Leadership: Quality Time

August 24, 2016

Mentoring coaches entails more than dropping by practices and conducting yearly reviews. This author explains how she carves out meaningful interactions with members of her staff.

This article first appeared in the August/September 2016 issue of Athletic Management

By Jan Hathorn


Jan Hathorn is Athletic Director at Washington and Lee University, which has been recognized as the top overall athletic program in the Old Dominion Athletic Conference for the past eight years. She previously served as Head Women’s Lacrosse and Head Women’s Soccer Coach at the school and was a member of the NCAA Division III Management Council. She can be reached at: [email protected]



At every level of sports, athletics administrators have overly busy schedules. There are daily tasks, long-range planning, and unplanned obstacles along the way.

Sometimes, this means that mentoring coaches, which takes time and energy, becomes overlooked. However, I would argue that the most important aspect of an athletics director’s job is supervising and guiding coaches.

Much as the chemistry and culture of a team are critical to its success, the chemistry and culture of a department is what allows it to reach its goals. Not mentoring your coaches is like a coach not coaching his or her team. The process builds the important elements of community, support, and teamwork.

Additionally, mentoring coaches directly benefits the student-athletes. A supported, trusted coach is usually a contented coach—and most of us are far more effective when we’re content. Here are a few suggestions for mentoring coaches that have proven successful for me.

Put people first. Effective mentoring requires building strong relationships based on trust, respect, and integrity. Fostering such relationships takes intention. You are busy with organizing and attending meetings, coaches are busy focusing on their teams. Finding time to strengthen relationships has to be a priority. People have to be more important than tasks.

Schedule time to talk. One way to ensure you get quality time with coaches is to schedule meetings with them one-on-one, even if it’s just a few per year. Depending on your availability, one or two additional meetings, outside of a yearly performance review, can go a long way to building stronger relationships.

Additionally, one of the most effective approaches to understanding your coaches better is to simply stop by their office and say hello. I have found “dropping in” to be especially helpful when our coaches are in-season and want to talk about their successes and frustrations. This takes time, yet I find it’s the best way to build trust and credibility between you and your coaches, as well as to build a supportive department with strong morale.

Clearly define expectations. Everyone wants to know what’s expected of him or her, and most everyone wants to meet or surpass those expectations. Developing and communicating your expectations serves as a road map for your coaches and the direction of your department.

Mentoring coaches can then be as simple as offering regular reminders of your department’s and institution’s mission, values, and goals. Our department has an annual retreat, which begins with discussion about our vision. This serves as a starting point for talking about the year ahead, and reminds people of why we do what we do. In the world of athletics, where it seems that the only constant is change, knowing what you value and what you expect can give coaches solid guidance.

Throughout the year, I offer frequent reminders of our goals to the staff through PowerPoint presentations at our monthly staff meetings, as well as in emails and other communications. This helps give our coaches constant guidance, especially when challenges arise and hard decisions need to be made.

Offer cross-mentoring. Keep in mind that some of your best resources are your own people. Everyone in the department has something to offer, and we have found it to be a rich and fruitful exercise for coaches to learn from each other. I have often told my staff that I am the product of many caring colleagues who took time to teach me as I grew in the profession.

This past spring, we held a Professional Development Series, which was offered one day per week for four weeks during lunchtime. The department supplied lunch for everyone in attendance, and we secured leaders who were veteran members of the department to present. Topics included: making your mark in the coaching profession, supporting those who support you (such as SIDs, athletic trainers, strength coaches), motivating your team, and developing team culture. The sessions lasted one hour, with the first 15 minutes entailing a brief presentation and the last 45 minutes being discussion. Together, our least- to most-experienced coaches had the opportunity to learn from each other how to be more effective in their roles.

Share wisdom. As an administrator who is a former coach, my past experience—both the successes and failures—have proven to be a wonderful resource for developing the coaches I supervise. However, I also make it clear that my stories are just teaching points, not necessarily the only, or best, approach. I’ve found there is a delicate balance of offering a personal perspective while making sure the conversation is about them and not me.

Embrace the process. I like to tell my coaches that there’s no success without failure. Any administrator who is being honest will tell you that he or she learned to make good decisions by making bad ones. This is important for coaches to know so they are encouraged to constantly improve and grow.

Focusing on the process is also important because, in the end, winning isn’t everything. College athletics is educational sport, and as Christine Grant, former longtime Director of Women’s Athletics at the University of Iowa, so eloquently said: “We in education have a responsibility to try and help society understand that in educational sport, winning isn’t the most important thing and losing is never failure. We can teach society that.”

Ultimately, what matters is not our specific role, but why and how we do it. Mentoring coaches to stay focused on the process helps them to keep perspective and to find joy in the little things.

Be a role model. Finally, it’s important to remember that your leadership and mentoring style is dependent upon knowing who you are, why you do what you do, and how you do it. Every day, you are a model of what you believe. And your coaches, as well as your student-athletes, are watching everything you do. We can either intentionally mentor our coaches or we can let the world around us mentor them.

There are a lot of messages in athletics that suggest winning and losing are more important than relationships. Because I disagree with that message, I make it my job to remind our coaches of the opposite—that meaningful relationships and embracing the process is our ultimate goal.

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