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July 28, 2021 • Athletic Administration

Building a Dynamic Program with Leadership & Culture

When student-athletes leave your athletics program, what part of the culture will they remember? Will they adopt the leadership qualities we instilled in them to their next step in life? 

A culture that is relevant and influential gives an athletic department the opportunity to set the tone for a successful atmosphere within the school buildings and throughout your school community. Think back through all of your professional experiences, and put forth a culture that encompasses all of the great things that have helped you get to where you are, plus some ideas of where you want to go. Those will be the foundation of who you are, and in essence, the start of your clear path to success. 

Believe in it, but most importantly, LIVE IT.

dynamicThe key to implementing a successful culture is giving your coaches and athletes a guide to incorporate your philosophy on a daily basis within their programs. At Mascoutah, for example, our philosophy is based on one acronym: E.A.T. (Energy, Attitude, and Toughness). These are the values that we preach and I expect our coaches, and my own family, to emulate on a daily basis. At MHS, we use what we call EAT Weeks, to inject our culture directly into our programs. Every week has a theme, and we do this using a four-week cycle.

Week 1 is an Energy Week. Throughout these seven days, we expect the term “ENERGY” to be used often both in a motivational way during practice, as well as a correctional way when things aren’t going as planned. The use of each word repeatedly allows coaches to maximize practice and challenge their athletes in a common way that is consistent throughout our entire athletic program. We encourage our coaches to highlight positive examples of exceptional energy, encourage energy level to grow from drill to drill or play to play, and we also expect them to call out poor examples of energy and examples of how lack thereof is detrimental to the team and it’s goals. 

Week 2 in the cycle would be an Attitude Week, where the word “ATTITUDE,” and its significance will be used throughout practice and games. Week 3 would focus on the word “TOUGHNESS.” 

Finally, Week 4 gives coaches and each program a chance to instill a word or phrase that is unique to their program or something that a coach really believes in. For example, if a coach believes that “COURAGE”  is a term that helps define their culture within their own program, they may focus on that for that fourth week. We give our staff the flexibility to use one term for that fourth week throughout the year, or the ability to change it each time depending on the needs and the focus of each program. This gives coaches some stake in the culture and allows them to blend our E.A.T. philosophy with their own beliefs on what it takes to be successful.

E.A.T. Weeks allow our programs and our student-athletes to grow on a daily basis. Many great leaders have come up with creative ways to implement their culture and philosophy into their programs or groups. While there are several ways to accomplish the goal of establishing a winning culture, find a method that fits your personality and the needs of your programs and you will see kids and coaches buying into being a part of the process. Our community has embraced our athletic program and our culture. Every time we see a shirt around town that says “Let’s EAT,” it’s a reminder that while not everyone will be on board with your philosophy, many people are, and it gives us a tremendous opportunity to lead and serve our communities.

 Two Essential Skills Determine Success

My experiences have led me to determine that two of those essential skills can absolutely make or break your career: Effective communication skills, and the ability to build relationships.

Effective communication is vital to building trust within the people that you ultimately serve. Your body language is underestimated and undervalued, but oftentimes it sets the tone for the reception of your ideas. No matter how outgoing you are, or personable you want to be, your body language MUST line up with your message. It will always be a difficult challenge to get a group of people to buy into a high-energy, passionate directive if those tangible characteristics aren’t part of your delivering that very message. It is essential that those listening to your message, truly believe it as much as you do. Energy and passion will get peoples’ attention; effective communication and positive results will keep it.

Communicating effectively with those that have a significant stake in your success can be done by following a few key principles. One of the most important aspects of effective communication is the ability to become an engaged listener, and in return, show a true interest in what is being shared. In doing so, refrain from critical judgment and understand that concerns or thoughts are ultimately how someone feels. While you may not always agree with their ideas, constructive and positive feedback will leave a door of communication for future interactions and successful conversations. 

Building relationships is not only the key to success as an administrator, it is the key to an accomplished life. This concept goes even further, as I would argue that while building relationships, generally speaking, is important, building the correct relationships is even more vital. One phrase encompasses the significance of building relationships. The better relationships that you develop, the more production you will get. This idea holds true in every facet of your life, including relationships with your own family members. 

Building positive relationships can happen in a relatively short amount of time, but must consist of vital components. It is paramount to make sure that people know who you are and what you are about. Share as much information as possible about yourself with your coaches and essential staff members. You must be able to share positive experiences that you have had to deal with topics relevant to your profession and those that are a part of your group. Those experiences will build trust and allow staff members to buy into fresh ideas and a culture that you believe in. While you do not want anyone to get comfortable in a competitive setting, you do want people to believe that they are on an attainable path to success. Praise them when warranted, and be willing to participate in activities with others that do not involve work.  Ultimately, building positive relationships will allow your program to maximize efficiency and make resources available that will help you succeed.   

Leadership and Influence

Throughout my career, I have realized something extremely significant to hold true: Leadership is a term that is completely misunderstood and often taken for granted. To understand the value and the definition of leadership, one must first realize that leadership is a definitive action, and not an appointed position. True, meaningful leadership is derived from a formal plan of action and a way of life that is comfortable participating in tough conversations and making difficult decisions. The style of leadership may vary based on a venue or a personality, but the passion to lead a successful group of people, and the process of creating desirable results will determine if the leader is present, or if it is merely an idea or term that people use to describe an action or an individual.

dynamicGreat leaders don’t always look the same, sound alike, or accomplish things based on a simple formula or template. Great leadership requires the ability to push envelopes to the brink, take risks that could easily fail, and maximize every resource around them. Innate leaders have the willingness to make very unpopular decisions based on the fact that those choices keep the vision of their entire program on track and their goals within reach. No human being should be OK with failure or enjoy failing for that matter, but the truth is, you must be willing to experience those ideas if you want to maximize your decision-making ability. No great achievement comes to fruition without acknowledging a risk that any worthwhile decision could always result in a high risk just like it can result in a paramount reward. 

The willingness to make consequential decisions will breed sound leadership as well as develop the courage and bravery it takes to lead in a profound way, regardless of the arena. Significant leaders are willing to stand alone, yet they are eager to make decisions based on the needs of their constituents, and choices that keep the whole team on the path to great success and achievement. 

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Honest, transparent leadership will validate your role as an influential figure that people trust with the keys to a particular organization or group. Your staff, athletes, and parents should always know where you stand when they are in your presence and under your guidance. Outline expectations early, and follow them as delivered. If your expectation is that coaches govern a certain way, teams practice a certain way, and that they dress a certain way, be consistent in enforcement. Everyone should understand the role that they play in your system, and you must require them all to embrace it. This is accomplished by making expectations clear from your initial meeting with staff members. If anyone chooses not to, they cannot be a part of your outfit if you truly want to be successful. Influence others with positive, honest leadership, and the skies of achievement will be open to your potential.

Develop Leadership within Teams

When we talk about leadership within our programs, the conversation must involve how we incorporate kids into this process and how we develop leaders within our teams. They too need to follow the same principles and understand that leadership is action, and not a position. Unfortunately, it is far too common for coaches to name very talented athletes captains when their actual leadership ability is poor and, in some cases, non-existent. This can be extremely detrimental to your programs.

Effective communication is vital to building trust within the people that you ultimately serve. Your body language is underestimated and undervalued, but oftentimes it sets the tone for the reception of your ideas. No matter how outgoing you are, or personable you want to be, your body language MUST line up with your message.

Discovering profound leaders within your programs should be based on very specific criteria. Do these kids lead by example every day? Do they carry that leadership ability with them outside of the school building? Do these kids live by the core values of your programs and promote your entire athletic program with the type of characteristics that you want from athletes within it? Do they embody what you want your own children to see and look up to? Do they outwork others? These are all questions that need to be answered before anyone can be anointed a leader within your program. While athletic ability certainly comes into play, it is down the list as far as vital characteristics to leading within our programs.

For an entire athletic program to be successful, and not just a few teams, kids from all programs must become involved with each other. One of the more common ways to do this is by establishing a leadership council. These groups allow kids to share ideas and experiences, talk about hot-button social issues, and encourage each other to be better on and off of the fields and courts. Use this council to encourage support amongst less popular sports and programs, and find unique ways to recognize kids in front of their peers so that their positive attitude is encouraged and rewarded publicly.