Front & Center

January 29, 2015
As an athletic director, it's easy to stay behind the scenes. But being an effective leader means sometimes taking center stage.
By Kevin Bryant

Kevin Bryant, CMAA, is Senior Facilities Manager of the Gordon Faber Recreation Complex in Hillsboro, Ore., and the former Associate Principal for Athletics and Activities at Tigard (Ore.) High School. He also served as Athletic Director at Aloha (Ore.) High School. A past President of the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, he was named the group's 2005 Athletic Director of the Year, and he has received an NIAAA Distinguished Service Award and NFHS Citation. He can be reached at: ksbryant@comcast.net.


At an event I recently attended, I met a person who engaged me in a conversation about sports at her children's high school. As we talked, I told her I knew the athletic director at the school. Her reply was, "He is a nice person, but people don't think he does a very good job."

The comment stung, and I had to resist making an angry, sarcastic response. I explained that few people truly understand the time, passion, and effort that an athletic administrator invests in a school and its students. I also said that I know this person well and know he does a great job.

The same week, I heard from an athletic director and friend who was struggling. He told me that parents, administrators, and students were trying to get one of his head coaches fired and bypassing the athletic director's office. His efforts to communicate with everyone were going nowhere.

Those of us who have worked in this field for any length of time can relate to both of these stories. No matter how much effort we give or how much success we orchestrate, there will always be people who think we are not very effective or important.

In many ways, high school athletic directors are like the wallpaper in a house. The wallpaper is there but people don't notice it--unless there's a problem. If the paper is falling off the walls, people suddenly see it. Our jobs entail mostly behind-the-scenes work, which only comes to the forefront when something goes wrong.

But is this the way it should be? High school athletic directors are responsible for leading their communities toward unity and their student-athletes toward personal growth and athletic success. Let's face it, we can't accomplish these tasks while being wallpaper. To be our best, we need a greater public presence in our schools and communities.

WHY DO IT?
I admit that the idea may seem counterproductive at first glance. Why would athletic directors want to expose themselves to additional feedback, criticism, or hostility? However, there are several reasons this can be a positive in the long run.

During my time as an athletic administrator at Aloha (Ore.) High School, I heard some chilling words I will never forget from our Beaverton Education Association representative. As the district was facing budget shortfalls, her very clear comment to me was that, "You had better find a new job because you surely will be the first to be cut."

A few days later, teachers and students were outside the school with signs protesting any cuts to athletics. I was in the middle of the pack doing my part to make sure all the needs of athletics were communicated. My motivation for being there was not saving my job. Instead, my presence there was to represent the life-changing opportunities high school sports offered student-athletes. This was not a time to be silent or absent in support of the thing I believed in most.

But my presence also reminded people that I was not a silent leader. If my job was to be cut, I would no longer be there with them and for them. While one representative saw the job of athletic director as dispensable, I'd like to think that many other people knew differently--because they saw me as a leader with an important role and one who would stand up for their needs.

On a more day-to-day level, a significant reason to have a public presence is that it will make you a more effective athletic director. When parents and community members know their administrators, they tend to listen to and respect them. People want and need a leader, but they can't know who we are without some effort on our part.

When there is a strong person visibly orchestrating athletics, there is more support for the department. Community members, parents, coaches, and student-athletes will respect the rules you lay out. They will show up when you put out a call for help. They will listen to your opinion. They will open their pocketbooks more generously. As a result, the athletic director can initiate programs, ideas, and policies that benefit student-athletes.

Theodore Hesburgh, President Emeritus of the University of Notre Dame, once said: "The very essence of leadership is that you have to have vision. You can't blow an uncertain trumpet." At a time when school budgets are being cut to the bone, high school athletic directors must not "blow an uncertain trumpet" as they lead their departments.

At the same time, we need to be careful that we are not seeking publicity for our own egos. We must represent our schools to our community, but the motive should never be about our own glory.

GETTING INTO THE GAME
So how do you have a more public presence when most of your work is done outside the limelight? The hill I chose to plant my flag on was our parent meetings--I made time to be at every meeting for every sport in every season. I spoke briefly with the overall goal of exhibiting my leadership, nipping problems in the bud, and fulfilling three specific objectives:

1. I wanted each parent to know who I was.

2. I wanted each parent to understand from me directly what was expected parent behavior. This included how they should act in the stands, toward our coaching staff, toward officials, and toward student-athletes.

3. I wanted to make it clear as glass that I had my coaches' backs. Through my words and my presence at the meetings, parents understood that I trusted and supported the coaches.

It was amazing how this small step granted me a huge sense of respect and authority with parents. Because I shared my ideas and time, parents saw me as the athletics leader instead of the guy setting up the field. They also saw my passion and understood I was all about doing what's best for their children.

Later on, parents would begin conversations by saying, "We are having a problem with the coach. My son/daughter has talked to him and so have I, but we'd really like to talk to you ..." They followed my rules about communication, and they also wanted my ear. Those are both good things.

Along with being at parent meetings, I tried to attend as many contests as possible. You are expected to be at varsity games, but a high school athletic director really stands out at a freshman or junior varsity event where attendance is made up mostly of the families of the participants. People in the stands talk about the athletic director being there. I often received compliments from parents about being at sub-varsity games, because they knew how busy I was, yet I was there supporting their child.

One of my most memorable fan experiences came during my time at Tigard (Ore.) High School. The principal and I traveled 90 minutes to watch our water polo team compete in the state playoffs. It was fun to sit amidst parents who greatly appreciated any encouragement their children received in what is considered a "low profile" sport. This bought me support from parents for years afterwards.

Finally, shock everyone by appearing at a non-athletics event, such as a concert, play, or public meeting. This shows in a very real way that you are not just about the athletic program on your campus, you are about supporting the entire school. You don't need to make a report or organize anything, just show up. Results will be immediate.

A third way to become more public is to get involved with the booster club. When I first arrived at Tigard, I did not give the booster club much attention. It seemed like a well-oiled machine, and they did not need me to jump in.

But these were the most committed and involved parents at the school--the movers and shakers of the community who were passionate about all students' participation, not just their own children. They were dedicated, community oriented people who followed through on promises made, and showed up every time. I realized that they might not need me, but I needed them.

Together, we were a powerful team. I was able to help provide leadership, input, vision, and encouragement to the boosters. They did an amazing job raising money for our programs. These folks became my "parent team" and were able to vouch for me and my desire to see all of our students become successful on the athletic field and in the classroom.

It can also help to create a public presence outside of parent groups, through community organizations such as the Rotary club or the chamber of commerce. Such groups are often eager to rally around the local high school's athletic program. Being a part of clubs like these expands the influence of the athletic department and shows the community that the athletic director is thinking about more than his or her own program.

In addition, developing connections with local groups can lead to better fundraising opportunities. We often ask so much of our beleaguered business communities. When these people see the local high school athletic director giving back, it goes a long way toward continuing their support of local resources.

And this giving back can go beyond just serving on a Rotary club. How about initiating a free pancake breakfast to donors, parents, and community members served up by the booster club and coaching staff some Saturday? You will also turn heads by volunteering your time to a community project, such as reading to children at an annual book fair or helping clean up a local park.

Another avenue to explore is using the media to your advantage. While President of the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, I wrote an article for publication in newspapers across the state about the role of the athletic director in secondary education. My hope was that it would offer a glimpse to community members about what we do on a day-to-day basis and the challenges we face.

One final way to boost your public support is much less obvious. It entails choosing to improve. A hunger for improvement and a desire to do things differently will make people take notice. Try introducing a new program or getting that CMAA to place after your name in all correspondences. Parents and community members will recognize your passion and be impressed with your actions.

Stepping up your game also becomes contagious. You don't need to preach improvement to your staff, you can show them what it looks like instead. It starts with each of us admitting that we can get better in some areas and continues with us tackling those challenges.

WHEN THE GOING GETS TOUGH
So far, I've talked about the easy ways to be a leader--attending events and meetings where everyone is smiling. But having a public presence also means being front and center during more difficult situations.

We do not maintain our credibility if we hide from the negative aspects of our jobs: the parent who never fails to give us heartburn, apologizing for a mistake, or answering questions about an unpopular decision. We earn significant respect in a community when we are professional enough to show up amidst the challenges of a particular problem. We also earn respect by engaging with those we may never see eye-to-eye with.

This can be tough. I have always tried to do three things when faced with a difficult situation.

1. I try to have an honest awareness of my weaknesses.
2. I try to suspend my fear of criticism.
3. I focus on doing what is best for the student-athletes.

While I was an athletic administrator at Tigard, we had a significant eligibility issue that caused us to forfeit football and basketball games. It was difficult to be the leader of the athletic program once this mistake became known. I felt like hiding. But my love of our students and respect for my coaches pushed me through the embarrassment. It challenged me daily to show up, do my best, and continue to support those who motivated me to originally seek the leadership position.

AMONG STUDENTS
When we think about increasing our public presence, we tend to focus on being seen and heard by adults. But we also need to be known among students. This may seem simple--we are around them all the time! However, they frequently don't really know what we're about.

My path to affecting student-athletes was to start a student-athlete advisory group. We called ours SALT (Student-Athlete Leadership Team) and met twice a month for an hour before school. We ate donuts, planned community service projects, and talked and wrote about our athletic experience.

My goal was to develop a community of student-athletes with a mission. We encouraged a junior or senior and freshman or sophomore from every sport to take part. We talked about what our department might look like if we supported one another at our own games and events. We made up shirts that had a design developed by a student-athlete, and we wore them on the days we met.

The process also allowed me to connect with student-athletes on a daily basis. They came to trust me and understand my vision, as well as my role. There was more support from student-athletes when I had to make an unpopular decision or issue a reprimand.

Another way to get involved with student-athletes is to share an activity or passion with them. If you're a runner, maybe you can join the cross country team on their long-distance workouts. How about organizing a community service project where you work side-by-side with student-athletes? Or you could serve as an extra assistant coach for a team when your schedule allowed.

Be as creative as you want to be, but connect with student-athletes in life-changing ways and your life will also be as impacted. I know because mine was.

BEST JOB EVER
My daughter came home from playing a soccer game years ago and told me that her teammate's father remarked I had the best job ever because I "got paid to watch games." It is true that for 10 years as a high school athletic director, I loved watching student-athletes perform. It is one part of the job that kept me sane and centered--the pure joy of athletics on display, pre-game jitters, the smell of popcorn, the sound of the band, seeing sweat on the brow of those warming up, the enthusiasm of youth, and the highs and lows that accompany competition.

But I was alarmed by this parent's perception of my job. Could he not see me organizing game set-up, talking to parents, evaluating coaches, and mulling that last e-mail I received from my principal? Well, of course he couldn't. And that's why we need to continually explain and promote our role.

We are so very fortunate that we are not paid to "watch games." We are paid to make a difference in our communities by investing in the lives of student-athletes through the medium of interscholastic sport.

In the words of motivational speaker Mary Anne Radmacher, "Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is the little voice at the end of the day that says, 'I'll try again tomorrow.'" Being an effective leader as an athletic director requires listening to that voice.


Sidebar: Another Reason
One more reason for developing a public presence is to help in the fight for funding educational athletics. With the increasing encroachment of club sports in our communities, there are continual arguments that interscholastic athletics are unnecessary. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times: Club teams are the more important expression of sport because that is where college coaches are recruiting the best student-athletes.

Our answer needs to be clear and unequivocal. School sports are not about the few that will go on to participate in intercollegiate sports. Educational-based athletics are for those who believe sport is a life-changer for all participants, not an escalator for the elite few.

Interscholastic athletic administrators are the ones who need to take the lead in each of their communities to continuously make this message known. It is equally important that we consider the best possible ways to get this message across to our constituents.

Some ideas on how to do this include talking about the athletes who don't make the headlines, such as those who succeed through a personal best in track or swimming, those at the sub-varsity level, or those who have overcome adversity. Providing data on how athletes do better academically than non-athletes is another way.

This is not an area where we can be silent. It is important that all athletic administrators across the United States join together to support one another and the athletes we serve.
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