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Athletic Administrators: How Department Silos Create Poor Culture And How to Fix It

6:00 am Arrive at school

6:10 am Give the OK to your physical education teacher to use the baseball field for class even though it upsets the coach who will be in your office yelling by 6:12

7:00 am Local police call saying they caught two of your athletes smoking weed on the school property line and asks what you are going to do about the foot traffic in the local neighborhood

7:30 am Tennis coach drops by a request for new nets but their budget is overdrawn

8:00 am Two star football players are ineligible and the coach is upset with the two teachers "who gave them D's"

8:30 am Your spouse calls to remind of your son or daughter's play on Saturday. You gently explain that the assistant AD is away with the basketball team so you must be present for the 9-hour wrestling tournament hosted by your school and will have to miss.

There is a long list to deal with and it's not even 9 am. If any of this list sounds familiar, it's likely you are a high school or college athletic director.

This list is a small sample size of the job you signed up for but regardless of your master's degree in physical education or athletic administration, none of your educational preparation has fully equipped you for the majority of today's conflicts we see in athletics. The onslaught of calls you will receive today from 5 different parents complaining about your coaches never seems to get easier. With each parental demand that you remove a coach based on emotional perspective, the pressure is mounting. They all claim their children are being treated unfairly and aren't getting the playing time or attention they deserve so you feel compelled to act.

Ok, let's slow down.

First we need to recognize that the level of communication and accessibility to upper administration has increased over the last decade with social media along with our 24/7 attachments to technology and cell phones. Your availability and perceived increase of vulnerability to litigation has all but holed you up in your offices making you hesitant in every decision.

Two decades ago, most AD's were commonly former coaches trying to climb the ladder or happened to inherit the position after many years on the field.

Today, athletics has moved into a category of change but perhaps not for the better. We are seeing a heightened outcry against high school and college coaches for abuse and unfair treatment of its athletes at an alarming rate. This is not because coaches have suddenly became more aggressive, uncaring or unprofessional. While our definitions of professional and ethical coaching has evolved in what is acceptable we cannot ignore the systemic athletic issue of our own making known as professional silos.

This silo is the clear separation of admin to staff and amongst teams and coaches of the same organization. This is where we most commonly see the value of each coach being based on the sport the coach and/or gender of their athletes. This is the message that says the football coach's expertise and worth has far more value than the women's tennis coach. Our athletes see it, our coaches see it yet our leadership does not acknowledge or address it and to an extent, encourages it.

This is the same conflict that has been brewing since the concept of sports organizations formed. This is a glaring system separation of class and a form of "adult entitlement" that we work in and around everyday in athletics and business but are somehow surprised when we see it appear in our student-athletes. If you believe that your male and female athletes are not aware of the blatant messages they receive daily in terms of their value to the institution they represent, than you have an even bigger problem to tackle.

The evolution of athletics has brought change but the silos have and are actively being created. When the concept of administration was originally formed during the early era of the NCAA, administrators were actually intended to be support for the coaches and in essence worked for them to take care of much of the off-field operations.

Today, the idea of working together as a "department team" has been erased in such an ironic fashion. As coaches, it is highly frowned upon for us to allow our title as leaders to overshadow our duties as mentors in player development. However, as employees, we are told through very specific messaging on a daily basis that some sports and coaches count and some do not. The result is that our athletes develop a weak sense of worth and esteem by comparison when they can rightfully sense a concrete division that many in departmental leadership deny exists. Figuring out how to successfully create cohesion between the triad of the institution, athletic admin and coaches continues to be the challenge.

The bad news is that if you are an athletic director reading this and it sounds familiar, YOU have created this professional silo that has likely given birth to a toxic culture within your department. You may not have even realized it until this moment but the good news is, this is fixable.

The following key points will help you in eliminating departmental silos and help shape a more open and positive culture internally while keeping the more external parent to coach discord to a minimum.

1. Regardless of whether a coach was grandfathered in from a previous administration or hired by your own administration, this coach is part of YOUR team.

Hitting the "You're Fired" button or taking claims at the word of a disgruntled parent or player without first speaking to your coach merely demonstrates a pure and genuine lack of trust for those who work for you. Before you look to dissect what your coach is doing or not doing, ask yourself if you care about each of your coaches equally, regardless of sport, gender or win-loss category. This is a gut check for admins as coaches are well aware that some sports and coach-admin relationships are more prioritized than others.

If you are amongst the group of admins that has made a hasty decision firing a coach based on athlete or parent complaints, you may want to re-examine what pre-existing hesitations you had about this coach prior to the complaint. Remember, jumping to conclusions without due process or considering actual facts or evidence based solely on feelings is a reflection of poor leadership. Whether you hired the coach or not, they are part of your team and their failure is also yours. Keep this in mind when a situation of this nature is handed to you.

2. When you fire or reprimand a coach without proper due diligence in collecting facts, while it may feel quicker and easier, this will be to the detriment of your office culture as a whole.

This kind of reactivity is the surest way to send the rest of your athletic staff a message that you will turn on them at the first sign of danger or athlete/parental discontent. This kind of atmosphere and mistrust from the top down breeds uneasy vibes that radiate throughout the athletic environment. These make staff meetings silent and resentful. This prevents coaches from developing positive connections and sparks the constant need for individuals to be resource-focused and anxious about job security.

Far too often athletic administrations can be found referring to their departments as "a family". Regardless of how well or not well you function as an organization, interscholastic or intercollegiate athletics are not meant to serve as families. These entities remain professional businesses that deals in shaping the lives of young people where membership is conditional.

3. Athletic directors and coaches are not father or mother figures responsible for erasing their athletes' problems for them but instead, are people put in place to help them face conflict and develop solutions.

This learning process for athletes and coaches alike are not always the most fun. Not every coach or admin will be liked or always agree but solid departments function under the mission that the hardest lessons are best learned when you have the guidance to get through them rather than avoiding hard conversations all together. Consider reframing your position as an AD in high school and or college and imagine this as a 4-8 year dress rehearsal for the real world. The more our student-athletes go through now, the more resilience they develop to handle bigger challenges in life later on.

4. Athlete complaints/revolt, Parent Disagreement and Athletic Discord are all part of the package and it's happening everywhere

As the founder of The Fearless Coach, I field 2-3 consult calls per week from coaches of both genders, desperate to understand how years of service or even the best of intentions have suddenly found them on the defense in impromptu performance meetings.

For athletic directors conducting these meetings, try to remember that your school is not the only one being plagued with this epidemic in athletics and education. Now couple this epidemic with athletes who are the center of their parents' universe and are mired in learned behaviors of ultimate self importance for years before they got to you.

This equals a deadly combination that is like an asteroid with the potential to trigger a mass extinction of coaches. Surprisingly, this scenario isn't actually born or determined based on how the parents or athletes act, it is created by how you as a leader, react.

If you have experienced any of the mentioned scenarios above and allowed them to become overly inflated due to uncertainty or fear, this is the first sign that you have a weak athletic department culture.

The practice of many years ago where athletic administrators were built in as a support system for coaches has been completely replaced with the idea that coaches now work specifically for AD's and upper administration, rather than with them. By perpetuating this division in high school and college athletics we are watching honesty, integrity and transparency disappear where once these were considered staples within the sports and lessons we teach as leaders in athletics. The most successful athletic directors I have ever met are those that see their positions as someone who enjoys positive solutions, sees hard conversations as growth but who will also not shy away from conflict.

Administrations and coaches with open dialogue, trust and communication do not fear conflict, they work to master it.

5. Refusal to take ownership over your leadership mistakes shows your coaches, school and department that accountability is not an important or present core value.

As a coach I have been no stranger to admitting to my team when I have made a mistake. The ownership example is one of the most powerful lessons you can teach your team. This is no different than leading a group of adults. Placing administrative mistakes solely on your coaches in the system you have designed for them goes against every principle of effective leadership. The walls of your departmental silos stand strong when your final decisions are filtered and delivered through subordinate staff, distributed through emails, texts, letters or are met with complete silence. This the life blood to mistrust in your office and while you may believe it is a demonstration of power, your staff sees this as a failure to admit wrongdoing or reveal human vulnerability. One dimensional leaders are more plentiful than they are successful.

6. High School and College Students are not qualified nor trained in the area of pedagogy. Your balance and expertise in interpreting feedback is crucial.

In the midst of our fear of litigation coupled with administrators' inability or effort to separate fact from perspective of athletes ages 14-21, the system is in favor of anything and everything that uses the right buzz words. If you are an AD that claims to not have time to investigate or feels it is easier to simply react to feedback of one unhappy player, you may want to invest in a different profession. There are all kinds of resources available that can help with better and more efficient data collection. Give due diligence by speaking to assistant coaches, interviewing athletes that did have a positive experience and from there you can better determine fact from fiction. If your system is antiquated or non-existent you are setting yourselves up to welcome even the smallest of dissatisfactions onto your desk.

There is no denying that cases of abuse and allegations of poor treatment have indeed been substantiated at all levels of athletics. Sexual or physical abuse is non-negotiable which is an entirely different article. The focus here are those complaints of higher quantity that can come down to a simple difference in opinion on coaching method, decision or expertise by the parent or athlete.

7. Parental complaints are given power when YOU decide they are given power.

I recall vividly back in high school watching a parent scream at our JV football coach and then walk right up to our AD demanding he do something about a play call out on the field. I remember the AD looked right at the parent and said, "I'm the AD and if that is the decision our coach made, I trust him to make it." The statement was made and that was the end of it.

Today in a 2018 scenario, that AD would likely ask the parent to meet so they could sit down and absorb all the ways in which they felt the current coach/chemistry teacher who is paid $3000 for 4 months wronged their athlete and singlehandedly issued the athlete's football career a massive disservice. More than likely, the coach will know little or perhaps nothing about these meetings until they are pulled in at the end of the year to be given a list of anonymous and ambiguous allegations. The words "abuse" and "unfair" will be every other word in the discussion when used to simply describe some of the most basic lessons of accountability in sport.

The AD has now opened up to becoming a support system for the parent which would be reasonable if only that balance was also extended to the coach. This is precisely the moment when the system is broken.

Twenty years ago, coaches were more like a team with the AD being a branch of support and able to level with what challenges were most prevalent in the coaching space. Times have changed and the gap has widened in shared experiences between admin and coaches. However, there are no bad crews, only bad captains. If your athletes and their parents have the power to unnerve you enough to fire one of your best coaches because you have unwarranted fear from litigation, you need to hold on for the ride because it will only get worse once they realize you have given them that power.

To learn more about how to remedy this visit this link.

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