Lessons in Leadership

January 29, 2015
Traditionally, coaching education has been about game strategies and practice plans. A new idea is to teach skills related to decision-making.
By Dr. M. Dianne Murphy

M. Dianne Murphy, PhD, is Director of Intercollegiate Athletics and Physical Education at Columbia University and the Program Director for The Center for Coaching Excellence. She has served on many national groups, including the NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Committee, and is a past recipient of NACDA Athletics Director of the Year and NACWAA Administrator of the Year awards. The former Director of Athletics and Recreation at the University of Denver, Murphy coached women's basketball for 13 years before becoming an administrator. She can be reached at: [email protected].

As everyone involved in high school and college athletics knows, coaching is harder--much harder--than it looks. Beyond practice plans and game strategies, there is the most important part of the profession to master: being an ethical and effective leader.

If you're like most athletics directors, you ask your coaches to continually enhance their skills. You encourage them to attend workshops and participate in conference seminars. Fortunately, there are many options for coaching education, no matter the sport or your location.

But sometimes coaches need more than the stock lessons on how to be an educator, mentor, and leader. If they've been in the profession for a while, they have likely heard the same advice over and over and already know how to develop their athletes and bring home championships.

What they don't always know is how to analyze their own actions, especially in the area of ethics. With immense pressure to succeed, it can be easy for coaches to push the boundaries of what is honest and principled in pursuit of victories. Most are ethical people, but they are also competitive, and their desire to win may influence their values, even if they don't realize it.

This problem has been of great concern to the leaders in women's basketball, and five years ago, the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA) decided to do something about it. The idea was to move past traditional coaching education and develop a program to assist head coaches with ethics and decision-making. The result is The Center for Coaching Excellence, a professional development experience that helps coaches be introspective about their behavior and strategies.

While programming at The Center for Coaching Excellence focuses specifically on collegiate women's basketball coaches, it translates to other sports at any competitive level. The Center provides a deeper level of education than what is typically offered to coaches and takes them where they don't normally go. Ultimately, it is a way to help coaches pay more attention to ethics, allowing for a better experience for student-athletes.

Over the past three decades, women's college basketball has gained significant visibility. Thanks to increased television exposure, media coverage, and financial resources, student-athletes and coaches are benefiting from the popularity of the game like never before. But this growth has been accompanied by increased pressure to win, and has contributed to unethical behaviors and poor choices by some coaches, especially in recruiting.

In a preemptive response, the WBCA established a standing Ethics Committee and charged then-Chief Executive Officer Beth Bass with developing ideas to ensure that the game reflected appropriate values. In winter 2010, the WBCA approached me about designing a professional development program for college women's basketball coaches. The immediate goal was to cultivate and nurture a better understanding of right-minded practices in coaching.

As a former player and NCAA Division I basketball coach with a passion for both women's basketball and mentoring others, I was honored to help. I immediately contacted my friend and colleague Dr. Cathie T. Siders, a clinical psychologist, organizational consultant, and executive coach. The two of us had worked together in leadership training for years, and we were confident and excited about developing an innovative curriculum.

The Center for Coaching Excellence was formally established in 2011. There have been seven sessions since then--two each in 2011, 2012, 2013, and one in 2014. More than 200 head women's basketball coaches have completed the program since its inaugural year.

All participating coaches are selected by the WBCA through its Conference Captains program. The first class was comprised of members of the WBCA Board of Directors and every new Director is invited to participate when appointed to the Board.

Initial funding came from the NCAA, as well as University of Connecticut Head Women's Basketball Coach Geno Auriemma. While we continue to receive financial support from the NCAA, this year and last, all participants have been asked to remit a $500 tuition fee. We've found this gives them a personal stake in their own professional development.

In designing the program, our goal was to construct an immersive, interactive, hands-on curriculum. We wanted to train coaches to analyze themselves and their behaviors so that they could be the most effective and successful leaders possible.

To accomplish this, we worked hard to develop a format that fosters an environment for self-assessment, reflection, and peer learning. We do this through small classes, which allow participants to feel completely comfortable discussing their past mistakes and the pressures of coaching. Capping admission at 36 participants per session, coaches are then separated into groups of six called Learning Circles.

Members of each Learning Circle remain together throughout the program. We pay close attention to a number of factors when assigning coaches to their Learning Circle, including conference affiliation, geographic location, and diversity of race, ethnicity, and gender. This ensures each coach experiences a wide range of viewpoints.

Creating trust within the Learning Circle is essential. This encourages coaches to be honest in their conversations about leadership challenges, ethical dilemmas, and the "what would you do if ..." situations we pose to them. In order to foster open and honest discussions, the doors are completely closed to anyone outside the Learning Circle besides the program facilitators during most sessions. The coaches have continually expressed appreciation that outsiders do not monitor their private discussions.

Coaches have a chance to interact with peers outside their Learning Circles during less intense activities over the course of the program. This includes social events, meals, and down time.

Of course, effective faculty is also essential to The Center's success. I personally select the instructors, choosing those who have important perspectives that can help expand the coaches' understanding of effective ways to lead their programs. Faculty include NCAA Division I athletics directors, conference commissioners, NCAA staff, and current and former head women's college basketball coaches. With a lifetime of experience in the game, I am fortunate to have close working relationships with many outstanding professionals.

The logistics are carefully planned as well. The length of the program is two-and-a-half days, which is enough time to provide significant learning opportunities, but not too much time for coaches to be away from their campuses and job duties. The program runs in early June, accommodating the college basketball recruiting schedule.

We have benefited greatly by partnering with several on-campus departments here at Columbia University. This includes hospitality services, dining, and conference space. Having first-class amenities and learning spaces enables participating coaches to focus on learning and collaborating rather than potential distractions.

Beyond format, faculty, and logistics, the curriculum is what makes The Center innovative. The desired outcomes for the coaches include attaining greater insight about self, increasing confidence in managing difficult situations, and acquiring a deeper understanding and appreciation for ethical decision-making.

The program includes three main components: pre-work, on-site, and follow-up. The pre-work requires participants to complete the Myers Briggs Type Indicator Step II (MBTI) prior to their arrival. The MBTI primarily serves as an inventory for self-reflection concerning decision-making and communication preferences that affect leadership style. Dr. Siders uses the results throughout the program, emphasizing that the test is a tool, not a performance evaluator. For the fourth consecutive year, the MBTI was very popular with the coaches and provided significant insight. The results provide a neutral starting point from which to discuss effective communication and leadership.

Once on-site, the bulk of the sessions are core content modules, held in two- to three-hour blocks throughout the day. They focus on the following areas:

- Conflict management
- Challenges of managing up
- Ethical dilemmas
- Recruiting, hiring, developing, and mentoring assistant coaches
- Managing difficult situations involving student-athletes and their parents.

For example, in one session, members helped each other work through a case study on staff management and development. We also do a great session on managing up. So many coaches do not understand that leadership is not one way--it is 360 degrees.

Other modules feature panel discussions from a wide variety of leaders in college athletics and women's basketball. These sessions cover topics such as: staff development, recruiting and managing student-athletes, and growing women's college basketball.

At the end of the two-and-a-half days, participants create a personalized professional development plan. This "Game Plan for Success" provides participants with strategies to maximize their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. Coaches are able to schedule a follow-up one-on-one "coaching" session with Dr. Siders at the NCAA Women's Basketball Final Four in the spring. I also periodically send all the participating coaches leadership articles throughout the year.

Aside from the programming we provide, the coaches gain an enhanced peer network. Because participants become very close with others in their Learning Circles, they leave with a collection of professional colleagues they can count on to help them in various situations. Many times, these are peers they otherwise would not interact with.

Over the first four years, The Center for Coaching Excellence has received tremendous feedback from those who have participated in it. Each basketball coach completes an anonymous survey at the conclusion of the program to help guide us in improving the program.

I am most proud that the participating coaches greatly appreciate our efforts--and recognize how important the lessons are for the entire women's basketball community. Katie Meier, Head Women's Basketball Coach at the University of Miami, relayed that the program was not only career-enhancing, but a life-impacting experience for her.

"Head coaches are rarely given the opportunity to examine and explore their personalities with their vulnerabilities and strengths," says Meier, who participated this past June. "It's such a humbling experience that the very best minds and best people of character in our profession took the time to come here to present this program to promote the healthy growth of our game and make us better leaders."

Audra Smith, Head Women's Basketball Coach at Clemson University, gave similar feedback. "I was so grateful to have the opportunity to participate," she says. "I learned so much about myself, and I was surprised by how much there was to learn through the self-assessment tools we used. I'm leaving energized, refreshed and ready to go--I wish the season started tomorrow."

One of our goals is to introduce the head coaches of women's basketball to various aspects of leadership and provide a deeper understanding and appreciation of the importance of ethics and integrity. Another goal is to enable our coaches to utilize self-reflection to become better leaders. I know that we accomplish this.

All athletics administrators owe it to the student-athletes they work with to provide them with the best coaching and leadership possible. Our attempt to offer coaches a full-spectrum understanding of best principles and practices in leadership is a huge step in this direction.

Sidebar: Why Do This?
As the Athletics Director at an NCAA Division I institution with 31 varsity teams, I have a demanding schedule. So why would I even consider taking on the hard work of developing The Center for Coaching Excellence?

There's a simple answer for that. I love the sport of basketball--especially women's college basketball. I am thrilled at the opportunity to build and ensure a better future for the game and help our coaches be the best leaders they can be.

Basketball has always been an important part of my life, first as a high school and college player, then as a coach, and now as an athletics administrator. My experiences on the court helped make me the person I am today. Developing The Center for Coaching Excellence was a great way for me to give back to the game in a way that would benefit the sport, coaches, and the basketball community.

I am also passionate about leadership. Mentoring the next generation of coaches is very important to me. I believe that today's leaders in intercollegiate athletics have an obligation to pay it forward, in order to ensure educational athletics are in good hands in the future. I personally mentor a number of young administrators, coaches, and professionals. It is hard work, but very gratifying.
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