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Veterans Provide Tips for New Athletic Directors

By Dr. David Hoch, CMAA on March 12, 2019 hst Print

Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Wendy Malich, CAA, director of athletics and activities, Franklin Pierce Schools, Tacoma, Washington, and Joey Struwe, CMAA, activities director, Lincoln High School, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, regarding advice for new directors of athletics.


Question: What are the most important things that a new athletic director needs to learn in a hurry in order to make it through the first couple of months in the position?

Malich: First, it is important to be a good listener and realize you may not have all the answers. However, you can certainly find the answers, including information about athlete eligibility and other state and district rules. To get immediate answers, reach out to other athletic administrators with your questions. Colleagues like to and will help each other.

Struwe: It is vital for a new athletic administrator to identify the people behind the scenes. This would involve talking to the grounds crew, transportation director, custodial staff and security people. It is important to understand everyone’s role and that they know what is expected of them. Being on the same page with the support staff and game workers should ensure that events function smoothly. While games and the officials are all scheduled for the season, and that’s the easy part, it is things behind the scenes that make all the difference.

Question: How does an individual gain the trust of the coaching staff, parents and administrators when starting out as a new athletic director? What steps should he or she take?

Malich: During the summer, if possible, meet with administrators and parents and spend the first few months having a sitdown conversation with every head coach. Use a questionnaire covering the current state of the athletic department and ask them for insight on the good things and items that need to improve.

In my case, the meetings created trust and helped set the direction for where I wanted to take the department. While this was very time consuming with everything I was trying to learn, it was well worth the effort to gain insight on who each one of them was and what I needed to accomplish. Since students are our clients and we must serve them first and foremost, it was also vital to hear their voices and those of their parents to create a culture of trust.

Struwe: Someone new in the position should make himself or herself available to coaches, parents and booster groups. This would include being visible at practices, games and meetings. Actions do speak louder than words. If new athletic directors communicate well with these groups, over time they will gain trust and respect.

By developing relationships with the various groups and getting to know them, you will learn important lessons regarding the history and traditions embedded within the school culture. It’s important to know how everything originated in order to understand why they are important to the community. With this insight, you will be able to formulate a plan to improve student experiences.

Question: Even for experienced athletic administrators, there are times that everyone needs advice, insight and a sense of direction. Where should a new athletic director go to get help for difficult situations and problems, and even for mundane everyday tasks and items?

Malich: Start by building a base of experts, and the first two individuals should be the head custodian and the office manager. They know more about the school and how it operates than anyone. Also, check in with athletic directors in your league because they can serve as mentors. The relationship with these professionals will develop and grow over the years, but this should be your first line of help. For specific questions regarding rules, reach out to your state association.

Struwe: Yes, there is definitely a fraternity among athletic directors. It is extremely valuable, therefore, for those who are new to introduce themselves to the veterans in the area because they can and will help in so many ways. Existing athletic administrators will be able to provide resources and advice to help with any issues, answer questions and provide suggestions. All anyone has to do is ask.

Question: While everyone occasionally makes a mistake, what advice do you have for a new athletic director who may have just made one?

Malich: In the first year as an athletic director, my building principal told me “whatever you do keep us out of a hearing situation, no self-reports…” The first month on the job we found that four students had forged their physicals and played in two football games. I was mortified and the words of my principal kept resonating with me.

Once we got through the hearing, I realized that all we can to do is to admit our mistake, apologize and move on. You cannot control everything, and mistakes may happen. It is important, therefore, to learn, make changes and grow from them. Successful athletic administrators learn from others and their mistakes. Pay close attention to details and try not to dwell on their mistakes.

Struwe: It is absolutely true that everyone will make an occasional mistake and it is important to try to learn from the problem. It is also necessary to move on and forgive yourself so that the misstep doesn’t hang over you indefinitely. If you don’t ever make a mistake, it probably means you’re not doing anything of value or importance.

Question: The athletic director’s position can occasionally be overwhelming in terms of the responsibilities and the time commitment. Due to this, there is commonly a huge turnover after three or four years. What advice would you offer so that a new person might consider this position as an important, longer-term professional opportunity – one with great impact?

Malich: After a few years, I realized that there has to be a balance. At times, I needed to be at games so I could handle the issues that came up, and often my children would come along so that we could spend time together at dinner and then watch the game. Now, as well-rounded adults, my children cherish the time spent in the gym with mom and it helped shaped who they are.

In an effort to create balance, understand that there are times of the year where it is necessary to work long hours, for example, to make sure students are eligible and officials are scheduled. There are other times when things are in order and you should capitalize on this to get away from the office to minimize stress. An athletic director’s work is NEVER done, and sometimes you simply have to walk away from it and start fresh the next day.

Struwe: It is vital to make time for yourself and your family and force yourself to get away from the job at times. If you can, leave the problems on your office desk and try to enjoy uninterrupted time with your family when at home. You can’t do the job well if you don’t take care of yourself first. This is easy to say, but hard to do. Trust your assistant and administrative team and let them carry the ball at times in order to give you the opportunity to focus on yourself and your family.

Question: There is never enough time to do everything that an athletic administrator needs and wants to do. What advice do you have for facing this dilemma?

Malich: As a list maker, I divide everything into three categories: 1. Must be done today; 2. Complete this week; and 3. Other (Long Term). I put two dates by each item: the first date is the date by which I would like to complete the item and the second is the drop-dead deadline. This gives me wiggle room for completing the items.

Even if you have always done everything yourself, try to delegate. People want to be involved and the best way is to give them a responsibility. I am always there for backup if things start to go sideways and it is helpful to use checkpoints for each project.

Sometimes, you simply have a year where everything is a reaction and you can’t be as proactive as you would like. In June, take stock and determine what you have accomplished. Usually, I can always find something that we did in our office to make the year just a little better for our students and coaches.

Struwe: Time is a valuable commodity, and you have to prioritize and delegate in order to survive in the position. Allowing and letting others to help carry the ball will give you more time to devote to important, specific tasks. If you spread yourself too thin, you’ll never get everything done and most things will suffer.

Often, seasons and situations will dictate your priorities. During the winter, for example, there are days that you don’t get anything done other than rescheduling contests. However, always try to put any item that will directly affect the well-being of students at the top of your Daily-To-Do list. Also, it is vital to keep and maintain this list so that you don’t get totally derailed during the day.

In the end, it’s important to remember that your goal is to add value to the experience of your student-athletes. The things that we prioritize should reflect the values that we want our programs to exemplify.