Group Discussion

January 29, 2015
Looking for fresh ideas, inspiration, and a way to get others to help your program? Look no further than the Athletic Committee.
By Randy Bertin

Randy Bertin is the Director of Athletics at Stoneleigh-Burnham School, an independent boarding and day school for girls in Greenfield, Mass.

Recently, our school announced some new long-range plans and a vision. One of the goals was to have an "excellent athletic program."

I was in my first year on the job, so that goal certainly sounded good to me! But, as I pondered the initiative, I began to wonder: What actually constitutes an "excellent athletic program?" I realized this was not a question I should try to answer by myself.

As an independent school, Stoneleigh-Burnham often forms committees to ensure that input and communication is received from many different departments within the school. Therefore, I quickly formed an Athletic Committee to help me define and implement "excellence."

I know what many of you are thinking: "Why would you need to form a committee? As the director of athletics, don't you know more about how an athletic department should run than a group of faculty members and upper-level administrators?" I admit that I, too, had some concerns about the idea. I worried about how I would take a diverse group of opinions and mold them into something that would move the program forward. The task did seem daunting.

But I found that by planning purposeful meetings and giving many people a voice, the process was a success. I was able to get a sense of what people from the outside saw as important in athletics. I was provided ideas I might not have thought of myself. And by the end, I found I had a group of people who were eager to help put some new initiatives in place, as well as spread enthusiasm about the athletics program.

Committee members were chosen based on their involvement with the athletic department. Some had oversight of athletics, some had a stake in the success of the athletic department, some were teacher-coaches, and others simply had an interest in the process. While some people had deeper ties to the athletic department than others, I believe it was vital to have all of the "pieces" represented.

Members of our committee included the Head of School, Director of Admissions, Assistant Director of Admissions, College Counselor, Dean of Faculty, Dean of Students, Academic Dean, Director of Alumnae Relations, Equestrian Program Director, Music Program Director, English Teacher/Varsity Softball Coach, History Teacher/Varsity Field Hockey Coach, and a math teacher with an athletic background. As Director of Athletics, I chaired the committee. Each member brought a different piece of school life to the discussion, which was integral to our success. In a public school setting, you might also consider adding parents, a member of the board of education, the director of youth sports in the community, and someone involved in local politics.

I did not provide committee members with much information before our first meeting. I only told them that my goal for the committee's first year was to provide direction on how to build the foundation of an excellent athletic program, and that I wanted them to help me define excellence in athletics. I wanted the first meeting to simply be a brainstorming session aimed at answering the big question: What are the qualities of a successful athletic program?

This was by far our most chaotic meeting with many ideas recorded and others thrown out as quickly as they came. But overall, it was very productive as the collective experiences of the group left no stone unturned. I was primarily a moderator, but also offered my own ideas when appropriate.

After the meeting, the next step was to look over the list of qualities the committee had come up with and organize them into something meaningful. I ended up dividing them into three focus categories:

Image: Because athletics is such a public arm of the school, every action of our program is on display. As an independent school, this aspect is particularly critical to our program. But any school could benefit from a great athletics image.

Coaching: Our discussion focused on how good coaches have tremendous impact on their athletes and how they are role models both on and off the field in ways that teachers may not be.

Talent: How do we help our athletes maximize their potential? Because of our independent nature, we also looked at how to attract and retain quality athletes.

From there, I planned four more meetings (each held six weeks apart). Three meetings would delve further into each focus category, and the last would be a wrap-up of what had been initiated so far and what the athletic committee might focus on in the following school year.

For our second meeting, which focused on improving the image of our athletic program, I put together a more formal agenda. Although the brainstorming session served its purpose, I wanted the following meetings to be more focused and solution-oriented.

At the beginning of the second meeting, I took some time to thank the committee members for their work at the previous meeting. I told them I used their ideas and what they mentioned as priorities to organize this next meeting. I wanted to highlight the group efforts and present them to the committee for a sense of accomplishment and team building.

Then, we talked specifically about the ideas and topics under the image category. The goal was to discover how each item applied specifically to our school. Here are the starting points we used, based on suggestions from the initial meeting:

• How do we define our athletics philosophy?
• How important is the look of the team?
• How do we increase publicity for our sports teams?
• How do we get alumnae more interested in athletics?

The meeting produced the following solutions:

• Uniform replacement should be made a priority.

• The director of athletics should prioritize efforts to increase local media coverage. I started by sending out faxes and calling in game reports to our local newspaper. When this was not very successful, I put on a suit and tie and took the sports editors from two local papers out for lunch. I am a big believer in connecting with people, and in this case, it worked. After the luncheon, media coverage of our teams increased.

• To make our athletic department bulletin board more effective, we decided to have a monthly theme related to both our school and athletics in general. For example, in February, we highlighted National Girls and Women in Sports Day, and during March, we promoted Athletic Training month by highlighting our sports medicine classes. We also discussed how to make in-school announcements more meaningful by giving the student-athletes more direction.

• We proposed developing a Stoneleigh-Burnham Athletic Hall of Fame and scheduling alumnae games.

• We decided to ask for an athletic display at the local Applebee's restaurant.

• We decided to implement an electronic newsletter that would go to all interested students, parents, and alumnae. It will include highlights on the teams, an alumni profile, and reminders to parents.

We followed a similar format for our next two meetings, one of which focused on coaching and the other on talent. (See "More Solutions" at the end of this article for a look at the outcome of the coaching meeting.)

However, one change I made for the ensuing meetings was to give committee members some readings to prepare for the discussions. For example, before the coaching meeting, I passed around an article that discussed awarding bonuses to coaches based on wins and championships. I was not proposing we do the same, but I used the article to start a discussion on how we could attract and retain quality coaches.

In our fourth and final meeting, we talked about what we had achieved. I reported on how some of the smaller initiatives were working and told the committee that the alumnae games and Hall of Fame were already scheduled for discussion. This was important for the morale of the group. We also talked about ideas for the committee for the next year.

Some of the simpler suggestions I was able to implement right away, while others I began to look into during the summer months. However, I did not implement anything completely by myself. Since most directors of the major programs at the school are on the committee and helped propose the solutions, they were excited to help me get the ideas up and running.

For example, for planning the alumnae games, I first met with the Director of Alumnae relations and discussed how such an event would take place. As a member of the athletic committee, she was already sold on the idea and understood the importance and value such a game would have to both the development office and the athletic department.

Other initiatives simply took persistence and a little leg work. For example, to get an athletic display at Applebee's, I had to call the corporate headquarters and follow a fairly cumbersome process. We also had to provide the restaurant with a lot of memorabilia and photos from our past sports teams. But the display case is now finished, it looks fantastic, and we proudly join the local public school and nearby University of Massachusetts in this very public space.

Some of the smaller solutions required writing a memo or having a discussion with student-athletes or coaches. For example, one example of immediate improvement in the image area came in the way students internally announce game results. Traditionally, students would stand up at all-school meetings and say something like, "We won 4-1," or "We lost, but we played really well!" These announcements now sound like this: "We played a game last Wednesday and had three goals as a team for the game. These goals were ... " To accomplish this change, I talked to coaches about ways they might work with their student-athletes on the more lengthy announcements. It may seem like a small item, but the results were increased pride in their teams and an increased positive team image.

When I approached coaches and student-athletes about the changes, they were enthusiastic and ready to climb on board. They liked that there was a whole committee of people who cared enough to help them.

When a coach or faculty member did disagree with a new initiative, that was okay, too. It provided the impetus for me to talk about the athletic department with that individual. It helped me build bridges with people in the school that I might not have had a chance to build otherwise.

Because of our needs here at Stoneleigh-Burnham, we were looking for a lot of varied advice from the Athletic Committee. But, at other schools, an Athletic Committee can be charged with a more definite focus. Topics could be as broad as "community" or as specific as "interdepartmental communication."

Whatever your need, though, a key to a successful process is running each meeting smoothly and following up by accomplishing the suggestions put forth. Those involved need to feel as though their time is being well spent.

Sometimes coaches, teachers, and administrators have differing views on the same area, which is why it is crucial to have representation from all groups on the committee. However, having a larger group can sometimes lead to difficulty in solving problems. Therefore, during the meetings, I ensured that everyone's voice was heard and respected. The group was seated in a circle and I tried to create an atmosphere where no hierarchy was apparent. The best ideas won out, not the person with the most prestigious job title.

To make sure ideas were not overlooked, I took several pages of notes during the discussions. I was also was fortunate to have someone from the committee volunteer to take minutes and send them to the entire group the next morning. The day after each meeting, I would look at my notes, read the minutes, and think back to the night before. This was an extremely helpful exercise that allowed me to improve future meetings and enhance my professional development.

I've seen a lot of progress as a result of the work of our athletic committee. We have been able to show the athletes in our school, plus the greater community, that we are taking steps towards improving an already excellent athletic program.

As I begin this school year, I am preparing to meet with the committee again to discuss our direction. This year and in future years, I plan to make the discussions a bit more focused. For example, we recently received a donation for a new fitness facility, so we may focus our meetings on how to best use this new area and on the role of strength and conditioning in our athletic program.

As directors of athletics, I believe we have a responsibility to continually look at areas within our department that could use improvement, and to open our minds to suggestions from others. I found that starting an Athletic Committee was a great way to accomplish this.

The mainbar of this article highlights our solutions to enhance the image of athletics at our school. Here are some of the Athletic Committee's suggestions for improving the quality of our coaching. The committee:

• Proposed a set pay scale for coaches who are not full-time school employees.
• Suggested that the department implement a different method of evaluating coaches.
• Recommended making professional development mandatory for coaches.
• Recommended creating a coach's handbook that covered all aspects of student life as related to athletics.
• Began brainstorming a list of qualities that make up excellent coaches.
• Discussed the role of coaches in helping student-athletes get recruited for collegiate teams.
• Recommended that varsity and junior varsity teams have the same type of practices so that strategies and plays are consistent.
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