Web Of Support

October 19, 2016

This article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of Athletic Management

High school coaches are leaving the profession in alarming numbers due to burnout. Stemming the tide will require a larger web of support from athletic directors, parents, and coaching peers.

By Michael Popke

Michael Popke is a Madison, Wis.-based freelance writer and former magazine editor who has covered the athletic, fitness, and recreation industries for more than 15 years. He also owns Two Lakes Media Group, which provides professional writing and editing services. He can be reached at: michael@twolakesmedia.com.

 

 

In late June, as high school athletic directors were settling into their brief summer “offseason,” a tweet from Chris Fore gave many a jolt. A former athletic director and current coaching consultant, Fore, CAA, had been keeping track of the comings and goings of high school football coaches in southern California. He tweeted that 118 of the region’s 605 football-playing schools would have new head coaches in the fall, a turnover rate of 20 percent.

“I was blown away by that number,” says Fore, who serves as a section rep for the California Coaches Association.

Responses to his tweet revealed that other states were seeing similar numbers. “We have had 128 changes so far going back to August 1. Counts for about 23 percent of the programs (560 teams) we have,” tweeted Florida High School Football (@FlaHSFootball), the state’s top news source for prep football.

And while football tends to make the news, this trend extends to all sports. Matt Hiserman, Athletic Director at Strasburg (Va.) High School, reported that he had to fill 20 coaching positions before the start of 2016-17. In years past, that number seldom was higher than five.

Many factors can contribute to turnover, but a big one is burnout of coaches. With the vitriolic nature of social media, the constant pressure to win, an increasing time commitment to get the job done, and the besieging behavior of some parents, coaches can easily reach their breaking point.

“Coaches come to me because they’re either fired or tired,” Fore says. “Some of them choose to simply walk away because they can’t deal with it anymore.”

What can athletic directors do to prevent burnout on their staff? Is there a way to keep coaches on the sidelines for decades, as was once the norm? We asked veteran athletic directors and experts on the topic to offer their solutions, which range from understanding how support and culture affects a coaching staff to paying greater attention to the role assistant coaches play.

 

WEEDING OUT NEGATIVITY

To get at the roots of burnout, let’s take a look at what it means. Its official definition is, “exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation, usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration.” That certainly applies to what many coaches feel by the end of a season. But why it happens can vary greatly.

“The thing about burnout is that it can be defined differently by different individuals,” says Dan Schuster, CMAA, Director of Educational Services for the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS). “We’re talking about a term that you can’t always pinpoint what causes it.

“There’s physical burnout, and then there’s mental burnout,” he continues. “A lot of burnout can be caused by the expectations an administrator has of his or her coaches. Different coaches carry out those expectations differently, and that can lead to a disconnect, a lack of alignment.”

Fore, who helps coaches from more than 30 states in their job searches and prepares them for interviews, has found that the biggest factor is a lack of support. “Most of the guys coming to me are facing micro-burnout, which is burnout with the situation at their own schools,” he says. “They’re tired of the administration or the parents not supporting them.”

Fore believes that, first and foremost, demanding parents need to be held in check. “The whole ‘helicopter parent’ mentality has led to some bad situations,” he says. “And great coaches have been the victims.”

As an example, he points to one California high school football coach, who after experiencing his first .500 season in more than a decade following years of winning championships, was fired by an administrator reacting to disgruntled parents. His replacement? A man who never coached a down in his life but played college ball and possessed fundraising skills. 

“Complaining parents coupled with an unsupportive administration puts a lot of pressure on a coach,” Fore says. “No coach is off limits, and many find the job is no longer worth it.”

Sandra Howell, CMAA, Director of Athletics for the Little Elm (Texas) Independent School District in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and a member of the Board of Directors of the Texas High School Athletic Directors Association, has worked hard to keep such problems at bay among her staff. She does so by carefully creating a large web of support for her coaches.

“Anytime an organization allows negativity to go unchecked, it can lead to burnout,” she says. “Whether that is personal negativity or it comes from parents of athletes, other coaches, or teachers, it has to be uncovered and addressed. If it is not stopped, it becomes a part of your culture.

“We spend a lot of time talking about the kind of culture we want and the expectations we have of our coaches,” she continues. “But at the same time, we let them know our doors are open and we are listening.”

That has led to a staff of coaches who know where to turn should the going get rough. “We’ve tried to create a family of coaches who respect each other and have built relationships with one another,” Howell explains. “When someone is having a hard time, they have another person who cares about them checking on them. We all try to show we care.”

One way to gauge if your athletic program is in tune with its staff is to conduct exit interviews with outgoing coaches. If burnout was a factor in a coach’s decision to move on, make it safe for him or her to discuss that topic without fear of repercussions or breach of trust. And then process that info and apply it to the athletic department’s future operations strategy.

That kind of positive reassurance and ability to speak freely can be vital for current coaches, too, Fore says. Let them know the administration is their support system, even before an incident occurs.

He recalls working at a private school where a student-athlete’s parent confronted the athletic director and threatened to enroll his daughter at a competing institution unless the girls’ basketball coach was fired. “The athletic director told the parent, ‘You’re welcome to leave. This is my coach, and he’s doing a fine job. I don’t see any reason to get rid of him,’” Fore says.

“If you want to support your coaches and help them avoid burnout, have an understanding that you’re not going to meet with a parent unless the head coach is there,” he continues.  “When you tell that to a parent, it’s amazing how the problem just disappears. It’s so important as an athletic director to support the men and women you hired and to have their back.”

 

TOO MUCH TO DO

Another big factor in coaching burnout is the increased time commitment required to do the job well. Budget cuts and heightened expectations have shifted more duties to coaches, including overseeing athlete leadership programs, fundraising, and feeder programs. Today’s coaches are also charged with protecting athletes against hazing, doping, and other detrimental or illegal behaviors.

And then there is the pressure to win, which leads to spending more time developing players and strategies. Many coaches today work with their athletes year-round, adding to the grind. While so much attention has been paid to the trend of high school athletes specializing in one sport, the toll on coaches doing the same thing has flown under the radar.

When John Erickson began his career in the 1970s as a high school head football coach, head basketball coach, and track and field coach, most of his peers coached multiple sports. Now the Executive Director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association, Erickson says burnout is hastened by the fact that a lot of high school coaches also coach club programs during their offseason. Many do so out of concern that if another coach works with those teams, he or she will undo what players have learned and practiced under their own guidance. “They want to protect what they’ve been teaching,” Erickson says.

One way to ease a coach’s load is by asking booster club members to help out in new ways. They are often more than willing to organize camps or team outings, which can give coaches a breather from time to time and help ease their stress, Howell says.

She also suggests that administrators should offer coaches guidance on tackling their jobs. “Being organized and having good systems can reduce stress—and providing training and additional resources can help coaches put such systems in place,” Howell says. “We have staff in-services each year and monthly coaches meetings where we go over various topics. Sometimes we have our internal coaches present on a subject and other times we bring in outside speakers.”

Another solution is to make sure you have outstanding assistant coaches for every team. Upland (Calif.) High School Head Football Coach Tim Salter, who notched his 200th career victory in August 2015, has been in his role for almost 25 years. Shortly before reaching that rare milestone, he told the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin that the main reason he’s managed to avoid burnout is because he’s worked with the same crew of assistant coaches for years. They allow him to feel comfortable delegating duties and even stepping away during the offseason.

“I can go do what I need to do when it comes to off-field things or just taking time off to re-energize,” Salter told the paper. “Of course you don’t get to that point overnight. It takes time.”

Howell has a formal system in place to help assistant coaches ease the burden of their head coaches. “We ask our head coaches to mentor those assistant coaches interested in moving up by handing over one area of operations to them each year,” she says. “This includes things like practice planning and paperwork. The assistant coaches learn the ropes, and the head coach removes a task from his or her plate.”

Finally, Schuster suggests that some athletic departments may need to press “reset,” especially regarding the amount of off-the field responsibilities required of coaches and the chain-of-command policies with parents. “When people stick to their designated roles, it creates a pretty nice playing environment for kids and coaches,” he says. “I realize that sounds oversimplified, but it’s the truth.”

 

THE HIRING FRONT

Along with providing support and resources for current coaches, one more piece of the puzzle is hiring good coaches to begin with. As the number of non-teacher coaches increases, more vetting of candidates is a must.

“A coach needs to have a full understanding of what the job responsibilities are going to be,” Erickson says. “Some coaches don’t realize that this job is going to affect their life tremendously.”

Howell agrees. “The coaching profession is not for the faint of heart or for anyone who lacks discipline,” she says. “Coaches have to be champions of character, because they are leading our student-athletes. Burnout can be caused by something as simple as having the right coach in the wrong place.”

It can also help to think outside the box when it comes to hiring. Sometimes head coaches can recharge by becoming an assistant coach. “I see a lot of people walking away from head coaching positions to become an assistant,” Fore says.

Ultimately, avoiding burnout comes down to being completely in tune with your coaches—starting from the day you interview them and continuing through each day they remain on staff. If they start to have any feelings of burnout, you should ideally know it before they do. “If someone is struggling,” Howell says, “we have to ask ourselves if we have supported the individual and done our best job to grow them as a leader.”

 

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NO INTERFERENCE

Three years have passed since Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton approved the addition of 20 words to the state’s existing coaching contract renewal statute. The first of its kind in the country, the clause states, “The existence of parent complaints must not be the sole reason for a board to not renew a coaching contract.”

The change appears to be working. “It’s made an impact,” says John Erickson, Executive Director of the Minnesota State High School Coaches Association. “But to bring full awareness about what the law really means will likely take a lawsuit.”

When the members of a school board in a small Minnesota district fired the high school’s head boys’ basketball coach after a parent complained, the athletic director and district superintendent cited the revised statute, and the board reinstated the coach. In another community this past summer, Erickson says, a dismissed high school coach was inching closer to suing his school, alleging violation of the state statute.

“A law like this needs to be part of the national mentality,” Erickson says, adding that representatives from a handful of states have contacted him about what Minnesota has accomplished with the statute addendum. He suggests that other athletic administrators get started by seeking support for a similar revision from local legislators on both sides of the aisle, presenting it as a workplace issue—not a political one.

 

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TIPPING POINT

The pervasiveness of social media has made it easier for parents and community members to anonymously harass coaches. That puts an unprecedented amount of increased pressure on coaches that can wear on them quickly.  

In April, two longtime coaches from Minnesota resigned, citing social media as a primary factor. “Decisions that are part of good coaching almost inevitably will lead to hard feelings,” Tony Scheid, former Head Girls’ Ice Hockey Coach at Stillwater High School in Oak Park Heights, who led the team to two state championships, wrote in a letter to Superintendent Denise Pontrelli. “Increasingly, this criticism has been voiced and amplified in mass e-mail communications and social media.”

Less than two weeks later, Brad Grimmius, the sixth-year Head Football Coach at Worthington High School, turned in his notice. He cited his wife’s concerns over negative comments about him on Facebook.  

“We coach because we love the kids and the game more than we hate the constant criticism,” Carl Pierson, Head Girls’ Basketball Coach at Waconia High School, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune following the resignation of these coaches. “But there is a tipping point for some coaches. Eventually, they decide the criticism isn’t worth the positives that come with coaching.”

Not many years ago, social media issues in high school sports were limited to student-athletes, and coaches urged them to be smart before posting comments. Now, parents could use some of that same counseling. The following resources can help:

 

Chris Fore offers a blog, which outlines nine social media guidelines for sports parents to follow:

http://coachfore.org/2016/05/17/9-social-media-guidelines-for-todays-sports-parent/

 

The National Federation has broadened its educational offerings to also include parents. One of its newest courses is Positive Sport Parenting, which parents can take for free:

https://nfhslearn.com/home/parents

From New World Of Coaching
If you are straightforward with young people, they will usually respect you. This is much better than fabricating something on the spot, and your athletes will usually understand and accept this approach.
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