By: Mark Rerick, CMAA - Grand Forks Public Schools
Some years ago, I was at a coaches' clinic where the speaker talked about the two ways that all students learn: what they are taught, and what they are allowed to do. When my coaches get frustrated about their players' behavior or skill performance, I use those same questions as a way for our coaches to reexamine what the athletes are learning. What are you teaching your players? What are you allowing your players to do?
As an athletic director, I've found it easy to give my coaches that guidance when instructing their players, but I haven't always followed that advice myself. Like most athletic directors, I actively and loudly verbally promote the values of educational-based athletics, but I often found myself allowing my coaches to act in a manner that did not support that same message. I think it's important for athletic directors to ask ourselves two questions:
In the past few years, I've taken some steps within our department to change my own leadership behavior within our educational-based athletic program, beginning with how I hire coaches through the post-season player surveys.
The first change I made was to the list of questions we ask in an interview. I know exactly what I want when I'm hiring coaches - character driven people who value growth as success. I've designed our interview questions in a way that candidates could answer questions by telling me how many games they will win or by telling me how they plan on teaching our athletes; they can tell me personal goals they plan on achieving as our coach, or they can tell me what they can get the athletes to achieve; they can tell me about the individualized nature of athletics, or they can tell me how athletics fits into the educational process. I use much material from the Minnesota High School League's Why We Play initiative to find my character driven coaches. In that manner, I believe that we're hiring good leaders for our athletes.
Following the hire, I'll meet with the new coach to pass along my department goals:
I'll explain to the coach that my belief is that winning is not the purpose for our programs but rather a by-product of many things, some of which are uncontrollable. I use John O'Sullivan's formula as a visual method for explaining how winning is a product of several factors:
PERFORMANCE = Talent + State of Mind + Coaching + Deliberate Practice + Luck
Once I've discussed our department goals and the nature of winning with the coach, I ensure our new hire that he or she will not be judged based on the number of games won or lost. In doing this, I hope to remove some of the external pressure inherent in competitive athletics, so our coach doesn't resort to "win at all costs" coaching tactics. Having these conversations before a new coach begins any work for our school district gives me a starting place for later conversations.
The second change I made was in our pre-season coaches' meeting material. I used to simply use that time to pass along dates, deadlines, rules, policies, regulations, and a brief rah-rah message before sending our coaches out the door. Now, I put all that information in our coaches' handbook, so I can use our meeting time for the purpose of reinforcing the message that I want coming from our department. Now, we spend our time talking about topics such as "kids these days," the nature of transactional vs. transformational coaching, the difference between a purpose and a goal, and how their actions throughout the season need to be intentional actions intended to meet our department's and their program's goals. In addition, I designate some time at this meeting for our head and assistant coaches to discuss what each of their program's Core Values will be for the season. [Most of the messages in the meeting are compiled from thoughts by John Maxwell, Joe Ehrmann, Tim Elmore, and John O'Sullivan.]
The third change came on the coaches' pre-season expectations form that I use for individual conversations with a coach before the season starts. I used to ask the coaches to make a reasonable estimate of where they thought their team would finish the season, something I would use as a comparison to how the coaches felt at the end of the season. I've now replaced everything related to winning with two other questions:
Adding those two questions has enabled the majority of our conversation to revolve around the why and how our coaches will coach rather than simply discussing the what.
The fourth change was probably the toughest change for me to make. In the past, if a coach's conduct did not match our department's expectations (for example, a coach rants on an official during a game), we would often talk about the incident afterwards then simply move on. I realized that I was often having the same conversations with the same coaches because I was allowing them to continue behaving that way. Now, I'll have various consequences for continued poor behavior. These range from something as simple as addressing the team the next day with an apology and explanation of how the behavior did not match the team's Core Values all the way to game suspensions. While the consequences are certainly punitive, my intent is to have our coaches always pattern and exhibit the exact behavior we expect from our players.
The last change was a true "face palm" moment for me. I had changed our pre-season expectations along with my message to the coaches, but I hadn't changed the post-season student surveys at all. I was doing all this work on the front end without assessing whether or not our coaches' messages were getting through to the students!
Now, I ask several questions on the student survey that pointedly target our coaches' ability to teach our department's goals. Specifically, I added questions that directly ask our students whether they (1) had fun, (2) learned more about how to compete, and (3) learned more about the sport. Then, I added questions that ask our students directly about whether or not the coaches' pre-season non-X&O goals were met. Finally, I added a question asking the students what the team's Core Values were for that season.
When I first added those questions, two items were immediately apparent in some of our programs. First, the coaches that gave me their goals and/or Core Values without subsequently teaching them to the students were easily recognizable. As I explain to our coaches, you aren't going to teach an athlete how to bunt without telling the athlete it's a bunt, so why would you attempt to teach an athlete persistence without telling the athlete its persistence?
The second item I learned from the survey process, which was tougher to get to but has been great for our department, was in the question asking students if the season was successful. What I initially saw was that students could rate our coach very highly in all areas but then label the season unsuccessful. In digging deeper, I found that these conflicting ratings were occurring in programs where the coach was an exceptional, well-liked coach during seasons with a losing record. The data was showing me that our coaches were doing everything correctly except defining what success is to our students. If we don't give the students a usable definition for success, they will assume that success means winning (which, as defined earlier, isn't always in our control).
When coaches sit in my office during our end of season meetings and lament how they should have won more games, I now resort to the same question I use with parents and the public when they complain about not winning enough games: "What would the athletes have learned by winning that they didn't learn because they lost?" If we're teaching our athletes the right lessons in the right manner, there is no answer to that question, but it's up to me as the athletic director to hold my coaches accountable for meeting that goal.