After a year of postponing, cancelling or moving seasons due to the pandemic, what does the future hold for high school athletics? Since Marty McFly and Doc Brown aren’t available to take us back to the future, a few experienced athletic administrators may help by sharing their perspective. And this is without the advantage of a crystal ball.
Will there be a surge in young people trying out for teams? While Tim Sam, athletic director at North Valley High School in Grants Pass, Oregon, wondered about this, he shifted his focus to wondering what to do with students who try out.
“It probably can’t be the same old approach,” Sam said. “We may want and need to promote our mission and purpose, and why it is to the advantage of young people to be part of our education-based program. Also, will we be able to strengthen our connections to student- athletes and perhaps go beyond in new and better ways?”
On the other hand, Fritz Kilian, director of health, physical education and athletics for Fairport (New York) Central School District, believes schools might have to “recruit” a little for some of their teams, at least initially.
“Club sports were able to open up sooner and did not have to meet the same rules as those pertaining to interscholastic athletics,” Kilian said. “We may have to do a better job promoting our opportunities and what the benefits of education-based athletics include. Also, we may have to be a little more mindful of the mental or emotional residue from the pandemic.”
Optimism for a great upcoming year was very evident when Matt Comstock discussed the future of athletics at his school, Bellefontaine (Ohio) High School.
“Everyone is excited and eager to get started,” Comstock said. “We saw the effects the pandemic had on small businesses in the community and we planned for each of our teams to ‘sponsor’ one of them instead of the enterprises sponsoring our programs. Each team has been asked to do at least two service projects for its sponsored business such as raking leaves or shoveling snow. And possibly try to repay a small part of their support over the years.”
“I think and hope that coaches learned the importance of communication,” Comstock continued. “While some may hope that they never have to conduct another Zoom meeting, effective communication was a great development and outcome. Let’s hope it continues, even if in other forms and mediums.”
In addition, Chip Salvestrini, athletic director for the Danbury (Connecticut) Public Schools, went to great lengths to also emphasize the value and importance of communication that emerged and developed as a result of the pandemic. Salvestrini noted that to lead a program, to explain developments, to put initiatives into action and to deal with problems, all comes down to effectively and efficiently communicating with coaches, athletes, parents and anyone connected to the program.
Salvestrini mentioned that the most important components for communication to be successful are to be, “clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent, complete, courteous and consistent.” These aspects are Salvestrini’s 8 C’s of communication and to go forward they should continue to be used.
“In order to be effective, you also have to be an active, sincere listener,” Salvestrini said. “This skill is fundamental in order to understand the other person or group. It is vital to remain neutral and non-judgmental in order to get an accurate picture of their point of view to properly respond.”
Sam also felt that the pandemic caused coaches to “…learn each kid’s story more so than in the past and that many were greatly impacted in a myriad of ways. Parents lost jobs, students had to take online classes and communities were wiped out by fires. Understanding all of this created more empathy, more humanity and better authentic connections. These are the qualities, hopefully, that will sustain and help high school activities going forward.”
“Teams and the athletic program should emerge stronger after the pandemic,” Kilian said. “There will or should be more community service projects based upon what everyone experienced. The shutdown provided everyone with an opportunity to reflect upon the importance of community and the concept of giving back. We’ll be stronger! And for that matter, the fan base could very well increase as well.”
While Comstock is also hopeful that the fan base will increase, he is a little concerned. “Even though we don’t currently charge a ‘pay for play’ fee, if we don’t get back to our normal gate receipts, we may have to consider making this change. And this is a step that we don’t want to take. It would be the last resort.”
Comstock said the pandemic also indirectly provided a transformational idea. “We started to use a digital ticketing company and it did a great job for us considering facility limitations and ticketing codes. We will never go back to dealing with cash at the gate and it was also a great time-saver. Something positive arose from a negative.”
With regard to officials, there is a concern that postponed and cancelled seasons from a year ago will exacerbate the shortage of officials.
“I see the upcoming year as “… an opportunity for a restart. We can and should re-define our programs and how we should be treating each other as human beings. More respect and understanding directed at officials would be a good place to start.”
Salvestrini said it comes down to communication. Take lessons learned from the pandemic and “… listen, use humor, be careful with your tone, and be appreciative, positive, respectful and consistent. As athletic administrators, we are in a position to impact and help others. But we have to forge relationships first with effective communication.”
In spite of the pandemic, the future of education-based athletics is extremely bright and poised for a great year. It is in good hands around the country with committed, dedicated professionals who always put the student-athletes first.
Dr. David Hoch is a former athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Maryland (Baltimore County). He assumed this position in 2003 after nine years as director of athletics at Eastern Technological High School in Baltimore County. He has 24 years experience coaching basketball, including 14 years on the collegiate level. Hoch, who has a doctorate in sports management from Temple (Pennsylvania) University, is past president of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association, and he formerly was president of the Maryland State Coaches Association. He has had more than 735 articles published in professional magazines and journals, as well as four textbook chapters. He is the author of a book entitled Coaching within the Education-based Athletics Concept. Hoch is a member of the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.