Letting go of a coach might be the most difficult part of the job for a high school athletic director. That was the consensus of Rich Bechard and Lane Green – two athletic directors who presented the workshop “When It’s Necessary to Release a Coach – Proper Course of Action” at the 2018 National Athletic Directors Conference in San Antonio, Texas. However, the veteran athletic directors said there are several steps administrators can take before termination is necessary.
Bechard, who is athletic director of the Lee’s Summit (Missouri) R-7 School District, said openness and good communication are critical to working with coaches and helping them understand what is required of them.
“The most important thing is that you are crystal-clear about your expectations, such as mission, vision and purpose,” Bechard said. “I think you have far fewer challenges when you’re very clear with your expectations.”
Bechard said athletic directors should consider why they hired coaches in the first place and clarify the mission and vision of the department and the program from the start. They should not be afraid to talk to coaches about areas where they are falling short. Bechard said that practice walkthroughs and attending games are important to spot problems early.
“Hopefully you’re aware of problems before you hear about them from somebody else,” Bechard said.
When coaches start to notice problems, crucial conversations are one tool athletic directors can utilize when speaking with coaches about making improvements. Bechard said crucial conversations involve athletic directors telling coaches what they see and discussing issues to understand exactly what is happening. He said it is important not to pin coaches in a corner, but to discuss problems and brainstorm solutions together.
Green, who is the director of school administration at Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kansas, agrees that those are tough conversations.
“It takes energy to have a fierce conversation with a coach,” Green said. “The path of least resistance is always avoidance. It’s never fun to sit down with a coach and go over those areas in which they’re falling short, but it’s imperative that an athletic administrator has those uncomfortable crucial conversations with coaches along the way.”
Green said it is always important for athletic directors to put their points and notes into writing when preparing for crucial conversations and to clearly lay out the areas a coach needs to work on with a series of specific steps, a timeframe for those steps, and provide a date to get updates on progress.
If necessary, athletic directors should put coaches on an action plan with detailed goals to improve in certain areas. Usually, action plans involve coaches meeting certain goals over a specified timeline. Bechard said action plans and timelines are dependent on what a specific coach needs to work on and the tolerance level of the athletic director.
“Let’s say you have a concern that a coach isn’t valuing his or her athletes,” Bechard said. “We always feel like it’s really important that all our athletes feel valued in a program. If you were going to work through an action plan, maybe you sit down with a coach and say, ‘Okay, we really have a concern that your kids are not feeling valued in the program. We want that to be a target that we’re going to address.’ Maybe you could say, ‘We would like you to make sure that you meet with each individual player when it’s convenient, and here’s what needs to happen in those meetings.’ You can get somewhat specific.”
Bechard said it is important to set short-term goals as well as long-term goals. He always follows up with coaches at least every few weeks, and he documents whatever progress, or lack thereof, he sees.
Green said that athletic directors are, in a way, the leaders of the coaching staff, and they need to have earnest conversations with coaches and help them improve. He believes that, for the most part, coaches want to improve and do their best to be as effective as possible.
When he sees a coach struggling, Green said he will sometimes pair that coach with a more successful coach who can act as a mentor. It may make sense to find a mentor for young coaches before problems arise and ensure that they develop strong coaching habits.
Green stressed that athletic directors must be present in their coaches’ lives. He conducts multiple walkthroughs and visits to stay updated. He said athletic directors lose credibility if they are never around.
Bechard said it is always a good idea to work with coaches and give them input in the growth process. He tries to save coaches jobs whenever he can, so any progress is beneficial. If a coach’s progress is slower than he likes, it is time for another crucial conversation.
If the targets set forth for a coach are just not being met, Bechard said it might be time to “de-hire” the coach. It is a tough call, but something that must be done if no progress is being made. Bechard said that struggling coaches typically terminate themselves by not working toward any of the targets outlined in crucial conversations and continuing problematic behaviors.
“The one that is an issue is someone who ignores those targets or completely ignores a plan of improvement. You have a pretty easy decision there,” Bechard said.
Once an athletic director reaches a point where the best option is to terminate a coach, Bechard said there should be no surprises. The coach has had crucial conversations, been given actionable items, and had follow-ups about any progress. If he or she has not made changes at that point, it is likely to expect a termination.
Bechard said that when terminating a coach, he first alerts the administration. This includes the athletic director’s direct supervisors and anyone higher up, possibly up to the Board of Education, depending on the size of the school. He would update them on the situation and provide them the documentation showing the coach’s lack of progress. Bechard said he always keeps Human Resources updated as well.
When Bechard meets with the coach, he said it is always nice to give him or her the option to resign. Sometimes a coach is more suited to be an assistant coach than a head coach and it is possible to re-assign a coach to a different position.
If a coach refuses to resign, termination is the next step. Green said it is best if athletic directors keep their reasons for terminating coaches to themselves, but it is important to be the first one to tell the assistant coaches and the players that a coach has been removed.
Bechard said that the loss of a coach is rarely a surprise to parents, assistant coaches and players unless the coach was popular for having a lot of wins. Green added that parents want coaches who are good to their kids and who understand the game.
“We see success with wins and losses as goals of the program, but not the purpose of the program,” Bechard said. “Some people are good with goals, and not as much concerned with the purpose being met.”
Bechard and Green said that, ultimately, people need to understand that the well-being of the student-athletes comes first. Even if it means letting go of a coach, athletic directors must do what is best for the student-athletes, and that is a hard point for people to argue against.
Kirsten Adair is an intern in the NFHS publications/communications department. She is a senior at Butler University in Indianapolis majoring in journalism.