Nice Touch

August 7, 2017

This article first appeared in the August/September 2017 issue of Athletic Management.

Instead of just walking through team practices in the afternoon, this athletic director decided to join his students, connecting with them in a new way.

By Curry Gallagher

 

Curry Gallagher is Assistant Principal of Activities and Athletics at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Ill. He can be reached at: Curry.Gallagher@chsd218.org.


 

When I say that transitioning from being a teacher and coach to being a high school athletic director is difficult, I know that I’m preaching to the choir. There is so much to learn, from scheduling to supervising. But what has been most challenging for me is not so much the job. It is how the new role removed me from the students.

When you are no longer in the classroom or at practice, there is a distance between you and the kids. I miss kids. It is just that simple. Interacting with students is the reason I pursued this career in the first place.

Two years ago, at the end of my third year as Assistant Principal of Activities and Athletics at Shepard High School in Palos Heights, Ill., I realized that I needed to figure out how to do a better job of connecting with students. At least one of my head coaches was thinking the same thing,- because a comment on the evaluation I ask them to complete about me stated that I should do more to develop genuine relationships with our athletes. It was clear. I was spending too much time focusing on the business end of being an athletic director.

That summer I received the difficult news that a tumor was growing in the inner part of my ear where the nerves connect to the brain. Fortunately, it was benign, and I received the very best treatment at Northwestern Hospital in Chicago. But I missed the first two months of school and spent the rest of the year catching up (while balancing work with family life and my healing via vestibular therapy). I fell back into the old trap of focusing on the business end of the job.

As usual, I attended numerous games. I made a more concerted effort to engage with students during contests, but it still felt superficial. My lack of closer connections with our students nagged at me all year.

In May of 2016 at the Illinois Athletic Directors Association State Conference, I attended a presentation given by Dan Jones, Athletic Director at Hinsdale (Ill.) Central High School, who said something that stuck with me. During the school year, Dan had participated in practices with every team. That was the idea I needed to get me going. I decided I wanted to do the same thing, but put my own spin on it.

Throughout the 2016-17 school year, I asked each of my coaches to include me in one of their practices. I became a student-athlete on the team for an afternoon. I walked (and ran and jumped) in their shoes, whether it was on the soccer field, basketball court, or softball diamond.

There were five things I wanted to accomplish while practicing and talking with the teams:

1. I wanted the kids to teach me about their team. I asked them to tell me about their traditions, daily routines, and culture. I asked what were their favorite and least favorite drills. I opened it up for them to tell me anything else about their team that they thought was important for me to know.

2. I wanted to talk to them about dealing with and overcoming obstacles. I shared my story about having a brain tumor and let them know I was a compassionate listener.

3. I wanted them to ask me questions about things that are important to them. These questions could be about our school, rules, budgets, their team, athletics, the building, or anything else. I also told them they could ask me questions about my background.

4. I wanted to have fun with the kids, get some exercise, and embarrass myself a little (or a lot) by participating in their sport.

5. I wanted to avoid injury. (Spoiler alert: I did not avoid injury).

The logistics of this project were relatively simple. I emailed each of the head coaches at the start of the season, asking them to find a date when I could attend and participate in practice. But I also told them it was not mandatory. I did not want to interfere in any way, and if I would be a hindrance, they could decline the request.

For those willing to participate (and most did), I asked them to think about whether it was best for me to attend practice at the beginning, middle, or end of the season. I also encouraged the coaches to allow their student-athletes to create the practice plans for that day.

There were limitations, of course. I was not going to tackle or be tackled by any football player. I was not going to attempt a cheerleading stunt.

A few coaches had kids create the plans, but most just worked me into their routines. Sometimes it was a fun practice, and other times it was a serious day. In all cases, I asked the coach to set aside time either at the start or end of the practice when I could talk to their athletes.

I think my initiative was a success in a variety of ways. It did not open a Pandora’s box of new information, but it reinforced things that were on my radar. I also learned some nuances about sports I was less familiar with. Dance team practices—I quickly found out—are incredibly taxing.

Unfortunately, I also learned that a broken wrist, which I suffered during a boys’ basketball practice, entails a particularly difficult recovery. However, once I returned to work, the injury helped me reinforce my message of resilience and following through despite obstacles.

More importantly—and more directly related to my goal—I was able to connect with our students in a new way. They shared opinions, questions, and ideas about topics important to them. They had the opportunity to learn from what I have been through both recently and in my distant past. And each of them now knows me on a personal level. I have become more than just someone who does administrative tasks, walks through practices, comes to games, and wishes them good luck.

My hope is that it will also lead to them having full confidence in me as an advocate for them. Our school district places a high value on student input and I told the students that my door is always open. I emphasized that I welcome their questions and concerns, and I want the very best of everything for them, their teams, and their future.

As adults we don’t always see the things that our students see, no matter how hard we try. Being a participant at their practices allowed me to get as close as possible to sharing their experience. Next up, I hope to extend the projects to activities, such as attend a speech practice and sing horribly with the choir. The idea again being reaching out, allowing them to teach me something, and staying energized by have more personal connections with our students.

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