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Hiring the Right Coach in Education-based Athletics

By Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA on September 08, 2021 hst Print

The horn sounds and the basketball players rush out to celebrate an incredible season. The coach makes quick eye contact with the athletic director in the stands – a show of appreciation that it’s been an incredible run and joins the celebration. The elation of such a moment is why adults and students become part of athletics – to find and exceed perceived personal limitations and achieve initially unthinkable goals.

Player talent is one factor that allows teams to win; but when teams are led by a coach who understands the school mission and culture and promotes the values of educational athletics, each student will find success. For students to explore their full potential and become leaders for their communities, school administrators need to examine their hiring practices so that they can identify and hire the right personnel to lead their programs.

Expand the Applicant Pool

When looking for a new coach, schools need to look both within and outside their programs. Some schools do an incredible job of developing their lower-level coaches to prepare them for the rigors of becoming a head varsity coach; however, this can only be validated if schools actively seek out competitive applicants to find the best candidate for an open position.

Because of the success of some programs, schools may attract larger numbers of applicants, but it’s important that each athletic program promotes and seeks out applicants for coach openings. Traditional methods such as postings to the school staff and community should not be overlooked, but schools can also post more widely using digital platforms such as edjoin.org, LinkedIn and even state association websites. Depending on the timing of the opening, coach openings can be promoted more broadly by the district or school human resources departments so they can be combined with annual teacher and staff recruitment.

Composing Interview Panels That Ask the Challenging Questions

Once the school has a quality applicant pool, leaders can then begin to find panel members to conduct the interview. To increase the chances of a successful coach applicant/program match, schools may want to consider having diverse interview panel members.

Not only should an administrator and athletic director be on the panel, but having a non-coaching teacher present can help establish the perspective that the school emphasizes educational athletics. In addition, a parent and a student on the panel can be beneficial, but such panelists must be chosen with purpose. For instance, a leadership student, parent or community member not associated with the program may give a more balanced view with less potential to be influenced by bias.

A positive outcome of such a diverse panel allows athletic departments to demonstrate the importance of partnerships with multiple stakeholders and creates opportunities for students to gain leadership experience in a collaborative, professional setting. In addition, it increases the chances the school will gain valuable interview information from candidates.

Asking the Right Questions

The right panel becomes even more effective with well-thought-out interview questions. An effective starter question such as, “Why did you apply for this particular opening and what makes you most qualified?” allows the candidate to elaborate on his or her past experiences. Additional interview questions should seek to bring forth answers that help a panel check to see if the candidate’s values are in alignment with the school.

Some of these questions could include:

  • Describe a challenging time that you went through as a coach and how did you overcome or lead your team through adversity?
  • How do you run effective tryouts and how do you communicate with parents, students and school administration?
  • How important is it to recruit students within your own school and what steps do you take to ensure that students from a school have an equitable opportunity to participate?
  • As most schools actively promote lifelong learning, describe if you feel this is important and what do you do to challenge yourself as a lifelong learner and promote such learning from all stakeholders involved in your program?
  • (Sharing the school and/or athletic department mission statement) How will you go about enhancing the school philosophy within your program?
  • What role does character development play in your coaching? Please give at least one example of how you have led your team in an activity that has built character.

These are just a few examples of questions that may provide a different depth of information that most panels do not get from resumes alone and can help them find better candidates that will be more successful within their schools.

Reference Checks

Another key aspect in hiring is getting quality information from applicant references. After the interview and finalists are selected as potential hires, at least two references should be contacted to verify interview statements and clarify any questions a panel may have had.

Using open-ended questions in reference checks can help leaders determine a candidate’s strengths, weaknesses and potential areas in which applicants need additional support. Some sample questions may include:

  • How long did you know the applicant and what was it like working with the individual?
  • What would you say are the greatest strengths and weaknesses within the applicant?
  • Where do you think the applicant would need support to be successful in the organization?
  • If given the opportunity, would you rehire the applicant in your organization?
  • Can you comment on the applicant’s communication with you and the people with whom he worked?
  • Being an athletic coach requires our organization to gather data about how our applicants may respond to criticism from a variety of stakeholders. Can you describe how the applicant was able to deal with criticism?

Like interview questions, there are a myriad of potential questions that can help discern whether an applicant will be a fit for a school or program, but the importance of reference checks lies in the authenticity of the questions and the belief that such checks are important to validate quality candidates.

Final Thoughts

Hiring the right coach may seem like a daunting task, but it also presents an opportunity for schools to find incredible talent who can positively impact students. When looking for applicants, it is important to expand applicant pools by utilizing new technology outlets and posting on new digital platforms that may gather more interest. When it comes time for the interview, it’s also important to select diverse interview panelists to help capture and hear from various facets of the school so that the candidate may have a better chance to succeed. Finally, reference checks can validate applicants’ past work and gives the hiring organization more confidence in deciding whether or not to offer a position.