You hear it all the time. The business of athletics is about development, growth and the student-athlete.
College and high school athletics both claim they desire to produce strong student athletes. However, this is much tougher when institutions and their leadership cave to the pressure to increase the pandering, rescuing and accommodation.
Coaching can be both a joyous and stressful space and can be largely misunderstood. The majority of my acquaintances still assume that when my 2.5 hour practice is over, my job as a college coach is done for the day. However, we know as coaches that not only are we managing our programs, but we are now silently expected to manage student-athletes' lives for them. When things become stressful for our student-athletes, by extension we are expected to fix it, map out their plan or make it better in an instant on or off the playing field.
The moment we ask our athletes to fight the adversity that everyone in their lives up to the point of their entry into our programs has helped them avoid, we become the villains. The need for immediate satisfaction and results or success comes in many forms.
Whether your athlete is frustrated because they are not cracking the starting lineup, feels they aren't getting enough attention, has issues with a teammate or the entire team, is stressed with the rigors of academics and athletics, or is negotiating personal/family relationships, these are central issues that lead to chatter and dissatisfaction amongst our student-athletes.
The reality is, when the ship starts to sink, some athletes may not hesitate to take us down with them because as luck of the profession has it, we are the closest most eligible figure within their radius that can absorb their misfortune and be accountable for the failure when they choose not to be. In the event we are unsuccessful in negotiating the endless nuances of their conflicts, we risk being branded as unsupportive, unwilling to listen, or insensitive.
Coaching involves having to lead but also to listen. Today our athletes struggle to listen because attention time spans are rapidly dropping. Student-athlete enthusiasm or disgust can hinge on whether or not their deep need for information is satiated.
Unfortunately when they are not provided all the answers they immediately desire, the response of "it's coach's decision" is no longer acceptable. Courtesy of knee-jerk response, our athletes will do their best to fill the information gaps on their own by replacing the truth with their perception or even the team's perception. These are typically based on repeated over-dissection of a topic in the locker room or other social team areas.
This being said, when we can find ourselves caught off guard by these team concerns, in many cases, it may be too late for your perspective as the coach to be viewed as anything more than defense of your position of power. When we do not give our athletes enough information, regardless of the reason, you may very well find yourself in your AD's office with HR.
There's no question that teaching hard lessons to your athletes with consequences can make all parties involved uncomfortable. No one likes having to suspend a player, reduce or eliminate their scholarship. However, we must be adamant that our administrators support both genders of coaches equally in these processes. If as a female coach your administration uses language that indicates you are expected to be "motherly", "more patient and supportive" while your male colleagues are permitted to use physical or verbal intimidation to get results without consequences, this is where we must highlight these issues and confront them.
When our athletes fail it is our job as coaches to then continue to present them with challenges and opportunities to be successful. Some of these challenges require having the athlete exposed to goal setting, limits, tough conversations about potential, and motivation.
Coaches, here are some additional points that we must address with our administrations and colleagues if we want to stop the mechanism of madness and ensure empowerment on both sides of the table.
1. MY COACH IS A "BULLY"
The challenges are vast in coaching regardless of gender but let's not be dismissive of the wide range of perceptions and expectations by our athletes and how we as coaches are at risk. Ask yourself: Have I found myself refusing to let my athlete give up? Have I ever become frustrated with a talented player with a bad attitude? Have I pushed an athlete to not shy away from adversity or struggle? If you have done all of these, congratulations, you are coaching.
However, if you have done even one of these, you are now eligible to be labeled a bully. Open up dialogue with both your administrators and your teams on their perceptions of "tough" and "over the top" by giving scenarios. Asking more questions as challenging this topic is a vehicle to offering both of these entities a gut-check in any existing prejudices and one-dimensional hardwired responses.
2. "COACH IS DIVIDING THE TEAM"
When businesses want to be successful, management should allow their hardest workers to thrive by offering raises, recognition or promotions. This is widely accepted and understood in the corporate world. In athletics, when we recognize that certain athletes are going above and beyond, it should be our choice as coaches to recognize those players with something as basic as a conversation to let them know personally about how grateful we are for their hard work and that you see their progress.
If you have done this like I have, this doesn't mean that you are putting the rest of your athletes down. However, we must be prepared for the player or team perception that we are singling out "favorites". This is commonly referred to in coach abuse allegations as “dividing the team”. Again, present this scenario to your administration and to your team in the context of the bigger picture.
This then becomes a means of understanding by your athletes that hard work is rewarded for those who go the extra mile and meant to push the ones who need to catch up. On the same note, with this communication, in the eyes of your athletic department you will be seen as using this method to preparing your athletes for the job market.
3. UNDERSTANDING YOUR EVALUATION PROCESS AND STANDARDS
As a college or even high school coach, chances are you are evaluated at some point. Annual performance evaluations are not uncommon so this is your opportunity to clarify and document all past performance reviews and future expectations. You must identify the top expectations of your program by your employer and be crystal clear in confirming whether those expectations are realistic in a sense that they match your resources and support levels provided by your institution. Ex. If your administration expects you to attract high numbers of talent and retain a large roster but your budget is inadequate and your facility has been void of an upgrade or attention, these goals do not align with your resources.
Is your AD expecting a flawless record, playoff berths, conference championships, a perfectly balanced budget, high recruiting numbers or strict roster management? Regardless whether it is one or all of those, be specific and diligent in your pursuit of expectations. Document everything from any meeting to ensure that the expectations match the institutional mission and that the requirements are not an ever-changing landscape of guesswork.
4. "STUDENT-ATHLETE SURVEYS OR FEEDBACK"
As a coach, you have every right to view the survey template that is distributed by your athletic departments to your student-athletes. Inspire other coaches in your department to form a group or committee that annually reviews the survey content with your admin. More recently, the surveys at my own institution were completely revamped when it was brought to the attention of the administrators that the survey was decades old and not only lacked many relevant areas of solicited feedback from the student athlete, but was also void of any area for submission of positive feedback for coach performance.
Each question was suggestive and some even encouraging only criticism where the coach, regardless of performance was already at disadvantage from question one. Be diligent in your review and take active interest in pursuing new methods of data collection if your department’s survey is outdated, unbalanced or in some case a host to antiquated language.
While we assume that every university takes a hard look at these surveys many may even disregard them altogether. Be sure you have a firm understanding of this process and be aware of whether or not these reviews are distributed fairly. Ex. Are your administrators ignoring the surveys of the the ice hockey coach yet, going over yours with a fine toothed comb? These are important and relevant questions.
5. MISTAKING YOUR EXPERIENCE FOR JOB SECURITY
As graduate assistant many years ago, I was told that no one would truly take me seriously until I was in my 30s and even then, I would have to win and be in the game as long as 30 more years to gain any respect. Well, here I am 35...and I win, a lot.
Yet, it's still a mystery to me how success as a coach has yet to brandish my position with any additional trust to run my program in a manner that preserves positive culture and results. In the world of men coaching men, when you win, it's common for more opportunities to move up and your resume grows right along with your salary. As a female, if you make a healthy salary you are already close to pricing yourself out of new opportunities. One of the biggest set backs to this movement continues to be a lack of acknowledgment and a variety of methods of distraction from the problem where many tend to justify injustice.
As coaches we must be proactive and aware of these issues and solutions. Otherwise, the next time you hear a student-athlete complaint accompanied by an impromptu meeting with HR and your AD, it may be too late.
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