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April 4, 2017 • Athletic Administration

Mastering the art of gameday preparation

Be prepared.

It’s the Boy Scouts’ motto, but it certainly can and should apply to every athletic director. Having all your bases covered, knowing how to prepare for contests and organizing a plan for all those unexpected tasks that may pop up can mean the difference between a successful event and one that’s better off forgotten.

Gameday management is critical for every athletic director, and planning for a game months in advance can be tricky. Athletic directors must stay organized and communicate well with coaches, staff members and opposing schools’ leaders.

“Attention to detail and focusing on the little things is the equation for a successful day of game operations,” De La Salle High School (Concord, Calif.) Athletic Director Leo Lopoz says. “I would say, don’t do things on gameday. Gameday should be a day of making sure everything’s off the checklist. Of course, there are some things you have to do on gameday, but those are predicted in advance.”

There are several ways to prepare for gameday, and athletic directors must determine what works best for them. Mike McKenna, athletic director at Torrington High School (Torrington, Conn.), uses a gameday checklist for every sport to ensure nothing is left undone.

“I may have already done some of the items on the checklist, like making sure that the custodians know what’s going on, but the day before the game I start checking that off,” McKenna says. “What have I already done? What do I still need to do? And you prepare from there.”

McKenna has about 15 items on his checklist for big events, such as football, with some bullet points underneath each item. For smaller scale games like softball, there might be only around seven items on the list.

The first-year athletic director, who was a coach for 30 years, also wants to develop a checklist for his coaches to help them be more organized for games.

Having an updated gameday manual also is a major boost in helping an event run smoothly. De La Salle High School has a game operations manual for every sport and event. It spells out everything that needs to be done and who is responsible for each job.

“Given that we don’t have all paid employees around here to do things, it’s the easiest way to forward information like, ‘Who’s the announcer. Who’s this,'” says Lopoz, who is in his seventh year as athletic director. “At least once a year, we update our manual and we know who’s in charge of this or that, it’s a lot easier because we can send an email to everyone to let them know in advance.

“It takes time and you just don’t have that time to follow up with everybody face-to-face. When it gets busy and times are tough with money, you must be as efficient as possible.”

Every person on Lopoz’s email list has clearly defined roles and is aware of the chain of command, putting all event workers on the same page. Lopoz says it isn’t any different than a coach preparing his team for a game.

“You must rely on the people that you’re working with, your support staff, whether it’s the coaches or paid staff,” says John Forcucci, athletic director at Niagara Falls City School District (Niagara Falls, N.Y.). “We lean on them quite heavily that they’re going to show up and do what they’re supposed to do.”

Having all gameday responsibilities assigned to others allows coaches to dedicate their time to the student-athletes. Lopoz doesn’t need his coaches worrying about little things. He contacts his coaches well in advance of games and asks them, “What are you able to do? What are you not able to do?”

“The key rule in working with coaches is having a meeting, discussing what needs to get done and clearly communicating responsibilities,” Lopoz says.

“Our goal is to not have them worry about any of the other things that are not part of their coaching responsibilities,” says Ken Flaten, athletic director and business manager at Notre Dame Academy (Green Bay, Wis.). “In terms of game management, we are totally taking them out of anything for the game. They are responsible for having their team ready, telling us about transportation schedules, making sure the kids are in the right colored uniforms and then going out and coaching the game.”

Utilizing volunteers

If it wasn’t for volunteers dedicating their time, games may not happen at all. The number of volunteers needed on gameday is determined on a sport-by-sport basis. Having a short list of people who are dependable and available in a pinch can be a valuable resource for any athletic director.

De La Salle High School uses a group of volunteer parents who currently or previously have had children compete in the school’s athletics. Their responsibilities include everything from ticket taking to directing traffic and acting as team liaison. Nicknamed the “White Coats,” the group averages 25 to 30 volunteers each year.

Lopoz says the White Coats run an elaborate system with one person leading the group. Lopoz sends out a list of needs for each game, and it usually is returned with all positions filled.

“It’s one of the most valuable assets that we have,” Lopoz says of the White Coats. “Not only are they volunteering their time, they act as ambassadors for the school. I think it really enhances our events and allows us to do things that other schools can’t in terms of guarding the doors during games. Instead of having to man a door with a security guard, now we have someone that’s there. Volunteers do crowd control, efficiently getting people in and out of the facilities. Instead of one person having to do 10 jobs, now it’s a better ratio.”

Having the volunteers allows Lopoz and the associate athletic director to manage and maintain their gameday plans. It also lets Lopoz make adjustments on the fly and take care of any unforeseen problems.

“We take it for granted because it’s normal here, but I know that when we go to other places I see a lot of ADs running up trying to fix the scoreboard or running back to the concessions,” Lopoz says. “I’ve told people this before, some of the things we do to manage our events might be a little bit on the excessive side, but I think ultimately, to get things done right for the student-athletes, it has to be hard. It can’t be easy. It gets easy when you have everything organized.”

At Notre Dame Academy, parents of athletes are assigned one to two events each season to work as ticket takers. Volunteers are critical to maintaining a tight budget and it helps eliminates costs so the school can still afford to offer junior varsity and freshman programs.

“If you have good volunteers and good people, let them do their jobs,” Flaten says. “I’ve learned a lot of those people know more than me.”

Forcucci’s district is able to pay its gameday personnel. However, because of a shrinking budget in the athletic department, that’s all going to change soon and volunteers will be essential.

“I’ve approached coaches to say that if we want to keep all our sub-varsity programs the way they are, we need to cut back on our expenses,” says Forcucci. “One way is to get more support from our out-of-season coaches to help with games.”

After 27 years as the athletic director at Notre Dame Academy, Flaten feels like gameday oversight operates like a well-oiled machine. He has many dedicated and loyal people who help out.

“As I’ve developed and trained the volunteers and our plans are in place, I’m much less hands on,” Flaten says. “Now I can just go to a game, sit and watch because everything else is set.

“I’m still going to be in attendance at everything, so in that sense I’m visible. But I’m not assigning myself duties as much as I used to in the past.”

Gameday challenges

Some of the biggest challenges athletic directors face on gameday are unexpected occurrences that can’t be controlled–a medical emergency in the stands, a larger capacity crowd than anticipated, a worker who doesn’t arrive for a shift.

“You try and think of every possibility, the doomsday scenario,” McKenna says. “What could the worst thing be that might happen? I think if you try to plan ahead on some of the things that might come up, you don’t get surprised too often. When things do happen, if you handle them with a cool head and use your experience being involved in athletics, usually things work out.”

Preparing for games becomes an art form, and over time athletic directors get better at their craft, Lopoz says.

Flaten has a calling list ready so if something happens, he knows exactly who to contact.

“I often wonder, what would ever happen if a backboard were shattered in a basketball game?” Flaten says. “It’s never happened, and I hope it never does, but we’ve got a plan in place of how we’d get that fixed right away and try to continue the event.”

Flaten, who uses his school’s game management policies, says it’s all about accounting for things that happen and having a plan in place. On top of his normal duties, Flaten had to deal with the unseasonable weather this spring and how it affected game schedules. The school canceled more than half of all contests because of rain.

McKenna’s biggest obstacle on gameday is anticipating the crowd size for an event and having enough people scheduled to work.

Flaten also relies on experience. An incident from 10 years ago could allow him to accurately assess a bad situation and rectify it with a proven result. Flaten says incidents he worried about early in his career might not be as much of an issue now because he knows how to react.

“You handle things better with more wisdom and more experience, and you grow to learn that things are going to happen and this is how we react to that situation,” says Mark Solberg, who has been the activities director at Cambridge-Isanti Public Schools (Cambridge, Minn.) for 14 years. “I believe there are never obstacles. There are opportunities.”

Tricks of the trade

Athletic directors who have held their position for a long time naturally pick up the tricks of the trade as they go.

One of those important lessons is to communicate thoroughly with opposing schools that are traveling to your venue. Establish a chain of command and learn how to reach the program’s point-of-contact person to help eliminate potential problems. Include the other school’s athletic director, coaches and game officials in emails to your own staff regarding the game.

After a game, it’s never a bad idea to evaluate how everything went. McKenna jots notes following games to evaluate performance. 

It’s also important to receive feedback. Forcucci sends out forms at the end of every season to each of his coaches to see how they can improve.

“I may think everything’s going great at a contest, but when they have their postseason meetings or after they reflect on the season, they may realize they had issues with transportation or something else wasn’t set for gameday,” Forcucci says. “I look to the coaches to give me feedback, and we’ve found that to be quite helpful.”

Feedback also can come from fellow faculty workers, game attendees, parents or athletes. Be receptive to ideas from whoever offers their thoughts. People who are sitting back and watching a game have a different perspective than an athletic director who is working a game.

“Sometimes people talk to you and you hear it and you already know that really wouldn’t work,” McKenna says. “Listen to them because they may come back next time and have a great suggestion. It’s important to be open because you never know where that ‘ah-ha moment’ is going to come from.”

At the end of the day, remember everything you do in preparing for an event is to benefit the student-athletes.

“I’ve learned that no matter what activity, what level or what program, to that kid and their parent, it’s the most important event of the year,” Solberg says. “If you treat each and every event the way you wanted it to be treated as a kid and treat it as special, then events go off very well. Those are going to be the things people remember for years.”

Gathering the essentials

Every athletic director who has been around the block knows there are essential items to always have with them. Here are some recommendations from experienced athletic administrators:

  • Extra pens
  • Paper
  • Cell phones
  • Keys to open any door in the school
  • Walkie-talkies
  • Extra batteries for radios and chargers for cell phones
  • Blue painter’s tape
  • Tool box
  • Officials’ vouchers
  • Contact list with important phone numbers
  • Umbrellas
  • Flashlights
  • Clothes line or rope to cordon off certain areas
  • Blankets
  • Emergency radio
  • Trash bags
  • Signage. De La Salle Athletic Director Leo Lopoz is a firm believer in you can never have enough signage at a game. You have to assume people don’t know where the visitor’s locker room or restrooms are located.

“Indoors, I don’t worry as much because we’re right here in the school, but I do keep a locker down by our main gym with extra supplies in it – pens, forms, supervisor paperwork,” says John Forcucci, athletic director at Niagara Falls City School District (Niagara Falls, N.Y.). “I do carry a lot of stuff with me in my vehicle: extra forms, handbooks, stop watches, air horns for any event during the season.”


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