December 1, 2019 • Athletic Administration

International State of the Industry: A survey of athletic directors worldwide

international athletic director survey

At times, working in an international school can leave you feeling absolutely isolated. You could be located thousands of miles from your nearest likeminded school and even then the school is different in size, demographics, budget, facilities, calendar and so on.

With that in mind, and following the annual survey conducted by Coach & Athletic Director, I thought it would be nice to know how international school ADs around the world feel about their job, and what keeps them up at night.

This survey was taken by 73 athletic directors from around. Of those, 40 came from Europe. The second largest collection of replies came from Asia (16) followed by South America (9), the Middle East (5) and Africa (3).

Main concerns from international athletic directors

→ Finding qualified coaches & increased workload. These two concerns, according to the survey, are so close that I feel like I must consider them joint No. 1s. Out of the 74 responses, each of these received 32 “very concerned” responses with 32 and 34 “concerned” responses respectively.

“The number of hours spent on the job is mind boggling”

Finding qualified coaches was actually the top concern for American based athletic directors over the last five years. Why is it that schools around the world are concerned about this? In the US, being a high school coach could be a career choice, while internationally you could be paid a nominal stipend or even be contractually bound to coach a team for no extra money. However, regardless of the compensation connected with the job, we are still concerned about getting qualified coaches to lead our students.

“Locally sourced coaches do not have equivalent knowledge and understanding of the changes to coaching and use outdated techniques,” one respondent said.

“My school does not recruit teachers who can coach, and teachers do not have to do anything extra,” said another respondent. “This makes it difficult finding coaches and chaperones, despite the decent stipend and calendar.”

Increased workload and expectations also ranked high on the 2018 State of the Industry Survey. While technology makes many aspects of an AD’s job easier, it also presents new opportunities for programs, which take time to learn and implement.

Another major issue for international ADs is risk management, safeguarding and child protection. Cutting corners in these areas is not an option for most schools and, unfortunately, the burden of these measures usually falls on the AD. With more and more tasks added to our plates, I wonder what responsibilities will be neglected or pushed aside? The answer to that question may only present itself when something happens that could have been prevented.

“Compliance and safeguarding challenges are increasing, and the job is moving to a more corporate/managerial position losing its educational value,” said an athletic director.

“The number of hours spent on the job is mind boggling,” said another. “I’m very lucky for a supportive partner but work life balance is an issue. Not sure how to manage it actually because this job seems to get bigger every year.”

→ Professional development for coaches. The third-ranked concern in the survey was not in the top five from European ADs, but the rest of the world thought highly of it. The European responses could relate to the proximity of other countries/schools, the large amount of conferences, and the influx of English language material coming out of Great Britain.

“All our coaches are also teachers, which is great,” said one athletic director. “But they could use some sport specific PD however all of their time and PD money is spent on their subject area.”

“93% of our coaches are local hires and English is limited,” said another. “I do not currently have the budgeting to bring in trainers from the States. Yet, even if I did, I don’t know how I would work through the language barrier.”

→ Participation. Surprisingly, student participation was not high on the list of concerns for international ADs. Only eight people said they were “very concerned. Their comments speak for themselves:

“We have a growing culture of high school IB teachers that actively council grade 12 students out of sports. They see it as a detriment to student academic results.”

“Participation/commitment competes with academic pressures (IB in HS) and as a result stress is increased and participation drops.”

“It would be nice to see more students get involved in the program. It always seems like the same core group.”

What are international ADs not concerned about?

→ Job security. It’s never easy to get ahead if you are always looking over your shoulder, so thankfully the international ADs feel the same way as their American colleagues in regards to job security.

high school football stadium
Photo: Erik Drost, Flickr

This topic ranked at the top of the “not concerned” column with 57 votes. Not too far behind job security was fundraising and pressure to win. I believe that all three of these responses make perfect sense to almost everyone who works in international education. Fundraising for athletics is typically frowned upon and not needed with budgets or parents covering most costs. Fundraising efforts at international schools are almost exclusively used for people or organizations in need.

Without set leagues and low talent levels, the focus, as it should be, is on educational athletics. It’s nice to win, but it’s never the goal. In many schools and locations, it’s simply hard to find people to take the AD job, as it’s usually an extension of their teaching load. In bigger schools, there are full time ADs with dedicated support staff. However, in these schools, it’s usually the AD and not the school that decides when it’s time to move on.

What makes international sports parents unhappy?

Our survey also asked ADs about the parents in their programs. The top three answers were all very close, so there was no defined winner. That said, they still paint a pretty clear picture of what ADs face across the globe.

→ Playing Time. There isn’t a coach or athletic director around the world who doesn’t encounter this issue. Thankfully, there is so much information out there that any AD or coach should be able to handle it in stride.

The other top responses are indicative of the international parent who is extremely busy and not from an athletic background. The other issues concerning parents were longer seasons and communication or information they say they didn’t receive.

Multisport participation has been a hot topic around the world for years and will continue to be. This can be intensified in an international setting, when joining a local club team is not possible for many of our parents because of the demands it puts on them and athletes. This is not even considering the language barriers. If schools give into the longer season demands they would most likely have to cut other programs, as it would remove the multiple-sport athletes that schools need to fill their rosters. Thankfully those wishes are not fulfilled, at least within Europe, as the conferences are set up with three distinct seasons that start and stop without any overlapping.

A problem I discovered is that you can have meetings, send emails and post information online, but some parents will still not find the information they need and will complain that the athletic director needs to do a better job. Thick skin is a defining feature that sets long-time ADs apart from newbies, and it’s because of these of issues. It is, however, indicative of the busy international parent that may not be home with their children most of the week but still wants to know anything and everything.

In many situations, you can do everything possible and parents will still find a way to demand that you do more. As long as you make the information available online and drive the parents to it, you can keep that thick skin, allowing you to stay on top.

“(With) specialization, I, (and our program) celebrate multisport athletes, but our host country does not,” one athletic director said. “The two philosophies often intersect when parents and clubs get involved. Kids just want to play. I would love to have a rule where specialization is not allowed until a certain age.”

“Often international school communities are ‘bubbles,’ and the school is pressured to provide the same experiences and level as in the host country where the system is more established and there are more options,” said another respondent.

The international AD’s wish list

It would come as no surprise to anyone that if an AD has carte blanche, they will build bigger and better facilities. This proved true in our survey results.

Overall, facilities were the No. 1 response, but it’s interesting to note that it was the European ADs who were the driving force in this regard. Are Asian schools that much better equipped? While that may not always be true, there are a great deal of smaller international schools in Europe that are highly restricted by their surrounding areas, regardless of their budgets.

Coaches are the second area where ADs would like to spend more money — specifically raising salaries, having money for assistant coaches, and paying for professional development opportunities. It’s refreshing to know that ADs around the world realize how important their coaches are, and even if they are not allowed to show it in monetary ways, they at least wish they could.

I encourage ADs to keep fighting; if not for salaries, for professional development funding and opportunities. Our schools strive to have the best of everything inside the classroom, so it’s reasonable to want the same for our student-athletes.

If we had more time

Athletes and coaches are the two main aspects of any AD’s life, and it’s no surprise that the majority of us would like to spend more time with them — if only we had it.

Coaches are a bit of a double-edge sword for ADs. We employ and trust that our coaches will instruct our students and instill our department’s values, but without any feedback or time for professional development, our coaches are left to their own devices. The optimal situation for us is to hire highly-trained coaches with years of experience who teach in the school. This, unfortunately, is not always the reality. We often have to fill coaching vacancies with anyone we can.

“I want to further support and mentor our coaches,” one athletic director said in the survey. “Further development of professional development and partnerships to enhance coaching provision is needed.”

“Spend more time with our coaches,” said another. “A number of the coaches we have working with us do not have a lot of experience, and it would be nice to be able to spend more time with them to just talk about coaching and mentoring our student-athletes.”

Overall, as ADs and coaches, our goal is to help student-athletes reach their potential by instilling lifelong character traits. It should be obvious that we want to keep the thriving connection between us and our coaches, and us and our athletes when we can. It’s tough for an AD to keep this alive, as many confirmed in the survey.

If you had the opportunity to read Stephen Covey’s book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“, you know that this connection would be in his box two. Items in box two are extremely important but not urgent, and they get pushed to the side. If we, as ADs and coaches, feel it’s important for us to keep this connection alive, we must find the time.

Overall, my advice is to start small to bring this connection to life. You don’t have to accomplish everything all at once, but when you just start the process, the results — perhaps unlike the results from this survey — will surely surprise you.

Nick DeForest, CMAA, is assistant director of the events office at The American International School – Vienna in Austria. Originally from St. Catharines Ontario, he has been in Austria for 20 years and is actively involved in the NIAAA on the International Committee and as an LTC instructor. 

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