It’s the day after a challenging league contest and you find yourself speaking with your colleague about the game last night. The colleague is not fully aware of the goals of high school athletics or even the work going into program improvement, but he still wants to share feedback. It may be something like, “we have a great program and I like our coach, but he just seems to be missing something.”
These generalized statements are usually not the most helpful and can sometimes be problematic. Comments like these can originate with feelings or instincts that may not be totally rational. However, if school leaders truly embrace a mindset of growth, they do have a responsibility to work with coaches and advisers to create meaningful plans for improvement. To maximize the opportunity for success, these leaders need to provide meaningful feedback in a fashion that allows coaches and advisers to improve.
Honest and open communication is not only important for good professional relationships, but a pillar to improvement. Some of the more meaningful ways to spur improvement by coaches are to draw attention and stretch individual strengths, identify areas of need and create actionable, time-based goals. Of course, there are still times when a school needs to transition to a new coach or adviser; however, when leaders collect and share meaningful data, they can make more informed decisions on when to retain or release personnel and communicate the importance of organizational growth.
Appreciate Strengths to Expand Growth
By nature, most coaches and advisers are driven to find the best ways to prepare their students for competition. Consequently, coaches may have specific strengths that observers can easily identify and appreciate. Maybe one coach is an incredible organizer who understands how to run effective tournaments while another is a master tactician who can constantly put teams in better positions to win.
Regardless of their traits, it is important to recognize, appreciate and push coaches and advisers to stretch and expand themselves. A coach who is highly skilled in organization could help the school in hosting a section or state-level tournament. As a result, this may lead to new partnerships with community members and even future business opportunities for the school through additional school tournament sponsorships. A strong tactical coach may be assigned to write for a local, sectional, state or national (NFHS or NIAAA) publication.
There are a number of ways to appreciate and challenge the strengths of your coaches, but doing so takes thoughtful and genuine reflection from leaders. This reflection expands the horizon of what the coach believes he or she can do and shows the value of a supportive environment for organizational growth that benefits everyone.
Identify Areas of Need
Although some improvements in a coach or adviser can occur by emphasizing his or her positive attributes, athletic leaders must also accurately prioritize and identify areas that need improvement – ones that coaches may not immediately see.
As an example, coaches may need to address organization, supervision and even character training. Creating and sharing a laundry list of flaws will not only exhaust leaders, but foster a negative growth environment where coaches feel unsupported and directionless. School leaders should prioritize the growth changes they want to see in their coaches and advisers.
Realistically, leaders should identify one to three growth areas for coaches or advisers over the course of a season and create meaningful meeting time to discuss how the coach and leader can work together to improve.
This planning time is important and should include three elements: 1) define the area of focus to create a shared understanding; 2) identify criteria and/or a goal to measure effectiveness; and 3) Set a period of time to review progress of goal or improvement. It is also important in this time to honestly and openly share why coaches should improve. When school leaders help coaches in a way that shows that they are just as much a part of “the team” as the leaders and directors are, it improves the chances that the coach or adviser will create sustainable change that will allow all stakeholders to improve.
Checkpoints to Review Progress
Expanding strengths and identifying areas of need are great talking points, but they have little meaning if they are not attached to measurements. As athletic leaders, we need to set the checkpoints to measure improvement. For example, if a coach struggles with implementing character-based athletics, athletic leaders can meet at the midway point of the season to see what character growth opportunities have been presented to the athletes.
For the coach who needs help with organization, maybe it starts as a weekly check of practice plans that evolves into a gradual release to a bi-weekly or monthly check. If the plan involves off-season planning such as tournament preparation, athletic leaders can utilize veteran mentors in other sports who can share their experiences and help create actionable plans to create a smoother, more professional event.
Moving in a Different Organizational Direction
Most coaches and advisers will be able to develop and improve with time and adequate support, but there may be times when leaders must let personnel go. Making these decisions is never easy, but they become easier when leaders rely on data.
When school leaders take time to meet with coaches in an effort to expand their strengths, identify areas of improvement, and provide checkpoints to review growth, personnel decisions are less likely to be a surprise. Sometimes, coaches or advisers may not be a good fit for a particular school, but the way school leaders carry out actions and communicate personnel improvement can reveal how its focus on education-based programs is the highest of priorities.
Make Time to Explore Vision
School leaders also have to take time to explore and refine their personal visions for their programs. Far too often, they become involved in leading school programs and fail to take time to develop visions.
What is the overarching goal of the high school athletic and activities program? How does it support the overarching mission of the academic program of our schools? What potential obstacles face us on a local, section, state and national perspective and how do we address these challenges while creating a safe, fun and educational environment for all participants?
When we have a clearer focus on what we want from our program and how it fits in with the school community, we can shine a light for all stakeholders on how they can improve and better fit into a school culture that values making everyone successful.
Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA, is a teacher, coach and athletic director at Freedom High School in Oakley, California. He is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.