Lifesaving Techniques

It’s easy to drown in your job as an athletic director. This author presents a survival guide anyone can grab on to.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, EdD, is the Athletic Director at Loch Raven High School, in Baltimore County, Md. He is the Past-President of the Maryland State Athletic Directors’ Association and a frequent contributor to Athletic Management. He can be reached at

Athletic Management, 17.6, October/November 2005,

Athletic directors today are in an exciting and influential position. We can impact future leaders through our sports programs. We get to mentor coaches. We are on the forefront of initiating programs in sportsmanship and coaching ethics. And we have a large hand in improving the quality of our schools.

However, the profession also involves putting in long hours and shouldering a lot of responsibility. We’re in charge of all the minutiae that ensures games and practices run smoothly, while also being charged with managing a diverse staff. We’re asked to keep up on all the trends in sports, from decreasing risks to increasing revenue.

This can add up to constant stress. If you’re at all like me, you can easily end the day feeling overworked, overwhelmed by increasing responsibilities, and like you have no control over your time. Fatigue and burnout are constant threats.

While all of us somewhat thrive on this hectic schedule, we also need to control the stress if we are to survive in our profession. Why? Consider this statement from Christine Le Beau I recently read in the AARP Bulletin: “Chronic stress appears to accelerate the aging process by shortening the life span of cells, opening the door to disease … [And] it wasn’t just the stress itself—it was also how stressed out people thought they were.”

However, it was the subtitle of an article in the Baltimore Sun that really hit the nail on the head. It said: “Job performance depends more on an organized life, rest, and good working conditions than on nonstop toil.”

With that said, athletic directors need to find ways to better cope with the realities of our profession. The following are a few things that have worked for me, although de-stressing my life is a constant work in progress.

One of the best ways to ease the workload (and stress load) is to make your coaches more responsible for their programs. At every school, there are coaches who feel that the athletic director should do everything for them, and be at their beck and call. These coaches must understand what their responsibilities are and where your role as athletic director starts and ends.

A good place to accomplish this goal is at your preseason coaches’ meeting. Let coaches know what you expect of them in a professional, non-threatening yet straightforward manner. If they are responsible for all game set-up, they need to understand that they should allow enough time for this task and not knock on your door 15 minutes before gametime asking for help.

Remind your coaches to turn in all of their paperwork on time—eligibility forms, athletes’ physical forms, tournament entries, and anything else involved with their coaching positions. Explain that when they are late, you have to remind them and chase these forms down, which causes additional work and creates an overload situation for you. If it happens too often, I make note of the problem and slip it into their file so that it can be discussed at their end-of-season evaluation.

Also consider making your coaches responsible for tasks you may be used to performing. For example, most athletic directors do all the scheduling for their teams, and this can be a tricky challenge. This year, consider asking the coaches who share a gym or field to do the practice scheduling themselves. Educate them on the nuances of how you schedule and let them tackle the job. Work with them closely enough to ensure they do it right, then the following year you can cross that duty off your list.

Of course, you don’t want coaches to think you are not available for help, so take the time to educate them on what you expect them to solve by themselves and when you want them to knock on your door. For example, you probably want them to take full responsibility for roster management, equipment, and uniforms, but you might encourage them to talk to you about parent problems or when an athlete breaks the school code of conduct.

I emphasize these three points to my coaches:

• Think ahead when you need to make a request.

• Understand that your needs do not take precedence over anyone else’s.

• Do not approach me with the words, “I need …” (I bristle at demands, but will gladly listen to, “When you have a minute, would you please …”)

The quintessential example happened to me a few years ago, and I turned it into a learning experience for the coach. A coach entered my office, and started his first sentence with “I need.” Without saying a word, I produced my daily “To Do” list, which featured 29 items. I took out a pen and put his request at number 30, in plain sight so he could see. I told him, “Okay, you’re now at number 30. I realistically don’t think that I’ll get to it today, but it will probably be high on my list tomorrow.”

If it had been an emergency, I would have handled it immediately. But it was simply the result of improper planning on the part of the coach. I wanted him to see that there are numerous demands in my day and understand that I could not drop them because he did not take responsibility for his tasks.

When things are going well, your principal has complete confidence that everything in the program is being handled in the proper manner. Today’s principals have too many other things on their plates, especially with the No Child Left Behind Act, publicized standardized test results, and shrinking budgets, to worry about every detail of the athletic program.

But, periodically, you still want to schedule time to educate them about your ever-increasing responsibilities. Chances are great that they simply aren’t aware of all the details involved in your position. Your principal can’t know that you are overworked if you don’t tell them.

A classic example occurred recently. I was asked to take over a responsibility that had previously fallen under one of the assistant principals’ umbrella. Our principal thought that I was better suited to handle the task. While this was a nice compliment, it also meant more work and none of my normal responsibilities were subtracted.

It was, therefore, important for me to explain to the principal that while I was glad to help, it made my life a little more complicated. While I did this in a non-confrontational, professional manner, I at least wanted her to recognize that I am at times overwhelmed. Sometimes this can lead to your principal finding resources for you that you didn’t know existed, like an administrative assistant who can give you two hours of work a day, or a maintenance worker who can help with game set-up.

It is quite natural for most of us in athletic administration to want to help everyone—our coaches, athletes, and even most parents. It is difficult to say no to a request for help, particularly in one-on-one, face-to-face situations when you are caught off-guard. However, agreeing to help often overextends you and may lead to chronic fatigue and burnout down the road.

What can you do to draw the line on accepting requests? When confronted with the initial request for help, always ask what is involved and when it has to be completed. And never give an immediate “Yes, I’d be glad to help.” Instead, reply with “Let me get back to you tomorrow.” By doing this, you can honestly consult your schedule and make an informed, logical decision about whether you have the time to respond to the request.

If you have a legitimate reason why you can’t help, offer to lend a hand in the future when your schedule may be more forgiving. Not only does this response protect you from being overextended, but it also helps you maintain good working relationships. It is better to turn down a request than to put yourself in a situation where you can’t realistically help with something and still get your day-to-day work done.

With phone calls, coaches stopping in to see you, meetings, and numerous other speed bumps throughout the day, it is extremely helpful if you can find solitude once in a while. Sometimes, you need uninterrupted time to be really productive or tackle a complicated problem.

Even though I value and guard my weekends, two to three hours alone in my office on an occasional Saturday morning makes all the difference for me. Without anyone around, no phones ringing, and no interruptions, I can accomplish a great deal. Of course, I also take this approach during winter and spring breaks when I may come in for a few hours one day. This relieves the stress of feeling that I must have everything done by Friday afternoon.

Another technique, which I use when I really have something pressing that needs ultimate concentration, is to take my project and sit at a table in the back of the library. Or I may post a notice on my office door: “Out checking the baseball field.” Then, I go out to the baseball field and use the 20 minutes alone to analyze the details and come up with a possible response. Most people aren’t going to come out to one of our fields to find me, so I remain uninterrupted.

Someone once said that it’s not about working harder, but smarter. Finding uninterrupted work time is the answer for me.

It has been suggested to me for a long time that I should take 20 minutes every day and eat lunch in the faculty dining room. The time away from the office would allow me to relax and to tackle the demands of the afternoon with more vigor. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to pull myself away from the computer and usually ignore this excellent advice.

A friend of mine turns his office lights off for 15 to 20 minutes around midday, leans back in his chair, and meditates. He swears by this technique and has encouraged me to try it. Unfortunately, my office door has a window with no shade. It wouldn’t be worth the hassle of having to explain why my eyes are closed and the lights are out to everyone who came to the door.

At my previous school, our first floor was laid out in a large figure eight. Occasionally during inclement weather, I would walk several loops in order to decompress, and due to the configuration of the building, no one would even notice me.

In your unique setting, it is important to find a time and place where you can get away from the craziness occasionally, regain composure, and enable yourself to make it through the rest of the day. I’m still working on this at my new school!

Along with taking breaks during the day, make sure you take some full-day breaks. If you are anything like me, you rarely take sick days and have more of them accumulated than you could ever use. I literally could call in sick for well over a year and I know others who could go several years. Why kill ourselves by coming in every day when the occasional day off may keep us fit to continue? Don’t try to be Superman or Wonder Woman—call in sick when you feel a cold coming on or a headache emerging.

Similarly, cherish those unexpected days off. For those who live where snow days occur, take full advantage of this downtime. Sure, you will have to reschedule contests, buses, and officials, but these unexpected vacations are just the tonic to fend off fatigue and burnout. While you will have to go out and shovel the driveway, you will have a chance to enjoy your family, have some hot chocolate, or perhaps kindle a fire as I do in our family room. It’s a relaxing, enjoyable respite from the rigors of my taxing schedule.

Another alternative is to take a mini-break. On those rare occasions when we don’t have a home contest, I try to get out of the building by 3 p.m. By getting home in another 25 minutes, I can fit in a good six-mile run, and even mow the lawn or rake the leaves. This time outside provides me with just the regenerating physical and mental release that I need.

In early productivity and human relations studies at the Western Electric Company, called the Hawthorne experiments, researchers determined that weekends and rest periods provided the American worker with the motivation to increase output. While an athletic director’s position varies greatly from those working in a plant, we are often expected to go well beyond the 40-hour week. Therefore, weekends become extremely important for getting a break. Once you do get home, you need to get away from work and try to recover for the next week.

This can’t be done if you are interrupted at home. For me, once I get home on Saturday I follow a “Hands-Off” policy. I never answer the phone. This task always falls to my wife or our children when they are at home. Even if I am sitting right there, their standard response is, “I’m sorry, he’s not at home.”

They also do not offer to take a message or even suggest when I will return. After the caller hangs up, I determine if it is an emergency and if I should call back. And I don’t call back very often. Very few things qualify as emergencies, and most often the situation can wait until Monday morning.

In like fashion, we disconnected our home Internet service a few years ago. It got to a point where a few coaches, parents, and even some fellow athletic directors expected me to return their e-mail messages on Saturday evening or Sunday. This was an unacceptable intrusion into my weekend, and I can now honestly explain that it is impossible for me to answer e-mail over the weekend.

Our home is my safe haven. All we are missing is a 10-foot moat and barbed wire, because we do have a guard dog, our new puppy, Maggie.

Of course, you’ll need a lot of understanding from your family to make your home into your refuge, so it’s important to communicate your needs to them. I give my family a schedule so they know when they can expect me home and when they can’t. I remember to always thank them for running those errands that I can never find the time for. And I let them know that falling asleep on the couch while watching an NFL or college basketball game is my idea of a good time.

A final piece of advice is to turn to your peers for help. Those in your area are feeling the same demands and stress that you are. Talking to your fellow athletic directors about their time-saving ideas or relaxation methods can be of great service.

It can also make you feel in good company. At our last county athletic directors’ meeting, everyone echoed the same thought: Our position got more involved, demanding, and difficult again this past year. But it also got more challenging and interesting and pushed us to new limits—which is why we keep at it!