August 23, 2017 • Athletic AdministrationCoaching

Bridging the gap: Strengthening the coach/AD relationship

Being successful in athletics is not always about pure talent. The development of relationships within a team often makes or breaks a team, regardless of talent. I’m not saying talent is unimportant, but relationship development can take a team with average talent and make it great.

As a coach turned administrator, I found that the relationship between the two doesn’t get as much attention as it should. Oftentimes, coaches and administrators view their relationships as just necessary, or even tedious. Some departments might even have a “us versus them” mentality. These situations of apathy or resentment may not harm the program, but if everyone embraces the development of this working relationship, it can enhance the productivity of the program.

I used each of these four ideas as a head coach when dealing with my players and I think all of them can be applied to the coach/administrator relationship.

1. Embrace the relationship.

Developing a relationship starts by embracing it. The second impediment to a great working relationship is time. Coaches and administrators are often busy with the day-to-day obligations of their position. Many of you might even work in programs that have few administrators or a coach who oversees multiple sports.

However valid this excuse may be, we all must find time to develop these relationships. There is an old saying about one’s health: “If we don’t make time for health and fitness, we will have to make time for illness.” The same can be said of coach-administrator relationships. If we don’t find time to develop them now, we will have to make time to repair them later.

Advice for coaches: Most coaches find it best to work autonomously in relation to administrative oversight. Coaches typically prefer administrators that are hands-off. Because of this, coaches tend to avoid administrators and rarely discuss current affairs or future initiatives. Typically, coaches only run to administrators when an issue arises or they face a problem they cannot handle. This can lead to tense discussions or create an environment that separates the people involved.

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Make time for your administrator — once a month, every two weeks, etc. They don’t have to last long or concern specific topics. Make them informal, play racquetball, grab lunch, have a pop-in discussion. Make them about life and get to know your administrator as a person. Ask about their family, share a story from your past, or discuss current events in college athletics. Sometimes, the meetings must be about a specific issue, but don’t make that the only reason you go to your administrator.

Advice for administrators: Make time for your coaches. Similarly, you must get to know them as people. Talk to them about how they handle their team off the field. Learn why they make certain decisions, and understand their philosophy on coaching. It’s important that you make time not only for coaches but for their teams. Stop by practice to say hello, offer assistance in making travel arrangements, offer to meet with recruits on campus. Developing this relationship not only strengthens your bond, but it shows the coaches and team members that you care about what they’re doing.

All coaches love a “congratulations” after a big win. Seek them out after a home game, or shoot them a text if they’re on the road. Little things make all the difference. If you make time to get to know them and how they operate, when the time comes for you to address sensitive issues, the relationship allows you to work together on a solution.

2. Understand their thoughts first.

We’ve talked about building relationships, but the key idea here centers on the ageless idea of listening.

Advice for coaches: I always had an opinion and rarely held it back. However, we have to remember that communication is a two-way street. The art of listening is more important than the art of speaking. We often have concerns we want to address with administrators and, regardless of the issue, coaches tend to go to their administrator when the issue is beyond their scope or experience.

The best step in developing the relationship with your administrator is to listen to what they have to say. Arrange the meeting to discuss your concerns, but always enter the discussion with an open mind and listen to their thoughts.

Oftentimes, we feel the issue is paramount and we have predetermined what the outcome should be. This mentality can lead to a breakdown in the conversation or relationship. Instead, enter the conversation with a variety of outcomes in mind and with the idea that you are going to listen to the administrator’s thoughts and concerns. For example, if your issue is an increase in your budget to cover better travel arrangements, don’t be upset when you’re told there is no additional funding. Listen to the options, because the administrator might have other cost savings ideas that can help.

Advice for administrators: A coach stopping by the office can be a burden, especially if they’re coming by to complain about policy and procedures. While it may be difficult, we must place ourselves in their shoes and listen to their concerns. Are they venting and looking for someone to understand their troubles? Are they raising a legitimate concern that can be easily remedied?

When I was a coach, I had an athletic director who always had the same response: “How can I help you?” He didn’t solve all my problems, but he always listened. Many times, during our discussions, I would arrive at my own solution. Those five words didn’t always mean he was going to do something for me, but they always made me feel important.

Conversely, I worked for another athletic director who never listened to me. He was difficult to find, and always had more important concerns. When I did take the time to schedule a meeting, he looked at his phone or checked his email while we talked. He was always fond of the question, “How does this impact me?”

In my current role, I strive to be like the first administrator who listened first and offered solutions second.

3. Know when to back off.

Someone once told me, “Only go to the well when you truly need to.” I understood that to mean choose your battles wisely, because sometimes they are not worth damaging a relationship that needs to be fruitful. Oftentimes, I would run to my athletic director with minor issues. However, what everyone needs to understand is that while we all have issues, some are important but others can be a burden on others.

Advice for coaches: A few years back, I had a colleague who came to my office almost daily complaining about various issues in his program. He would complain about facility schedules, class schedules, personnel issues, etc. To him, every issue was the most important thing to deal with at the time. He would say to me, “If you have the issue too, we should bring it up to the athletic director.” My response to him: Choose your battles wisely.

No administrator wants you complaining in their office three times a week. Oftentimes, your administrator cannot address the situation immediately, or may need to solicit support from others before they can offer a solution. Handling issues takes time and energy, and if you’re constantly in their office, they get bogged down.

Prioritize your daily, weekly and monthly activities. Everyday, there are countless projects that must be addressed, but you will be overwhelmed if you try to tackle them at once. Find the concerns that, once addressed, will have the greatest impact on your program. Those are the issues you must take to your administrator. For the second- and third-tier issues, find a way to solve those issues on your own or with the help of other coaches.

Advice for administrators: In my experience, administrators seem to grasp this idea better than coaches, but they too need to understand when to back off. While coaches must understand the prioritization of concerns, administrators need to understand timing. Coaches in all sports have their busy times and their down times. It would be wise for administrators to understand how to work within a coach’s schedule. That understanding can come through considering a coach’s year, week or even their day.

There may be a two-week span where coaches have few preparation or recruiting responsibilities. The timing differs for all sports, so do not assume that because your rowing coach’s schedule is light, that means your soccer coach’s workload is the same.

Knowing these things can give you insight on when to bring issues, concerns or programing to your coaches. Even knowing a coach’s schedule through the course of a day can pay dividends. If you want to have a conversation about a concern or idea, don’t do it in the hour or two leading up to practice. Most coaches are busy during that time with last-minute preparations for that day’s workouts. Knowing when to back off and hold your conversation for another time can reduce the stress of the situation and provide a better outcome.

4. Share solutions, not demands.

“I have a problem with how you’re scheduling the facilities. My team always gets the worst practice times and, because of that, we’re not able to prepare as well as we need to. What are you going to do to change it?”

This kind of statement is bound to get a negative response. My first athletic director always said, “Bring me a possible solution, not just a complaint.” I have found this idea to be a trusted strategy.

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Advice for coaches: We have all disliked how certain policies or procedure may affect our jobs. Maybe it’s a scheduling situation, the admissions process, or the school’s policy on budget usage. Regardless, you need to actively become part of the solution. By providing a solution, you will find more acceptance of your concerns. Your suggested solution may not be the answer, but by presenting an idea, those involved are more likely to listen.

I once had an issue with my admissions office. It seemed that while they wanted us to share information with them, they were keeping information from us. It went as far as one of my top recruits getting a denial letter from our admissions office while I was never notified. This was a situation where, as a coach, I wanted to storm into my administrator’s office and demand action. But after contemplation, I knew that would be a bad choice.

My administrator had no culpability, and being upset with her would be misdirected anger. Like me, she was completely unaware of the situation or how the admissions process worked. I chose to make the discussion about sharing information, and I presented my admissions communication plan. Don’t get me wrong, I took a few minutes to vent, but she was grateful I had a solution rather than just a complaint.

Advice for administrators: Administrators can use and give this advice to better their working relationships with coaches. How many times have you found yourself sitting in your office and a coach comes in to complain? Coaches are passionate people with type-A personalities. They’re rarely afraid of confrontation and will speak their minds on a variety of topics. If you allow coaches to drop their issues on your desk, you’re going to find yourself solving their problems rather than your own.

Make it your policy that anyone entering your office to complain must bring at least one viable solution. This policy strengthens the relationship between you and the coach, because the focus of the meeting is to solve issues — not complain.

Adopt this principle yourself. If you have to address a coach about their procedures, behaviors or work ethic, you should bring them solutions. Perhaps you just received the senior exit interview information and there were some comments you feel need to be addressed. Rather than giving this information to the coach and demanding changes, offer solutions.

It’s about relationships

As a coach, I always talked to our players about developing relationships. I demanded that they get to know one another. I led activities to break down the walls that separated them from each other. And I always told our players that relationships are like a bank account; the more you put in, the bigger the return on investment.

Coaches and administrators alike know that working together in a team sport is the only way to be successful. While we may understand this concept as it relates to teams on the court or field, the same principles must to be applied in the office or conference room. As an administrator, your job is to facilitate the success of your coaches. As a coach, your job is to facilitate the success of your student-athletes. Just as successful coach must work on all the relationships within the team, coaches and administrators have to work on our relationships with each other to maximize success.

Michael Scerbo has 21 years of coaching experience. He’s currently the assistant athletic director for compliance at Duquesne University in Pennsylvania. This article was originally published at the IWLCA’s blog, Behind the Whistle.

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