Top of their Game

January 29, 2015
Especially when they are new to the profession, coaches can struggle in many areas. At this NCAA Division III school, a special program is helping them reach their full potential.
By Dr. Mike Davenport

Mike Davenport, EdD, is Director of Rowing, Head Coach of Women's Rowing, and Assistant to the Athletic Director for Professional Development and Compliance at Washington College. He has been coaching for 33 years, and has worked on the coaching staff of several national rowing teams. He writes about professional sustainability for coaches at: and can also be reached at: [email protected].

Coaching can be a tough career, and that's nothing new. But right now, it is more challenging than ever.

It often feels like the profession of coaching is under fire on a national stage. Because of the misdeeds of a few unethical coaches, quality coaches often find themselves under the microscope and having to defend their every move. It has placed an extra layer of pressure on good, well-intentioned coaches.

In addition, coaches are asked to do more than ever before. They need to sell their program to recruits and an increasing number of stakeholders. They must deal with social issues that affect student-athletes. And many are also required to fundraise.

These responsibilities, along with the pressure of winning, have been shown to increase the stress coaches feel and contribute to burnout. This is a very real phenomenon that can hamper their performance, negatively affect health, and cause good coaches to leave the profession.

In response, we've created something exciting here at Washington College. It's an innovative, engaging, and hopefully very educational program to support and re-energize our coaches. It is also designed to help them take their game to the next level.

This may sound like "professional development," and in some ways it is, but we don't call it that. Mention professional development to coaches and they run for the nearest locker room, bolting the door behind them. For coaches who are already stretched to--or beyond--their limits, professional development sounds boring and time-consuming. And the term "coaching education" is almost as bad.

So we decided to call it something different. We are using the title, "The High Performance Program for Division III Coaches." Yes, I know. That sounds like we are just focused on winning more games. And sure, that's part of our intentions. But it is not the main motivation behind this program. It is part of a broad strategic plan to bring excellence to our athletic department and to help our coaches perform at the highest level--especially in critical areas such as recruiting and retaining top student-athletes.

The program is also a chance for Washington College to recognize that our coaches are more than just a commodity. They are a wonderful resource, and when they are energized and empowered, they can do amazing things both on and off the playing field. Additionally, by helping our coaches, we show them that we care.

Our goal is to create a program that supports coaches in gaining experience and knowledge in a wide range of areas. It is our hope that this initiative will help every coach at Washington College reach their full potential and feel supported in their endeavors. We also believe it will reduce the pressure they feel, which can help with retention.

The program includes seven components, each with a distinct purpose. The expectation is that every Washington coach will strive to be proficient in each one.

1. Coach Philosophy Platform (CPP): The purpose of the CPP is to help coaches craft a statement that frames their approach. The statement communicates who the coach is, how they coach, how they conceptualize their role and the athlete's role both in and out of the competitive setting, and how they will translate those beliefs into action.

We call it a "platform" since the statement will actually be presented in different formats (written, verbal, video) and become a stage that the coach stands upon. The statement can start with something as simple as: "The reason I coach is ... ," and then expand with specifics. It will be a living document that can change over time and potentially be several pages long. The platform becomes the first piece of the Coaching Portfolio (see component 4).

Our belief is there will be several benefits to creating the CPP, including:

- An aid for end-of-the-year coach evaluations. The evaluator could use the CPP to compare the coach's beliefs to his or her actions and the team's performance.

- As a reflection document. The CPP gives a coach a greater awareness of his or her strengths and areas needing improvement.

- In case of negative issues. When problems arise, the CPP can give important background information about the coach's intent and knowledge.

- To assist with the hiring of new coaches. The athletic department could have candidates fill in a blank CPP in order to get more insight into each coach's ideas and methods.

2. Coach-Mentor Program: The focus here is to aid new and younger coaches in their transition into the department, especially with regard to time management, coaching skills, life-work balance, and competitive pressure. A secondary focus is to give coaches who are struggling a supportive and understanding resource.

The mentors will be three to four experienced coaches from the department. The position will be voluntary and we will offer training. The mentors will be organized in an informal manner, which we feel will foster more buy-in.

The mentor will not try to solve problems brought to him or her, but instead make suggestions and recommendations to the mentee about resources they could use. For example, a coach who comes to a mentor with a family issue might be referred to Human Resources or Health Services to talk to trained counselors. They may also be referred to resources outside the institution. At the same time, the mentor could provide moral support for the mentee while also offering advice in areas of his or her expertise, if needed.

The benefits of the coach-mentor program will be: an accelerated learning curve for the mentee, reduction of workplace stressors and distractions, learning opportunities for both the mentor and mentee, and improved communication and function of coaches within the athletic department.

3. Continuing Education Workshops: It is obvious that continuing education is critical for coaches. It helps them stay current on the latest advances in their sport, learn of health and safety developments, and make connections with others.

We have already begun implementing this component. Within a six-week period this spring I developed three one-hour workshops. One focused on Title IX issues and was presented by a college staff member; another was on food intolerances and athletes, given by an expert from a local community college; and a third from our college's health care insurance carrier discussed sexual harassment in the workplace.

We also had a nationally known sports nutritionist come to speak. Leslie Bonci, the Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for Sports Medicine, spent an hour with coaches and athletes sharing her wealth of knowledge and advice on sports nutrition. Following that, she sent each head coach a packet of information about nutrition specific to their sport.

Another topic we'd like to present in the future is effective communication, since it can help coaches be in sync with their athletes, and also improve how they interact with non-coaching staff and administrators. Two other possible workshops could be: building and managing relationships, and hiring and retaining good assistant coaches.

We have also started monthly meetings, in which experts from within the college come to talk to our head coaches. These gatherings are a great opportunity for coaches to learn more about the different departments within the school and to bolster relationships between faculty and coaches. For example, in a recent meeting, a professor in economics shared details about the major, what students need to do to succeed in it, and information we can use when we recruit student-athletes who may be interested in economics.

In terms of off-campus opportunities, we promote and support our coaches who attend continuing-education sessions within our conference, at their national conventions, and at regional coaching clinics. We believe that when coaches interact with others outside of campus, it can be a great learning opportunity.

4. Coaching Portfolio: This is an organized presentation of the coach's education, skills, and work samples, such as practice, recruiting, and fundraising plans. The portfolio can be used in evaluations, job searches, and in pursuit of continuing education. Mine was very helpful to me when I applied to and was accepted into my doctoral studies program.

Portfolios are an effective way to display accomplishments and current projects, but they take time and effort to create. Our hope with this component is to find ways to help coaches construct professional-looking portfolios more easily.

We believe the development of a coaching portfolio can help to focus discussions during the end-of-the-year coach evaluations. It also pushes the coach to take ownership of their career development.

5. Coach Outreach: Athletics are said to be the front porch of an institution, and a coach is often the first person to greet a visitor who appears on the porch. With our coach outreach component we hope to help coaches find an outlet for ideas or concepts they have, while providing assistance to community groups in our area.

This could entail a coach speaking at a Character Counts seminar. Or it might involve setting up local coaching clinics. We believe the coach and the college would see improved branding through this positive exposure.

6. Reputation Management: A coach's reputation is critical to his or her success and career--especially with regard to recruiting. The purpose of this component is to establish a practice of monitoring the reputation of a coach in the media (primarily online). Although there are services that do this, we are currently looking to accomplish it in-house by establishing an automated online-monitoring plan for "mentions" of our coaches.

How will we use the positive content we find? We hope to post photos of coaches during practice and competition, community service events, or speaking engagements online in our social media channels and also display them in visible areas within the college. We will also promote the extracurricular activities of coaches.

In terms of negative mentions, our belief is that action should be taken. If the information is incorrect, then asking for a retraction and/or apology may be in order. If it's an opinion or subjective in nature then hopefully the abundance of positive information will overshadow one or two negative pieces.

We also hope to bring in speakers to help educate coaches on reputation management, public relations, and interacting with the media. As with the coach outreach component, improved positive exposure for the college and coach are our goals.

7. Effective Recruiting: Doing a great job recruiting is a necessity in collegiate athletics. This component will educate coaches on best practices and include regular evaluation of their recruiting efforts. There are numerous aspects of effective recruiting on which to focus, such as ethics, establishing a working model, collaborating with other departments within the college, and establishing a consistent message. The benefits of this component could have a positive impact on individual teams and the department as a whole.

One of the first questions an athletic administrator will likely have about the program is what it costs. Our approach with programming is to go lean. We hope to accomplish as much as possible with the program using in-house resources. If that cannot be done, we will attempt to secure funding.

A second question is how to get coach buy-in. Although the program is still in its infancy stage, the response from our coaches has been mostly positive.

Veteran coaches, I thought, would be resistant to the program, but this is not the case. I believe the veteran coaches see the benefits for themselves, the department, and their assistants. I also believe they feel the program is based on sound principles and is created with their best interests in mind.

The newer coaches seem to be more reluctant to accept the program. I think this is due mostly to time concerns and their focus on on-field success.

A third question is about organization. At our school, I have taken the lead in strategizing and organizing the program, even though I am primarily a coach and not an administrator. Why me? I love coaches, coaching, and personal development. And I have been studying this topic for years (my doctoral thesis was on the longitudinal effect of the competitive season on coaches). I also find it fun.

Finally, others wonder how we might measure the effect of our efforts. That is the million-dollar question, and we are working on measureables now. We know they are important and ideas are being considered.

As we continue on our journey of implementing this new program, what motivates me most is supporting today's coach. The vast majority of coaches are well-intentioned, caring people who, yes, like to win, but in reality, coach for more important reasons. Those good coaches deserve to be supported. Even though times are tough and money is tight, resources dedicated to educating and helping coaches develop can yield great returns.


I started my coaching career in 1978, and left five years later, a burned out shell of a coach. I had been coaching a rowing team at a small, private college, and we were very successful my first four years. We won many top races, the athletes were having fun, and I really enjoyed what I was doing. But slowly it became more difficult to win, and I found I had to work harder and harder just to remain competitive.

During what turned out to be my final year, things really fell apart. It took all the energy I could muster just to keep myself and the team together. Some days I struggled to even get out of bed.

When things started to go bad I began blaming the kids--and especially their work ethic--for our lack of success. "They just won't do what needs to be done," I complained. "They need to work harder, spend more time getting stronger, and get in better shape."

I felt that the athletes were purposely making it hard for me to coach, and I began to despise them for it. So I did what many coaches do when they find themselves in similar situations--I worked harder. I spent more time watching videos, planned overly intense workouts, and pushed the athletes constantly.

The end of that final year was an awful experience for me, as it surely was for the athletes. Not only was I not enjoying what I had previously loved to do, but I was constantly getting sick. I couldn't sleep. I had a twitch in one eye that I couldn't shake. I began to disassociate myself from the athletes I was coaching, my friends, and my family. Worst of all, I had absolutely no idea why something that had been so wonderful just months before was now suddenly so awful.

When the season was over, I did the only thing that I could think of--I threw in the towel. I believed that the athletes had won, and I had lost. I felt inside that I was a good coach, but I resisted the temptation to stay and try to make things better because I felt that one more year of coaching would kill me.

My second tour as a coach has been quite different. I accepted an invitation to a regatta only because it would have been impolite to refuse, and once I saw the rowing shells I knew I had to return to coaching. I've been back in the profession for 27 years, and the factor that made a difference was coaching education and development.

I know this time around what I did not know the first time--that there are specific things a coach must do to remain successful and happy in the profession. This includes having a strong support network, being professional in and out of the office, caring about your image, and learning as much as you can as often as you can.

I learned these things through the coaching education programs that I tapped into, along with caring and supporting athletic directors. Coaches can't make it alone, and the advice I've received from others has made all the difference in my ability to thrive in the profession.
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