have to stay home, I don’t have the stress of worrying how my athletic director is going to react. I don’t have to feel guilty.”

Not every coach is competing in the top collegiate division while raising four children, but Litzau, Haidet, and UW-M are hardly alone in their experiment. As athletic directors try to get more women into coaching—and keep those they already have—the need to understand the work-family balance is critical. And, of course, today’s dads are feeling the crunch, too, as they take on more parenting duties in two-career families. In the big picture, the more coaches—female or male—who leave for family demands, the more staff administrators have to replace.

Every family situation is unique, and coaches will have different ways to strike a balance between home and work. That’s why the most important step an athletic director can take in this endeavor is to create an atmosphere conducive to succeess in both the parenting and coaching realms. The task is not so much about formulating policies and procedures, but rather about mentoring and supporting.

“If we’re going to ask women to coach our teams, we have to create an environment where they can serve both roles,” says Lynn Parkes, Associate Athletic Director at the University of Memphis. “It’s very healthy for our young women student-athletes to see a female role model who is successfully filling roles as a wife, mother, and head coach.”

So what does it take to create a family-friendly atmosphere? For Haidet, it starts with sending out the message that staff members are more than just employees—they’re people with lives outside the department. “I have 13 grandchildren, and I know how important family is,” he says. “I came from Miami of Ohio and we in the department knew wives and husbands, spouses, friends, and children. We carry that on here in this department, and I don’t have a problem with coaches bringing their children to the workplace.”

Litzau says that attitude has made a world of difference. “Bob cares about me, he cares about my life, and that, I think, makes me a better coach,” Litzau says. “I don’t have to worry if I take a morning with my children because he understands that our jobs as coaches are not the typical nine-to-five.”

For Pam Gil-Fisher, Senior Associate Athletic Director at the University of California-Davis, the key is to talk about parenting in her role as a mentor to her coaches. And that means discussing priorities and perspective. “I talk with my coaches about prioritizing workloads,” says Gil-Fisher. “We talk about time management and being efficient in what you do in order to spend time with family.

“And we talk about taking vacation time when it’s available,” she continues. “As a supervisor of coaches, I’m always trying to be aware of their physical and mental well-being, and sometimes I have to say, ‘You need a break here.’ It probably means one less day of recruiting, but I need to let them know the importance of taking care of themselves. Because in the long run, that will make them more effective for their family as well as for the institution and the program.”

Parkes emphasizes making good use of downtime. “In the coaching profession, there are times you’re going to be working 18 hours a day and there are times when the demands are quite a bit less,” she says. “We recognize the contribution coaches make during the heavy part of their seasons, and understand that the slower times of the year are when they need to be with their families.”

Martin Ryan, Athletic Director at Kennebunk (Maine) High School, sets an example by respecting coaches’ family time as he schedules staff meetings. “I’ll have a night meeting, even though that may not be the most convenient for me, because out-of-season coaches are able to be home with their families in the afternoon and evening, then come back when the kids are in bed,” he says. “That’s an example of recognizing the importance of family time.”

Kevin Horrigan, Athletic Director at Greenfield-Central (Ind.) High School, says part of his role is to encourage coaches to schedule time with their families. Particularly during the height of a season, coaches can forget about their spouses and children, he says. He counsels them to be sure to schedule family time, just as they schedule practices, scouting, and film-watching.

“I tell them, ‘Make Sunday a family day,’” says Horrigan. “‘Don’t use coaching as an excuse to not visit relatives or go on a picnic. Have a full day with your family, then in the evening, put in your two hours watching film. If you’ve got kids, they’re either going to bed, doing their homework, or watching television, so you’re not really missing time with them. If you don’t have children, take your spouse out to a movie, help in the garden, and do your coaching time later.’”

A final suggestion for making sure coaches understand that you support their dual roles is to advocate for them. For example, when UW-M’s risk-management office didn’t want Litzau to take her baby on the team bus, Haidet took up her case. The lawyers wouldn’t relent, but Litzau appreciated Haidet’s efforts. “He spent a lot of energy researching, talking to other ADs, seeking waivers,” Litzau says. “He met one-on-one with lawyers. He went to bat for me. I was so impressed that he spent that energy.”

Supporting and advocating for your coaches also means deciding if and when children should be allowed to join their parents on the job. At UW-M, Haidet has no formal policy in place, allowing coaches to make their own decisions on when a child’s presence is appropriate.

For Litzau, this helped immensely with her second and fourth children, who were newborns during the fall season. She frequently brought them to practice, which she didn’t feel disrupted the team. “Most of the time they were in a baby pack on my chest,” she says. “Or if they happened to be asleep when it was time to go to practice, they would just stay in the stroller or the car seat.”

But that situation might not work for all coaches. “There has to be a balancing point where a coach is not baby-sitting his or her own kids to the detriment of everybody else,” Horrigan says. “If that happens, you need to have a conversation and say, ‘This isn’t working the way it should.’”

Cheryl Levick, Athletic Director at Saint Louis University, suggests that some coaches will need to separate family and work to be most effective. “When I was coaching I tried to hire as much help as I could afford in terms of quality child care,” she says. “I looked at what was best for the welfare of the children, the team, and my own piece of mind. For me, that meant having quality help while I was at practice or a competition. I chose to separate the two and found that to be very effective.”

Whether an individual coach feels he or she can bring young children to practice, most can consider blending family and work in other ways. Horrigan encourages coaches to include older children in their team plans.

“I have no objection to coaches’ children being ball boys, ball girls, or managers as they’re growing up,” he says. “Obviously you have to wait until they’re a certain age, but a lot of my coaches have had success incorporating their families into what they’re doing.”

At Middlebury Union (Vt.) High School, Activities Director Sean Farrell advises coaches to combine family activities with coaching duties. “Our varsity coaches support our lower sports, but turn it into a family thing rather than just being coaches watching the game,” Farrell says. “They bring a blanket, lay it out next to the field, bring picnic dinners. And we do the same with preseason varsity sessions. Spouses will come down with the kids, so they’re all there. It’s incorporating family into the situation instead of keeping them as two separate entities.”

Along with setting up the right atmosphere and blending their families into their jobs, today’s coaches also need the right support to balance home and work. This includes assistant coaches who can truly lessen the workload and a support staff that can fill many different roles.

At UC-Davis, which is moving from NCAA Division II to I, the women’s soccer team lost its assistant coach at the same time Head Coach MaryClaire Robinson found out she was pregnant, in early spring 2004. With the baby due in mid-November, Gil-Fisher made it a priority to help Robinson find an assistant coach who would be immediately effective.

“Sometimes if you really want to keep someone, you’re going to have to add some staff to support them,” says Gil-Fisher. “That’s something athletic directors will look at as they discuss budgets with their presidents.

“Our goal here at Davis is to increase the number of assistants that coaches are allowed within the NCAA rules, and to help with the workload,” she continues. “We’re slowly doing that.”

But don’t stop with assistant coaches, Gil-Fisher says. Provide game-management support, compliance officers, athletic trainers, media-relations specialists, and other people to perform some of the off-field work.

“If you have an effective support staff, they can take some of the load off coaches,” she says. “For instance, if we run a tournament, the coach really doesn’t have to do everything. We’ll provide support staff, game management, and media relations, and take the pressure off the coach to do all those extra things to make a tournament run smoothly.”

Providing support can also include helping with the physical infrastructure, such as time-saving tools or equipment for working at home. “We had a women’s head basketball coach whose young son had some health issues,” says Parkes. “We set up a fax machine at her house and created a situation where she could work from home for a while.”

Another form of support can be simply helping a pregnant coach assemble and complete the paperwork needed for maternity and disability leaves. In Robinson’s case, this was complicated by UC-Davis’s practice of having coaches teach classes as well as run their teams. “My athletic administrators did a lot of legwork and organizing things that made it very easy,” says Robinson.

Some athletic administrators are taking an even larger step by advocating for working parent-coaches’ needs on a broader scale. When she was Athletic Director at Santa Clara University, Levick helped advocate for on-campus daycare for the children of staff. “I was an active participant with the provost to get on-campus child care set up,” says Levick. “So many of my coaches were young, and so many of my administrators were just entering the family stage of their lives, and it was greatly beneficial to them and to the department as a whole.”

Alfreeda Goff, Associate Commissioner of the Horizon League, suggests that athletic departments add childcare to their benefits packages in order to recruit and retain talented coaches, especially women. “A lot of athletic directors have a country club membership as part of their contracts, and those are sometimes in coaches’ contracts, too,” says Goff. “Well, instead of a country club or health club membership, why not make child care part of the coaches’ contracts?

“I have a daughter-in-law who was working in athletics, but she chose to stay home because 90 percent of her salary would have ended up going into child care,” Goff continues. “We see a lot of women coaches whose salaries are going into child care. It’s something women are learning to negotiate when they go to the table for contracts.

“And it’s not just female coaches,” she adds. “Good child care helps any coach who’s a parent because it relieves stress to know the child is taken care of. And a happy employee is going to be a better employee.”


Another way to make your department family-friendly is to encourage your coaches’ spouses to have a role with the team. At Greenfield-Union (Ind.) High School, the football coach’s wife runs the registration and T-shirt tent for the program’s summer seven-on-seven youth tournament. The girls’ basketball coach’s husband keeps the scorebook at games. And when the boys’ basketball coach is busy with camp, he enlists his wife as the principal organizer and planner.

“He just comes in and coaches the little kids and does all the work on the floor,” says Greenfield-Union Athletic Director Kevin Horrigan. “But she does all the paperwork and the registrations, pays the bills, and greets parents when they drop off the kids. The two of them have time to spend together, yet it’s also helping the basketball program. They’ll see each other all day, have lunch together, and be able to ride home afterward in one car.”

Horrigan also counsels his coaches to give back to spouses who often sacrifice to support the coaching life. One coach’s spouse teaches theater in another school and runs a community troupe in the summer. “Since the theater rehearsals are at night, I tell that coach, ‘During the day, do your camp, open gyms, and weightroom, but then go home and take care of the kids, or go to the theater and paint scenery, take tickets, operate a spotlight. You can make up for some of the sacrifices your spouse has made for you during the season.’”

Athletic administrators may soon have a broader resource for helping their coaches juggle work and family. A group of administrators at NCAA member institutions and conferences called the Family Balance Project, is seeking a list of best practices that athletic departments can use to help their coaches manage home and work life. To help gather ideas, they hope to organize a symposium on the issue for as early as summer 2006.

The group grew out of a topic that surfaced at this past spring’s leadership conference for women in intercollegiate athletics, sponsored by the Big Ten, Horizon League, Mid-American, and Great Lakes Valley conferences. It later garnered the support of the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics and the Minority Opportunities and Interests Committee.

The instigators initially called their group The Working Mom Project, a title recognizing that balancing home and work is more of an obstacle for female coaches than their male counterparts. “The underlying issue is the retention of women in athletics,” says Rosie Stallman, NCAA Director of Education Outreach and Liaison to the Committee on Women’s Athletics. “When we discuss why women don’t stay in coaching, the issue of balancing family and work keeps bubbling up.”

In a recent survey of male and female coaches in six NCAA Division I women’s sports, researchers found that female coaches are as committed to staying in the profession as are their male counterparts. “They feel they should be able to do both, that they should be able to have a successful work life and a successful family life—in a nutshell, pretty much what men want,” says Nancy Lough, Associate Professor of Sports Management at the University of New Mexico, and co-author of the study with Kristi Sweeney, Assistant Professor of Sports Studies at Xavier University. “The number-one obstacle is that women are still expected to be the primary caregiver. In a dual household, there’s still more responsibility on a mother than there is on a father for child care.”

The Family Balance Project’s main goal is a user-friendly presentation from which universities and colleges can glean ideas to help coaches balance family and work, says Bonnie Tiell, Assistant Professor of Management at Tiffin University, who is helping put together the symposium. “We want to put a positive spin on it, to encourage athletic departments to tell their coaches they can be a parent and work in athletics,” she says. “But we also want schools to know they need to have support systems in place. Institutions have done it, but it’s going to take some research to find the best practices.”

For more information about The Family Balance Project, contact Bonnie Tiell at Tiffin University: