Going Strong

May 19, 2019

Thriving as a high school athletic director is a challenge these days, as illustrated by low retention rates. Solutions include connecting with others, starting with student-athletes.

The following article originally appeared in the April/May 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

By Kevin Bryant

Kevin Bryant, CMAA, is the founder of Thrive Athletic Consulting, LLC, a company focused on assisting, encouraging, and challenging high school athletic administrators to be the best they can. He is currently the District Athletic Director for the Redmond School District in Redmond, Ore. A former president of the Oregon Athletic Directors Association, he has received an NIAAA Distinguished Service Award (2007) and an NFHS Citation (2009). He recently authored The Athletic Director Survival Guide and can be reached at: [email protected]

The numbers are alarming. In Oregon, over a two-year period, there were 90 new athletic directors out of 290 high schools. In Wisconsin, which has 406 schools, 100 had a new athletic director in 2014-15 alone. Similar statistics are found in many states, and it is estimated the position currently has a 25 to 30 percent turnover rate annually.

If we are hoping to see the interscholastic athletic administration profession thrive, this is a problem. For people in our communities to respect our role and understand its importance, they need to see athletic directors who have vision and longevity. For high school athletics to be the best it can be, coaches need consistent leaders. We need continuity.

How do we decrease the turnover rate? There are many reasons why athletic directors don’t last in their jobs, including the long hours, dealing with difficult parents, and an increasing pressure to either fundraise or do more with less. But the most important one, I believe, is that they lack support. New athletic directors tend not to receive any training, they are not given clear expectations, and they can easily become isolated.

The obvious solution is for each school’s principal and superintendent to invest time and energy into working with their athletic director. But the chances of this happening is low, as these professionals are usually overworked themselves.

The next-best answer is for us to support each other. As a former high school athletic director and current consultant for scholastic sports, I hope to offer some ways to accomplish this.

Whether you are a rookie in the field or a veteran, everyone plays a role. For those new to the profession, I suggest five pieces of advice, outlined below. For those who have their footing, I challenge you to share your wisdom with your less-experienced counterparts by becoming a mentor.

FIVE TO THRIVE

Being a high school athletic director often feels like a game of survival. From making sure everything is in place for tonight’s game to crossing the T’s on each eligibility form, to answering a stream of emails and phone calls, a 10-hour day can go by in the blink of an eye.

I would like to see all athletic directors go beyond survival mode, and instead be able to thrive in their roles. Here are some ideas on how to get there:

Connect with student-athletes: If you have taken a job as a high school athletic director, I am going to assume you enjoy young people and want to impact their lives. This needs to be the driving force behind your day-to-day work. Regardless of the amount of paperwork on your desk, you need to find practical ways to have daily interaction with students.

There are two reasons why this is important. One is so your student-athletes know you care about them. When you connect with them, they buy into your leadership. Teenagers are more likely to trust someone who is genuinely concerned about their struggles and goals.

Secondly, it will make your job more enjoyable. High school students are fascinating, fun, and enjoyable to work with. Connecting with them serves as a reminder of why you became an athletic director and why your work is important.

One way to commit to reaching out to student-athletes is by setting up a captains club or leadership team. Organize a group of 10 to 20 student-athletes that you meet with on a weekly basis to discuss leadership topics. I found this to be a great way to have ongoing, meaningful interactions with a wide variety of students.

If that’s not appealing, make it a habit to talk to five to 10 student-athletes every day. Simply put it on your to-do list or have an alarm go off on your computer that reminds you to walk through the halls at an opportune time. After a while, it will become routine, and you will treasure those conversations, even if they are brief.

Reflect on your work: Athletic directors tend to be so action oriented that they forget to take a step back from their tasks at hand. But the most effective leaders, in any profession, make time to reflect on either a daily or weekly basis. They critique their own work, think about ongoing challenges, and ponder future concerns. I challenge each of you to find a time every week to be alone and reflect.

Figure out a place where you cannot be bothered—like your press box, for example—and plan to go there once a week for 90 minutes. Think of it as an important meeting. You might even prepare an agenda, if that makes it feel more productive. Turn off your cell phone, or at least only respond to an emergency call or text.

Here are some areas to address during these uninterrupted times:

• How are my relationships with my coaches? Am I in sync with each of them? Do I need to interact differently with anyone?

• How did I handle the latest conflict or crisis?

• Am I doing all I can to fundraise for and market the athletic department effectively?

• Is my process for hiring and evaluating coaches working? How can I make it better?

• Am I keeping up with the daily duties? How can I be more efficient?

• How are my relations with student-athletes’ parents?

• Am I making time to reach out to student-athletes?

• What has happened in the last week that makes me proud of our athletic program? What has made me discouraged?

Personally, I found that analyzing my work on a regular basis bolstered my sense of purpose, which made my daily job responsibilities more meaningful. When I did not take time for self-reflection meetings, I often felt burned out and frustrated.

Along the same lines, I believe that athletic directors should demand to be evaluated yearly by a supervisor. A lack of feedback can hinder any person from being their best. Ask your school principal to go over your performance annually, including input from coaches and community leaders.

Have a vision and develop it: Helen Keller said, “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” Creating a long-range plan for your athletic department is a crucial part of thriving in your job. It gives your daily work direction and meaning. Without it, you are just doing things.

At one school I worked at, I developed that vision with multiple constituents. I got coaches, athletes, and community members together to talk about our values and dreams. Together, we constructed a meaningful direction for high school athletics in our town. The process brought me the support and focus I was previously lacking.

Once a vision is created, it is important to follow through on it. Seeing what needs to be done is the first step in the process. Creating a mechanism for getting it accomplished is the second. These are not always easy tasks, but they are some of the most satisfying and energizing things an athletic director can be a part of.

Find Partners: How do you find time to carry out the strategies that are part of your vision? If your plate is as full as the typical athletic director, you cannot do this work alone. You must create a team of folks to assist you.

This is not as hard as it may seem. In most school districts, there are teachers, coaches, and community members who are willing to help. There are many people who are passionate about athletics, and others who are simply excited about helping young people. Don’t shy away from asking for assistance.

However, do choose your volunteers wisely. Think about the type of help you need to be successful and who has the expertise to provide it. Booster club members, supportive parents, and out-of-season coaches are all folks who want to see things go well in the athletic program.

Gather a group of people and make them feel like a team. John Wooden said, “It is amazing how much can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit.” Your ability to thrive and not just survive will have a lot to do with sharing the load, which will also build connections and positive feelings between the athletic department and the community.

Take care of yourself: The stress involved in leading others can never be underestimated. And the truth is that if you are not committed to your own physical and emotional welfare, you will burn out. You must exercise, eat well, sleep, relax, and vacation.

Committing to a personal fitness routine is especially critical. It will relieve stress as well as force you to take time away to refresh and renew yourself. It also models healthy behavior to coaches and student-athletes. We must demonstrate to others that we value taking care of ourselves.

Since many of us are ex-athletes, exercise is a fun and stress-busting activity. But if it’s not something you enjoy, find other methods to relax, from meditation, to playing your guitar, to taking weekend guilt free naps. Sometimes, I would visit the choir room in our school and listen to the beautiful music being sung by students and teachers. It’s understandable that allotting time for enjoyment may make people feel uneasy when they have so much to accomplish. But you need to be honest with yourself about the importance of renewal and rest.

We also must value our families above our jobs. Our spouses and kids have to be our top priorities. And this commitment to family should be practical, not philosophical. If that means scheduling time with your husband or daughter, go ahead and do it.

VETERAN’S ROLE

If you are an experienced athletic director and the aforementioned strategies are second-nature, you may have been skimming this article. Now’s your chance to be part of the action. The second overall strategy for slowing high turnover rates is for long-timers to take newcomers under their wings.

Many young athletic directors are leaving the profession because they lack knowledge and feel in over their heads. Even if they are receiving some training, it can never realistically prepare them for what they will experience in their early careers. If they had the perspective of those who have been in their shoes—especially at times when the work can feel unmanageable—it may make the difference. Being a mentor can also prove very meaningful, as helping others always feels good.

To start, reach out to a new athletic director in your league or possibly one you met at a conference. First steps can entail simply talking and developing a relationship. From there, the two of you can decide how to structure the mentorship. It can be formal, with set meeting times, or it can be a more casual relationship.

Some questions to ask each other include:

• How often will we meet or talk?

• What specific items will we discuss?

• What practical help is needed for the mentee to be successful?

Often, mentoring is not much more than being a good listener. Don’t feel like you always need to have a solution or be an expert. It’s just as important to be a sounding board and an understanding voice.

It’s also essential for mentors to be forthcoming about lessons they learned during their career. This practical honesty will be of great value to the new administrator who needs to know that his or her struggles are not unique.

When I took my first job as a high school athletic director, I had the advantage of a mentor by the name of Mike Maghan from McNary High School in Salem, Ore., who helped me in many ways. Mike was involved with the Oregon Athletic Directors Association and was both approachable and helpful. He became someone I could go to with questions and run ideas by. His honesty, desire to excel, and friendship assisted me in practical ways and also kept me sane. I’m not sure I could have been successful without him. I will never forget how he gave back to me. I have always tried to do the same.

Being an athletic director today is wonderfully dynamic and offers numerous opportunities for personal and professional growth. It also allows a connection to student-athletes, high school sports, coaches, and community that is unique. But it can be demanding and overwhelming. We must all work together to decrease the number of athletic directors leaving the profession.

If you are new to the field, take time every day to remember the value, purpose, impact, and joy of the job and find a mentor to assist you in keeping perspective. If you are years into being an athletic director, reach out to those just starting out and continue to strengthen your existing relationships.

To thrive as an athletic director, you must take yourself seriously enough to reflect on your work and care for your well-being. Thank you for the many ways you create community and build relationships all over this great country of ours. You are a difference maker!

 

Sidebar: TOP TEN

For an athletic director in his or her first year on the job, the number of things to take care of prior to each season can seem overwhelming. Here’s a handy list of the ten most important areas to button up.

• All schedules have been reviewed and finalized. They are ready to be distributed and posted around your school and on the web.

• Your officials have received schedules and have responded with their confirmations.

• Transportation has been arranged for all away contests.

• Eligibility of each student-athlete has been checked and cleared.

• Game management needs are arranged for.

• Facility improvements or repairs have been requested and scheduled.

• You have attended any meetings that cover new rules.

• You have fulfilled your league duties, such as responsibilities for overseeing a particular sport.

• Parent nights have been scheduled and publicized.

• Coaches meetings are scheduled and planned out.

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