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Helping Administrators Recognize Value of Athletics

By Dr. Kevin Fitzgerald on May 17, 2019 hst Print

When I was being interviewed for an initial teaching position, the principal looked up and asked one last question: What can you coach? When I said I could coach anything he needed, I was hired on the spot. Today, with the dearth of teaching candidates, unfortunately, the coaching question just doesn’t seem as important to principals.

Ironically, the limited hiring of individuals who can also coach has created a ripple effect that has impacted high school principals. As most athletic directors can attest, many school administrators today lack coaching experience, which contributes to a lack of understanding and a devaluation of the importance of school-based activities in a student’s education.

With about a 20 percent annual turnover rate and a majority of administrators on the job for fewer than three years, building principals are immediately confronted with the challenges of student performance, discipline, teacher evaluations and budgetary issues. New principals are also faced with the reality that they don’t have much control over their calendar and that their days can be consumed by putting out fires.

It is not surprising, therefore, that there is little time to consider the school culture and how it contributes to overall student success. While principals may spend countless hours each week in their buildings covering school-related activities, the educational value of that time and the importance of those activities simply get lost on the overwhelmed administrator.

Many superintendents or school boards want to hire an administrator who has experience in budgeting time and money. They also look for a proven motivator who can deal with disgruntled parents or a tough situation, and who has the foundation and the tools needed to be successful. Unfortunately, there is also a correlation between hiring teachers who were not expected to be a coach or a club sponsor and today’s administrators who view athletics as something they have to supervise.

The following perspectives from various professionals will help to understand and deal with this dilemma.

A Principal’s Point of View

Sherry, who came into the principal’s position without any coaching experience, acknowledged that: “You don’t realize how important athletics is until you live it. It is a huge part of a school’s culture and public perception. Opinions are formed about your school based on how your athletes and coaches act – especially when they travel away from your campus.

“Your school ‘ranking’ and the willingness of parents to have their child attend your school can be driven by a win-loss record. Athletics is often a linchpin for at-risk students and what they learn can’t be found in a playbook. They learn how to tie a tie, shake hands, give an interview, work together, share credit for success and accept a setback with grace and dignity. For some, athletics may be their ticket to higher education – but just as important it may spark a career interest or military service.”

Brad, a former high school coach and athletic director who is now a building principal, said: “Many new administrators who perhaps have never coached or been involved with athletics may not value education-based athletics in the same way as other cocurricular activities, such as marching band. However, I have found that in my years as an administrator, athletics are the most impactful motivating factor for at-risk youth to monitor their attendance, academic performance and their behavior.”

Athletic Directors’ Perspectives

George, an athletic director at a vocational school, said: “If I were to sit down with a new administrator, I would emphasize to him or her the importance of athletics in everyday life. High school athletes are forced to manage time, work with others of diverse backgrounds and develop a strong work ethic. These are skills that are essential to obtaining success after high school. I would caution an administrator on overemphasizing winning as a criterion of success - winning is a byproduct of doing things the right way!”

Jeremy, who is the athletic director at a high-needs public high school, said: “I believe that having successful athletic teams support the school climate. School administrators should understand that students are continuing their education when they are on an athletic team and not ignoring it. Coaches are teaching athletes values such as hard work, perseverance, sportsmanship, respect, togetherness and much more.”

Colleen, an athletic director and athletic trainer, said: “Having administrators who were formerly coaches is extremely valuable since they know what is required to run a team and the work that is put into building a program. I think for new administrators, or administrators without a background in athletics, the role of the athletic director can be crucial.”

Mike, who has been the athletic director at a prominent parochial school for more than 25 years, said: “I believe that it is essential for administrators to be visible and attend various events. More than anything else they do, it shows the students that they really care about them both in and out of the classroom.”

A Better Understanding: So how does a new administrator develop a better understanding of the value of athletics?

First, look at athletics as cocurricular rather than an extracurricular activity. By doing this, the administrator can begin to see the real value of school-based athletics. The traits that make successful coaches also make successful teachers. Coaches normally spend twice as much time with their student-athletes than any classroom teacher, and they plan well and are organized. They take each game by itself; they are continually developing skills, including re-teaching when necessary; they are effective communicators; and they care about their students. Athletics should be viewed by the principal as one of the most valuable tools in shaping the school culture and as a vehicle to help students reach their potential.

The one basic fundamental for good leadership is communication. To truly understand and utilize school-based athletics, it is essential to develop a support pipeline with your state athletic or activities association. These people are the experts and they know the rules better than anyone else. Find out what can and cannot be done and how athletics can be utilized – not only to help and motivate your students, but also to prepare them for the future.

Next, administrators need to attend meetings and workshops hosted by the state association or specific conference and should not be afraid to volunteer for a state athletic committee. Administrators can utilize the NFHS Learning Center (www.NFHSLearn.com), and should consider it part of their administrative professional development effort. Being visible and attending athletic events is also crucial – your students, staff and the community will appreciate it.

Most importantly, however, administrators must communicate with their athletic director. Athletic directors are the first line of defense in dealing with any athletic issues from site management, parental complaints, student eligibility and the hiring and dismissal of a coach.

It is also important to know what the athletic director does on a daily basis. Take the time to visit practice sessions – just as you would a classroom – and observe, talk to the coach and talk to the athletes. Take time and review your school’s athletic code and remember to set reasonable expectations for your coaches and student-athletes. Also, don’t be afraid to ask questions and always remember to keep your athletic director on speed dial.

Remember, when you become an administrator who values school-based athletics, your student-athletes are the big winners.