Q&A with Fred Balsamo

January 29, 2015
Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors
Fred Balsamo has a history of transforming programs. When he became Athletic Director at Middletown (Conn.) High School in 1979, he introduced new policies and athletic participation tripled. When his school merged with another in 1983, he used athletics to ease the tension between the two student bodies.

Leaving Middletown in 1996 for East Haven High School in New Haven, Conn., he took over a brand new athletic program. Three of his teams made state championship appearances and the program swelled to include 20 varsity and 25 sub-varsity squads.

Since 2006, Balsamo has served as Executive Director of the Connecticut Association of Athletic Directors (CAAD). In 2007, he helped create the Connecticut Coaching Education Program (CCEP) and became its director. Recently, Balsamo was a key player in the passage of Connecticut House Bill 6383, which established hiring standards for athletic directors. He was elected into the NIAAA Hall of Fame in 2011.

We first spoke with Balsamo in 1991, during Athletic Management's third year of publication, for a cover story on recruiting. In this interview for our 25th anniversary, Balsamo talks about the changes of the past quarter-century and how he is preparing his members for the future.

AM: What has been the biggest change in athletics over the past 25 years?
Balsamo: I think the perspective of parents has changed drastically, and their need to be involved in their children's sports teams has hindered the profession of athletic administration. We now have to deal with parents who think everything revolves around their child. The "there is no 'I' in team" mentality has gone out the window.

What advice do you give your membership on establishing a good relationship with parents?
One of our more successful strategies was creating a 14-minute video called "Parenting Your Student-Athlete" for athletic directors to play at preseason meetings. It shows different scenarios of parents acting inappropriately at games, confronting their child's coach, and trying to get their kid preferential treatment. Then, the video explains how this behavior impacts the child, coach, and team and gives advice on better ways for parents to handle these situations.

Watching the video gets parents asking themselves, "Gee, do I act that way?" It also starts a dialogue early on and makes parents realize that neither the school administration nor their own children appreciate their antics. And it gives athletic directors a helpful point of reference with parents if any problems arise during the season.

How have parents responded to the video?
Two weeks after it came out, I got a call from a colleague who said, "'Parenting Your Student-Athlete' is amazing. I screened it for a group of parents, and one woman stood up and said, 'I want to commend you for showing this, and I want to tell the other parents in the auditorium that some of you behave like the people in the video.'"

It woke up everyone and got parents to police each other. In the past, when someone was causing a scene, most parents would sit back and say, "It doesn't involve my child, so I'm going to keep my mouth shut." Now they approach unruly individuals and say, "Hey, let's remember this is about the kids. Let them have fun, and let the coach run things."

You were featured in a 1991 Athletic Management article about recruiting. How have high school athletic directors' roles in the recruiting process changed?
Now more than ever, athletic directors have to make sure their student-athletes are keeping up with the NCAA's academic guidelines if they want to compete in Division I or II. In the past, you could sit a sophomore down and say, "You could play in college, but you need to do this and this in the classroom over the next two years to be eligible."

With some of the changes the NCAA has made regarding the required core courses, a student-athlete now has to be put on the right path starting in ninth grade. You don't want to have to face a senior student-athlete and say, "Well, you have the grades, but you took the wrong courses."

Additionally, the NCAA has made it so students can't retake courses--whatever grades a kid earns in his or her first two years of high school are frozen. Before, a student-athlete who did poorly in a class could take it again and use the better grade.

What is your organization doing to make sure athletic directors are prepared for these new NCAA rules?
Every year, CCEP unveils a new course. This year's topic was working with the college-bound athlete and their parent. We wanted to make sure our athletic directors were not caught behind the eight ball regarding the NCAA's recent changes, so we brought them in to train them as "faculty." Then they can go back to their schools and teach the course to their coaches and guidance counselors. We also told them to educate people at the high school and middle school levels to make sure student-athletes are as prepared as possible.

What issues is CAAD currently dealing with?
The athletic administration turnover rate has been ridiculously high in Connecticut. Currently, 67 percent of our members have five years of experience or less.

There are several factors causing this. Some individuals who become athletic directors have the wrong expectations of the position's demands and aren't prepared to give up so many nights and weekends. Parents drive others out. But I think the biggest issue has been districts hiring unqualified candidates. There have been instances of parents thinking they would make good athletic directors despite no administrative background. We've also seen districts hire candidates that already had a full-time job elsewhere. These types of hires never work out for long.

In response, for the past few years, we've been lobbying our state legislature to pass a law requiring new athletic directors to meet certain qualifications. This legislation was passed on May 28 and is the first of its kind in the country.

It states that in order to be hired as an athletic director, an individual must have a coaching permit and be certified by the State Board of Education or the NIAAA by taking a course. Not only will the law require these credentials coming into the position, it also states that athletic directors must continue their education by taking courses in such topics as leadership training.

What is CCEP working on?
Last year, we developed a course on electronics and social media. For many of our coaches, this is uncharted territory and they are learning as they go.

We have also developed electronic and social media guidelines for our coaches to follow. We tell them not to allow cell phones in locker rooms because they can be used as cameras. Coaches are also advised against electronically communicating one-on-one with a student-athlete. Sending a blast e-mail or tweeting to the world is fine. However, if one player responds and a coach has to reply, they should copy their athletic director or other supervisor.

A simple comment can spiral out of control so quickly. For example, let's say an athlete texts, "Coach, I did terrible in the meet today," and the coach responds, "Don't be ridiculous. You looked fantastic." A parent could view that as the coach commenting on their child's physical appearance. But if the coach copies his athletic director throughout the entire conversation, he or she will have seen both sides of the story.

What advice do you give coaches who want to use social networking sites like Facebook?
We tell them right off the bat: Never friend a student-athlete on your personal Facebook page and never let them friend you. That's forbidden.

If coaches want to use Facebook for team communication, they should get approval from their school. When they set up the page, they should add the team as a group, not as individuals. Allow parents and school administrators to have access, and don't let other students from the school join. Once the page is created, it should only be used for team-related communication.

How did you triple student-athlete participation during your time at Middletown?
First, I asked myself, "What are some of the things that are keeping kids away?" One answer was the cost and logistics of getting a preparticipation physical. So I convinced a doctor to come in and conduct free physical examinations for anyone who wanted to go out for a sport. We'd do that before each sport season.

My next step was making sure coaches at all levels understood their role, and for those at the sub-varsity level, that meant development. I always encouraged j.v. and freshman coaches to keep extra kids. If cuts needed to be made a few years later at the varsity level, so be it, but give the varsity head coach the ability to select their team from a bigger group of players. Don't cut athletes before their sophomore year, because you never know what they could grow into with a few years of practice.

What are the pros and cons of working for an organization compared to being a building athletic director?
One of the pros is that I still feel like I'm making an impact on student-athletes, and that has always been my goal. When I was a coach, it was incredibly satisfying to work with the kids on a daily basis, and I struggled with giving that up when I had the opportunity to become an athletic director. But I told myself, "You can have a bigger impact as athletic director, because your decisions will affect the coaches who then work with the kids." Being the Executive Director of CAAD is just the next step up on the ladder. We're trying to influence athletic directors, who impact coaches, who ultimately make athletics better for the kids.

However, I do still miss the daily interaction with student-athletes. When I was a building athletic director, I could hold captains' councils, meet with junior athletes to help prepare them for college, and find ways to stay involved with their lives. As an Executive Director running an association, I only see the athletes a few times a year at awards banquets. But this profession is a labor of love, and as long as I think we are doing good things, I'm going to stick with it.

For more information on the video, "Parenting the Student-Athlete," you can read our blog on it from 2011:

To purchase a DVD of the video for your school, visit: http://www.caadinc.org/parentvideo.html.
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