Bridging the Gap

By Mike Scerbo, Assistant Athletic Director for NCAA Compliance (and former head women’s lacrosse coach), Duquesne University @CompliantMike

I used to love recruiting the “Blue Chip” player; she was bigger, stronger, quicker, more talented. Athletic administrators love to make a splash: hiring a big name coach with high win totals, top recruiting classes, etc. However, being successful in athletics is not always about pure talent. The development of relationships within a team will often make or break a program regardless of talent. Now I am not saying talent is unimportant, but relationship development can take a team with average talent and make them great, or it can take a very talented team and make them champions.

Photo courtesy of Duquesne Athletics Media Relations.

As a former coach that has recently made the switch from coaching to administration, I have found that one relationship that may not get as much attention as it deserves is the one between a coach and administrator. Often, coaches and administrators view their relationships as simply “necessary” or even in some cases “tedious.” I have even been around some departments that have the “us” vs. “them” mentality in their coach/administrator relationship. These situations of apathy or even resentment regarding the development of the coach and administrator relationship may not harm the program, but if everyone embraces the development of this working relationship, it can certainly enhance the productivity within the program.

Writing as a former coach and a current administrator, I would offer the following four pieces of advice. I used each of these ideas as a head coach when dealing with my players and I think all of them can be applied to the coach/administrator relationship as well:

1. Embrace the Relationship

People always say the ideas they miss most are often the most obvious ones. This is certainly the case here. How do you develop a relationship? First embrace it! The second impediment to fostering a great working relationship is time. Coaches and administrators alike are often busy with the day-to-day obligations of their position. Many of you may even be in departments that have few administrators or the coach is responsible for multiple sports.

However valid this excuse may be at times, we all must find time to develop these relationships. There is an old saying about one’s health, if we don’t make time for health and fitness we will have to make time for illness. The same can be said about coach and administrator relationships. If we don’t find time to develop them now, we will have to make time to repair them in the future.

COACH:

Most Coaches, especially head coaches, find it best to work autonomously in relation to administrative oversight. Coaches typically prefer administrators that are “hands-off” and allow them to work independently without micromanaging. I know that was how I always worked. I wanted support from my administrator, but I did not want them looking over my shoulder on every decision I made. Because of this, coaches tend to “avoid” administrators and rarely make time to talk or brainstorm together about current affairs in the program or future initiatives. Coaches tend to only run to the administration when an issue arises or they face a problem they cannot handle alone. This responsive behavior can lead to tense discussions or create an environment that separates the people involved. How do we solve this issue? Make time for your administrator. If you do not already do it, schedule a standing meeting, once a month, once every two weeks, etc. They do not have to be long meetings. They don’t even have to be specific to concerns or topics. You can even make them informal: play racquetball, grab lunch, or have a pop-in discussion. Make them about life and get to know your administrator as a person. Ask about their family, share a story from your past, or even discuss current events in college athletics. Sometimes the meetings need to be specific to address an issue you are facing, but don’t make that the only reason you go to your administrator.

ADMINISTRATOR:

For athletic administrators, the advice should be the same. MAKE time for your coaches. Understand that you both are busy; you have report deadlines, they have recruiting obligations; you have meetings across campus, they have an entire team asking for their time. Regardless, you need to make time for them and get to know them as a person. Talk to them about how they handle their team off the field. Get to know why they make certain decisions and what their philosophy is on coaching. It is important that you make time not only for them, but for their players as well. Come by practice and say hello, offer to assist with making travel arrangements, offer to meet with recruits when they are on campus. Developing this relationship not only strengthens your bond with the coach, it shows the coaches and team members that you care about what they are doing and that you are invested in their success. All coaches love a “congrats” after a big win. Make a point to seek them out after a home game or shoot them a text if they are on the road. Little things can make all the difference. If you make time to get to know them and how they operate, when the time comes for you to address issues that may be sensitive in nature (and we all know these issues do arise), the established relationship allows you to work together to formulate a better solution.

2. Understand Their Thoughts First

Now that we have established that the relationship is important, let’s talk about how we can make it a strong and true relationship, rather than a superficial one that will fold at the first sign of problems. The key idea here dates back to many philosophical greats because it centers on the ageless idea of LISTENING.

COACH:

As a former head coach I was always quick with advice or directives. You can ask any of my former assistants, or players for that matter… I always had an opinion and rarely held it back. However, we always have to remember that communication is a two-way street. The art of listening is more important than the art of speaking. As a coach, we often have concerns we want to address with our administrators. For us that concern might be critical to our team’s success or the overall success of the program. Perhaps you need more money in your budget to give the student-athletes a better travel experience, perhaps you have an issue with a player that may require intervention by an administrator, or you may be facing issues with a fellow coach and their behavior. Regardless of the issue, coaches tend to go to their administrator when the issue is beyond their scope or experience. How do you go about addressing that concern?

Always remember that the first, and best step in developing the relationship with your administrator is to listen to what they have to say. Arrange the meeting to discuss your concern, but always enter the discussion with an open mind and the focus to listen to what is being said by your administrator. Often we feel the issue is paramount and we have predetermined what the outcome should be as we enter the meeting. This mentality can often lead to a break-down in the conversation and perhaps a break-down in the relationship. Instead, enter the conversation with a variety of outcomes in mind and most importantly, enter the conversation with the idea that you are going to listen to the thoughts and concerns your administrator has about the situation. For example, if your issue is an increase in your budget to cover better travel arrangements for your student-athletes, don’t be upset when you are told there is no additional funding. It is very natural to get frustrated when you are told no, but with that answer, there may be wonderful advice that comes along. Listen to the options your administrator presents to you. Perhaps they can provide an objective view on some of your “other” spending and find cost savings ideas that will allow you to “free up” more money for travel. Regardless of the topic or the initial answer, listen to what is shared and understand where your administrator is coming from during the conversation.

ADMINISTRATOR:

In our daily work, sometimes a coach coming by the office can be a burden, especially if they are coming by to complain about policy and procedures. It is completely natural to become defensive when a coach, who has never sat in your chair, comes in to complain about how the policies in place are hindering him or her in their work. While it may be difficult at times, we always have to try and place ourselves in their shoes and listen to what their true concern is in that moment. Are they simply venting and looking for someone to understand their troubles? Are they raising a legitimate concern that can be remedied rather easily? Regardless of what their intent is, your intent always has to be to listen first.

When I was a coach, I had an athletic director that, regardless of my concern or the manner in which I presented it (and yes, as a coach, I could be a bit passionate) who always said the same thing. “How can I help you?” I loved working for that man and really loved the relationship we had. No, he did not solve all my problems, but he always listened. Many times in the course of our conversation, me talking and him listening, I would arrive at my own solution. Those five little words didn’t always mean he was going to do something for me, but they always made me feel important and that he truly cared about what I was going through. Conversely, I worked for another AD that never listened to me. He was difficult to find, always had more important concerns on his plate, and even when I would take the time to schedule a meeting, I always felt rushed in the conversation as he looked at his phone or checked his email while we talked. He was always fond of the statement, “How does this impact me?” Now, in my current role I strive to be like the first administrator that listens first and offers solutions second. It does not always work, but I find the relationships I am developing are becoming more solid and trusted. I hope both ways.

3. Know When to Back Off

When I was a young coach, a veteran leader once told me “only go to the well when you truly need to.” I understood that to mean I should choose my battles wisely, because sometimes they are not worth damaging a relationship that needs to be solid and fruitful. I would often run to my athletic director with minor and perhaps meaningless issues. However, what everyone needs to understand is that while we all have issues each and every day, some are important to address or even fight for, but others can be a needless burden on others.

COACH:

A few years back I had a colleague that came to my office almost daily complaining about various issues in his program. He would complain about facility schedules, class schedules, personnel issues, etc. To him, every issue was the most important thing to deal with at the time. He would say to me, “well if you have the issue too, we should bring it up to the athletic director.” My response to him was “choose your battles wisely.” No administrator wants you in their office 2-3 times a week to complain about a situation or a concern. Your administrator cannot always address the situation immediately, or may need to solicit support from another area before they can even offer a solution. Handling issues takes time and energy and if you are in their office constantly with a new issue their work load can get bogged down by your demands.

As a coach, you must prioritize your daily, weekly, and monthly activities. Every day there are countless projects that need to be addressed, but you will be overwhelmed if you try and tackle them all at the same time. For example, you cannot teach all the fundamental basics to your team in one or two practices. You must choose the areas that are most important to address and focus on those first. The same can be said about concerns or issues. Prioritize what issues are the ones that need to be addressed first. Find the concerns that you have, that once addressed, will have the greatest impact on your program’s success. Those are the ones to take to your administrator. For the second and third tier issues, be creative and find a way to solve those issues on your own or with the help of other coaches. If you take every issue to your administrators, they will begin to feel overwhelmed by your needs and you could place an undue stress on the relationship you are trying to develop.

ADMINISTRATOR:

In my experience, administrators seem to grasp this idea better than coaches do, but they too need to understand when to back off. While coaches may need to understand the prioritization of concerns, administrators need to understand timing. Coaches in all sports have their busy times and their down times. I am not suggesting administrators do not, but it would be wise for administrators to understand when is a good time in a coaches’ schedule to address concerns they have. That understanding can come through considering the flow of a coaches’ year, their week, or even their day.

Over the course of a year, all coaches have a down time. There may be a two-week span or even a month where the coaches have little preparation or recruiting to handle. Now the reality is, this “down-time” is different for all sports, so do not assume because your rowing coaches’ schedule is light that means your soccer coaches’ schedule is light as well. Know and understand what your coaches’ schedules look like over the course of the year. When are they out recruiting, when do they host recruits on campus, when are they at their coaching convention? Knowing these things can give you insight on when to bring issues, concerns, or potential programing to your coaches. Beyond that, know what a week looks like, especially in season. Is Monday a good day to catch-up for a short conversation or is that day dedicated to film sessions?  Knowing most coaches, when they are in season, they are working 7 days a week. Understand that if you need to meet with them, the best time might be on a weekend. Again, every coach and every sport is different. Even knowing a coaches’ schedule through the course of a day can pay dividends. If you want to bring the coach in for a conversation about a concern or idea, do not do it in the hour or two leading up to practice. Most coaches I know are busy during that time with last minute details preparing for that day’s workouts. If you have an educated understanding of a coaches’ time you will know when a good time is to go to them for discussions and when you should back off so they can do their job teaching or recruiting. Not only will this help the coach, it will make your time with them more productive. Remember, knowing when to back off and hold your conversation for another time can reduce the stress of the situation and provide a better outcome in the end.

4. Share Solutions Not Demands

“I have a problem with how you are scheduling the facilities. My team always gets the worst practice times and because of that, we are not able to prepare as well as we need to. What are you going to do to change it?” Have you ever found yourself making a statement like that in heated situation? Many of us have and the outcome is usually negative. My first athletic director always said to me “bring me a possible solution not just a complaint.” Over time I have found this idea to be a trusted strategy when entering into conversations about issues that need to be addressed.

COACH:

We have all faced those situations where we do not like the impact a certain policy or procedure has on effectively doing our job. Maybe it is a facilities’ scheduling situation, or the admissions process, or the school’s policy on budget usage. Regardless of the issue, you need to actively become a part of the solution. Do not place the responsibility on your administrator or another department. Find a way around the issue and present it to those involved. By providing a possible solution, you will certainly find more acceptance of your concerns. Understand that your suggested solution may not be a viable answer to the issue, but by presenting an idea, those involved in the situation are more likely to listen to your concern because you have shown you are willing to be engaged in finding a solution.

For example, I had an issue with my Admissions office once. It seemed that while they wanted us to share information with them, they were keeping information from us. In fact, one time, it went as far as one of my top recruits getting a denial letter in the mail from our admissions office and I was never notified. She had signed an NLI and was fully expecting to attend school in the fall, but when she got the denial letter, she was extremely upset. Her father called me in an uproar and demanded that I do something. This was a situation where, as a coach, I wanted to storm into my administrator’s office and demand action, however, after contemplation, I knew that would be a bad choice. I thought back to what my first Athletic Director said, “bring me a solution, not a complaint” and realized that would be the best course of action in this case. My administrator had no culpability and being upset with her would be misdirected anger. In fact, she was completely unaware of the situation with this recruit or how the admissions process even worked. Instead, I made the discussion more about sharing information and presenting to her my admissions communication plan. Don’t get me wrong, I took a few minutes to vent, but she was grateful I had a solution, rather than just coming into the office to complain. This situation worked out well because of the wise words of my former AD.

ADMINISTRATOR:

On the other side of the coin, administrators can use and give this advice to better their working relationships with coaches. How many times have you found yourself sitting in your office and a coach comes in to complain about a policy or procedure?  If it did not happen today (maybe you are reading this article first thing in the morning) I am sure it has happened sometime this week. Many coaches are passionate people with Type A personalities. Coaches usually are not afraid of confrontation and will certainly speak their minds on a variety of topics. That being said, if you allow coaches to come in and simply throw their issues on your desk you are going to find yourself solving their issues rather than dealing with your priorities. In addition, if you are an administrator for multiple teams, with multiple staffs, knowing they can unload their concerns on you for remedy, good luck finding time to handle your day-to-day responsibilities.

Make it your policy that anyone entering your office to complain MUST bring at least one viable solution with them. I had a coaching friend that had an AD that did something like that. Now I felt this AD was a bit over-the-top but his policy made its point. My friend was required to bring three solutions to every problem she encountered where she looked to the AD for advice. She said in her time with this boss, this exercise helped her find her own solutions to most of her concerns. Personally, I think three might be excessive, but to require the coach to present one possible solution is a great way to help them learn to problem solve. Moreover, what I like even more about this policy is that it will strengthen rather than strain the relationship, because the focus of the meeting will be on solving issues, not complaining about them.

Also, apply this principle yourself. If you have to address a coach about their procedures, behaviors, or work ethic, you should bring them possible solutions. Perhaps you just got the senior exit interview information and there were some comments you felt needed to be addressed. Rather than simply giving this information to the coach and demanding changes in their program, give them possible solutions. To use an example from above, perhaps those seniors felt more money should be given to the student-athletes for their per diem on road trips. Rather than simply directing your coach to make that change, understand their budget limitations and present a possible cost cutting measure from another area to allow for more meal money to the student-athletes. Offering a solution is always better than demanding a change.

It’s All About the Relationships

As a coach, I always talked to our players about developing relationships. I demanded that they got to know each other. I lead activities to break down the walls that may be separating them from each other. I always told our players that relationships are like a bank account; the more you put in, the more return you get on that investment.

Collaboration is critical when getting a good team to be successful. Coaches and administrators alike know that working together in a team sport is the only way to be successful. While we may understand this concept as it relates to the team on the court or field, the same principles must to be applied on the office or conference room. As an administrator, your job is to facilitate the success of your coaches. As a coach, your job is to facilitate the success of your student-athletes. Just as the successful coach must work on all the relationships within the team, as coaches and administrators, we have to work on our relationships with each other to maximize success.

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