Good Connections

No matter your communications system, your athletic director is a person you want to hook up with. Here’s how to partner with this busy, behind-the-scenes boss.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, EdD, is the Athletic Director at Loch 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.

Coaching Management, 12.10, November 2004,

During a lull at one of your games, you may occasionally look up and see me, the athletic director, in the stands. And you may wonder, what exactly is he watching? What exactly does he do, besides making sure the officials get paid?

I am the consummate "behind-the-scenes" guy, and like most athletic directors, I enjoy that role. I perform a wide variety of tasks, from checking athletes’ eligibility forms to writing up coaching evaluations to answering phone calls from parents. No two days are alike for me, except in the fact that every day is extremely busy.

Although much of my day is spent behind my desk, the goal behind everything I do is helping all my coaches perform their jobs better. That’s really why I’m here. When a coach does something wrong, my job is stressful. When a coach does something right, my job is the best in the world.

But I can only help coaches avoid the mistakes and develop into better coaches when they partner with me—when they understand my job and my role. In this article, I’d like to share some tips on how to develop a partnership with your athletic director and how to make that relationship work to your benefit.

The first thing you need to know about your athletic director is his or her expectations. Obviously, if you’re a veteran coach at an NCAA Division I university these are going to be very different than if you are a first-year coach at a small high school. But as a general guideline, I’d like to share what I expect from my coaches.

Good Role Model: Because you are a hugely important figure in many young people’s lives, your actions and choices in all situations must be at the top of the ethical score chart. I expect my coaches to have integrity, be dependable, possess emotional control, and have compassion. I also expect them to set high standards and be consistent and fair. At all times, I need them to exhibit the characteristics we are proud to see in our student-athletes.

Educational Environment: Athletics is successful only when it has educational value. Winning is secondary. I expect my coaches to focus on helping young people mature into adults—to help our student-athletes contribute to team goals, learn to work hard, persevere, and experience life-long lessons through their athletic participation.

I also expect my coaches to remain positive. Not that a coach can’t ever yell, but I really believe that positive, encouraging coaches are best for our kids. Heck, even adults react better to this approach than they do to criticism.

Sportsmanship: Quite often, coaches are totally unaware of the impact they have on the behavior of their players and fans at a game. Yelling at officials gives license to the players and fans to do the same.

If there is a need to question a call, I expect our coaches to do it in a composed, professional manner. A coach should always extend respect and courtesy not only to officials, but also to the opposing team. He or she should teach student-athletes the nuances of good sportsmanship and praise it at every turn.

Adherence to Policies: What many coaches don’t understand is that administrative chores are a part of their coaching responsibilities. When they don’t follow through on gathering each athlete’s parental permission, medical, and informed consent forms, there can be ramifications. First off, it forces me to spend my time chasing down these forms—giving me less time to communicate with my coaches. Second, late forms can mean the suspension of practice sessions, fines, or even disqualifications and forfeits for the school.

Another important policy to follow is attending rules interpretation meetings. Athletic directors get a list of any coaches who have missed these meetings, and believe me, we pay attention to who doesn’t show up.

Coaches who don’t follow directions, turn in forms late or complete them incorrectly, or don’t follow a policy of our department are my biggest headache. If you want your athletic director to support and respect you, pay attention to your administrative duties.

Professional Growth: It is a given that you know the basic techniques and strategies involved in your sport. But I expect my coaches to add to these basics every year by taking charge of their own professional development.

First, they have to understand and buy into the premise that learning is a life-long pursuit. It doesn’t matter how many years of experience you have—there is always something else you can learn. I attended at least one clinic in each of my 24 years of coaching, and always came away with a new idea or a different way of teaching something. Now that I am an administrator, even though I have a doctorate in sports management and many years of experience, I am still attending seminars, taking courses, and reading professional publications in athletic administration. Our programs and athletes deserve that much.

What can you do besides attend clinics and seminars? I encourage our coaches to take the NFHS Coaching Principles Course (and consider going on to complete the NFHS Bronze Level national certification program), work at summer camps, read professional coaching publications or books, watch coaching videos, and attend college teams’ practice sessions.

Enthusiasm: While it is essential for sports that are struggling to attract participants, I like "Pied-piper" individuals for even the most popular teams. This is a coach who is not only positive, but also exudes enthusiasm and energy—someone young people are attracted to. This should not imply, however, that they don’t run a tight ship or don’t employ discipline.

Naturally, like all coaches, you also want to win. I want our teams to win, too. But, my directive is to make sure that educational objectives are being met in the athletic program. That is my job description and that is my priority. That is what I’m watching for. However, if you excel in the above six areas, I can assure you, winning will take care of itself.

Beyond these basics, ask your own athletic director what other expectations he or she has. At some schools, your athletic director might want you to get involved with local youth programs in your sport. At others, he or she might want you to help your athletes get college scholarships, start an off-season conditioning program, fund-raise, or run a summer camp. If you don’t know, ask.

Sometimes, an athletic director assumes you know the expectations of your school, but if you’re new, you can’t know its history and culture. Asking your athletic director what is at the top of his or her list of athletic department goals can help start your partnership on the right foot.

The question a new athletic director most frequently poses to a veteran one is, "Do you ever see your family?" This is important for you to know because while I’ve suggested you start a dialogue with your athletic director on expectations, you also need to know that he or she doesn’t have an hour to discuss the topic. He or she probably doesn’t even have a half-hour to do so. But a 15-minute conversation is doable, respected, and appreciated.

Therefore, a key part of partnering with your athletic director is knowing how to communicate with him or her. Here are some tips:

• If you want to talk for more than a couple of minutes, try to set up an appointment instead of just popping in for a visit. That way, your athletic director can arrange to meet at a time that will be free of other obligations. Of course, if it is an emergency, come on in.

• If you know there have been other problems that the athletic director is handling, hold off on scheduling your meeting. Timing really is everything. With another problem looming, your athletic director may not be able to give you the attention that you deserve.

• Get a feel for when your athletic director’s down times are. Some may prefer early mornings, before the first bell rings, and others may like early afternoons, right before practices start. Get to know your athletic director’s talking times.

• Use e-mail. This advice is not universal, but, for me, e-mail is by far the most efficient, expedient form of communication. Regardless of when something happens, your message will be there waiting for me in the morning. It is, therefore, especially important that the coach fill in an accurate subject line that, when coupled with the sender’s name, leads me to which messages I deal with first in the morning. An e-mail also allows me to easily save or forward your message.

Communicating well with your athletic director also means knowing what to discuss and what not to discuss. I don’t need to know how every practice is going or what your next game plan is. But I do want to know if a problem has arisen, or if you sense one is looming. I also love to hear about your successes.

The number one rule is: Always inform your athletic director immediately if there has been an injury at a practice session or game. Tell me the name of the athlete, the injury, how it happened, how it was handled, and if the parent has been notified. No one likes to be caught off guard when that phone rings with, "What happened to my son?"

It is important to let me know about any potential problems. If a parent voices even a small complaint, if you think upperclass athletes may not be welcoming newcomers, if any type of hazardous situation has arisen, if the athletes seem to be disrespecting your approach—I need to know. Coaches sometimes don’t want to tell their athletic directors that something may not be going right for fear of seeming incompetent. However, my job is to help you through problem situations. If you tell me before it gets big, I can help you find solutions that complement your coaching style. But if you don’t tell me about the problem and it gets bigger, then I may have to step in and resolve the situation my way.

Even if you know the solution you want to use, relay your thoughts to me. Maybe there’s a way I can reinforce what you’re trying to do.

Of course, tell me any problems that are my responsibility, too. If the bus driver gets you to a game late, let me know the first time this happens—don’t wait for the second or third time.

And because I mainly deal with fixing problems, I truly appreciate any and all good news. Brighten my day by talking about one of our students’ display of sportsmanship, your team’s mastery of a complicated play, or a teachable moment that happened at your day’s practice.

What do I not want to communicate about? Criticism and complaints are what I can do without. Suggestions and new solutions are wonderful, but complaining about something that we’ve already discussed or simply can’t be changed is tiresome and does little to enhance a coach’s value to the athletic department.

The Benefits
You might wonder, "Why is it so important to keep my athletic director in the loop? I can handle my own team. How will it help me?" There are three ways that developing a partnership can benefit you as a coach.

First, it puts you on my radar. I try to be in tune with everyone in my program, but to be honest, those coaches who communicate with me effectively are the ones I think of first when a new opportunity arises.

Being on my radar helps when you have a request. If you’ve already communicated that you’re working extremely hard to upgrade your program, I will pay more attention to your request for additional resources.

Being in tune with what I’m doing can also help you promote your program. For example, at my former school, I put out a weekly department update. I already knew the opponents, the final scores, the leading scorers, and other standard details. However, coaches who were on the ball would also e-mail me some quotes or comments about the game. Then, their team would get a longer write-up and more prominent placement in the weekly update.

Communicating with your athletic director also gives you an on-hand mentor. Most of us are athletic directors because we were successful coaches, and just because we didn’t coach your sport doesn’t mean we can’t help. Unless a coach is compromising the health and safety of our student-athletes, I seldom will offer unsolicited advice about coaching. However, if asked, I am happy to open up my 24-year book of coaching experience and take the time to help. I’m also available to help with ideas for dealing with parents, planning practice sessions, helping college-bound athletes with recruiting, and numerous other things.

My primary responsibility as an athletic director is to serve as the coach of coaches. Just as athletes need direction and mentoring by coaches, so do most coaches need help from an experienced athletic director. I’m very glad to help, if you only ask.

SIDEBAR: An Ineffective AD
This article assumes that your athletic director is a professional, dedicated, hard-working leader. But what if your athletic director is not a good supervisor? Then how do you get what you need?

Above all, step carefully. It is important to understand that this poorly functioning athletic director is still your boss and you need to be careful about circumventing the chain of command. In other words, do not use parents or athletes as a wedge to enact change. These techniques could totally backfire and you could be branded as a malcontent or a troublemaker.

What you can do, to start, is keep good records. Retain copies of everything you turn in, such as eligibility forms, budget requests, inventories, and tournament entries, and use e-mail or take notes on your communication with your athletic director. This ensures that you have proof of your professionalism and also allows you to document those times when your athletic director has not followed through.

At all times, it is still best to maintain a positive, loyal front with respect to your athletic director and continue to be courteous and respectful. You might need to repeatedly ask the athletic director if he or she has remembered to turn in that tournament eligibility form, but do it politely. You might even ask the athletic director if there’s a way you can help him or her. Remember, you will always be judged by your actions, even in difficult situations.

SIDEBAR: Show Your Strengths
If you’re a conscientious coach, good things are happening in your program every day. Why not let your athletic director know about them? This can work wonders for furthering your partnership.

Here are some ways to let your athletic director know you’re doing a good job—which are not time consuming for you or your athletic director:

• Forward or copy any congratulatory and thank you notes that you receive. You can simply write a little note on the top, "Thought you might be interested."

• Tell your athletic director about the clinics you have attended and your other professional development activities.

• Invite your athletic director to visit practice when you’re discussing team goals or when your athletes want to show off something they’ve just mastered.

• Send an e-mail about a solution you found to a problem that your athletic director might send on as advice to the rest of the coaching staff.

• Complete a self-evaluation at the conclusion of your season. Talk about some of the goals you accomplished that your athletic director may not be aware of.

Let your athletic director hear about all of the good, positive things that you are doing with your program!
You will be surprised at what good, positive resources you receive in return.

What do I wish that I had known when I was a coach that I now know as an athletic director? Hundreds of things, but you can’t rush or inject experience. Sometimes you just have to learn things yourself and this takes time.

However, if I could condense this process, I wish that I'd known:

• Coaches have great influence upon the sportsmanship that a team and even the fans exhibit. Athletes and fans do indeed follow a coach’s lead.

• A positive, encouraging approach with your athletes will get the best results. Fear and intimidation may provide short-term results, but will not work in the long run.

• It is vital to make and spend time with your family. Fortunately, mine still loves me, but I missed a great deal while I was coaching other parents’ children.