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October 2, 2017 • Athletic Administration

Repairing a program’s damaged culture

The job offer was extended, you accepted it, and you are eager to move into your new position as athletic administrator. Immediately, you start making an extensive list of all of the things that you want to improve and change. Your plan is to overhaul the culture of the athletic program.

Before embarking on your plan to refurbish the program at your new school, you need to have a few very straight-forward, important conversations with your new principal and superintendent. They are your supervisors, and it’s vital that you determine what they actually want in terms of the direction of the athletic program. The upper-level administration may like the mission and direction of the existing program, and they might not be looking for a change in the culture.

Getting a sense of direction from your supervisors is imperative. As the athletic administrator, you are middle management. As a result, you need your upper-level administrators’ approval and ultimate support for all initiatives, and this includes revamping the athletic program.

Assuming that you get the blessing of your principal and superintendent, the following suggestions and steps should help in your quest to improve and change the culture of your program.

1. Start the discussion. Talk to all constituents involved with your new program — coaches, parents, athletes, teachers, booster club members. Get their perspectives, which should have historical context. Asking specific, pertinent questions will help in this effort, but it’s important for you to be an engaged and active listener. Take notes and ask for clarification if you are not sure what someone meant. Your goal is to understand how and why certain decisions in your program were made.

2. Consider all aspects. Take time to understand all of the elements, parts and aspects involved in a high school athletic program that contribute to its culture. For example, consider facilities, equipment and personnel. Coaches constitute the largest segment, but also think about funding, policies, procedures and anything connected or involved with your program. A thorough and extensive analysis is needed before developing a plan.

3. Think about reactions. Do some research to understand the dynamics of change and how individuals react to it. Change may be considered good or bad, and it often depends upon a person’s background, previous experiences and perspective. And it’s important to remember that not everyone is receptive to change and might do everything that they can to stop it. Therefore, it’s helpful and wise to understand the process and steps individuals take before accepting change.

4. Ask for advice. Get some professional insight, perspective and advice from neighboring athletic directors who are familiar with the athletic program at your school. This step is invaluable. Unlike some constituents of your program, these advisors don’t have any vested interests or agendas. They are professionals in your field and have knowledge, experience and pertinent professional education that most constituents of your new program might lack.

5. Draft your plan. Develop a list of specific improvements that you would like to make, and share these ideas with your principal and superintendent. You want to outline your proposal complete with explanations, timelines and priorities before undertaking any of your initiatives. Effective communication is vital to win the approval and support of your supervisors.

6. Protect the athletes. Make immediate changes to anything which affects student-athlete safety. This has to be the highest priority. And do a good job of explaining and communicating to everyone involved why and how these changes are being made.

7. Remain patient. Implementing new initiatives, methods and procedures can take time. It might be a good idea to introduce changes one at a time. You can’t expect everyone to buy in and be receptive to wholesale massive changes. Consider making small, gradual changes and giving the constituents time to adjust. Other than the safety considerations, you should prioritize your list to determine where you want to start.

8. Stay focused. Keep in mind why you are making these changes. Every step or initiative of change should be undertaken to create a better education-based environment for your student-athletes. You should become familiar with the basic premise, concepts and principles of the philosophical approach to high school athletics. Once you understand and embrace education-based athletics, your goals and sense of direction for overhauling your athletic program should be clear and it will provide you a roadmap.

9. Explain your decisions. Remember that everyone with stake in your program are counting on your leadership and understanding during transitional phases. This means that you must be available to answer questions, counsel, advise and guide your constituents in the right direction. You also need to reassure them that everything will work out and the future will be better for your student-athletes and coaches.

10. Expect adjustments. Readjust your efforts when necessary. Not all initiatives and changes will be implemented and accepted quickly and smoothly. Some may need tweaking and others may require more time to install. You may have to adjust your time frame, add additional steps, provide instruction. This will also require effective communication to your program and community members.

11. Constantly evaluate. Evaluate your efforts on a regular basis to keep your program true to the ultimate goal of doing what is best to provide an education-based environment for student-athletes. Legislation, policies, funding, technology and people all represent potential changes that can have an effect on your program. By being aware, alert and proactive, you can stay ahead of impending problems that can alter the nature and direction of your program.

Overhauling the culture of an athletic program is not an easy process. Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, improving your program may also take extensive time. Constructive, positive change takes a great deal of thought, planning and effort that must have the support of your principal and superintendent. However, revamping and moving your program forward can be done with careful vision and leadership.

David Hoch, CMAA, has 16 years of experience as a high school athletic director and served for 12 years as the executive director of the Maryland State Coaches Association. In 2000, he was named Athletic Director of the Year by the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association.

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