One Secret to Survive the Coaching Climate Today

If you are not an athletic coach, have you paused to consider what it’s like to be one? If you are a coach, do you realize how much your profession has changed in the last two decades? It’s enough to rattle anyone.

Allow me to share one case study, without naming any names.

Some time ago, a Division 1 coach removed a student athlete from the team for not maintaining the agreed upon team rules. It’s happened regularly through the years. But recently—this coach didn’t get off so easy. The young player’s parents hired an attorney, and later, went to a civil rights center believing it was a larger crime on the part of the coach. They railroaded the coach, claiming a remark had been made that their daughter had ADHD, and this was deemed worthy of a legal battle. In the end, the accusation was false, but it was enough to get this coach fired.

This kind of removal is not an isolated case.

The fact is, you need 10 to 15 years to really hone your craft as a competitive coach, but many of the legendary ones would be fired for doing what works today. It’s a tight rope. One NCAA coach admitted he’s an “old school coach.” He admitted freely that he’s able to get away with what he does because he’s won 1,100 games. “There’s no way you could do today what I’ve done to win all these games.”

Coach Krzyzewski, from Duke men’s basketball said, “If I started my career now, I wouldn’t be able to survive in today’s climate. I am allowed to be tough because of my record.”

What’s Changed?

Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

The coaching climate today—especially if you work at a Division 1 program—is laced with pressure and fear. Pressure from all sides to win as a competitor; to foster academics and graduation rates; to master life skill development and public relations. Among the challenges a coach must be mindful of are:

  • Winning games, matches or meets
  • Intrusion from your athletes’ parents
  • Social media attacks from alumni and fans
  • Student athletes’ complaints about coaching styles

In the midst of the pressure, coaches have told me they often feel isolated—from parents and administrators. Some get bullied by both parents and administrators. At times, the administrators side with the parents. After all, they’re the stakeholders.

One high school athlete’s mom actually said, “We believe how much we volunteer should directly impact how much playing time our kids get.”

It’s the system we have today—in club sports, high schools, even intercollegiate athletics. Parents may not even realize what they’re doing to their kids, but because they have a vested interest in their child’s success, they’ll intrude, intervene and negotiate, enabling bad behavior on their children’s part. Character and academics can drop with a parent who acts like an “agent.”

The Secret of Emotional Fuel

One of our Habitudes® is called, “Emotional Fuel.” It teaches that just as cars run on gasoline for fuel, leaders run on emotional fuel. This fuel is made from the intentional relationships leaders place in their life to keep their emotional tank full. Because leaders (perhaps especially athletic coaches) have so many demands on their life that deplete them and empty their tank, they must position people in their life that re-fuel them. Years ago, I began a list of my “fuel folks” who fill me regularly and insure I have the emotional stamina to both survive and thrive as a leader:

  1. Mentors – Each year I select 5-6 people who invest in me in the specific areas that I want to develop. They’re specialists I meet with for a meal when I can ask them specific questions that have been on my mind.
  2. Heroes – I believe both kids and adults need heroes—people who we admire for the life they live. They can be dead or alive but they hold up a standard for me to achieve.
  3. Models – These can be different than heroes. Models actually do what you want to do in your life and career. They are people to emulate professionally.
  4. Accountability Partners – These are people who travel the journey with you,  people you respect enough to hold you accountable to commitments you make.
  5. Mentees – These are people who you invest in because they follow you in age or experience. They’re fuel because they remind you to exemplify all you say.
  6. Inner-Circle – These are your closest allies—family, long-time friends, those who you trust to let your hair down and vent or celebrate with along the way.

Early in my marriage, I had a habit of driving my car on empty. I didn’t like to waste time stopping to fill up my gas tank. My wife, Pam, never understood it. Twice in my twenties, I ran out of gas on the freeway. Pam laughed and I learned my lesson. I also have learned my lesson about emotional fuel. Intentionality is key.

If you’re going to thrive in your pressure-filled world, you’ve got to enter it each week with a full emotional tank.

What Can Athletic Administrators Do?

Let me offer a list of simple suggestions for athletic departments:

1. Set Guidelines and Policies in Place to Protect the Coach and Athlete.

It’s time we introduce perspective to student athletics. I believe if there is a parent problem, there is an administrator problem. Leaders have allowed parents to play a role they should not have. Departments should have boundaries in place and communicate them clearly from the beginning of the fall and spring seasons.

2. Provide Professional Development.

Often, coaches are ill-prepared for these issues. They received no professional development, outside of the sport itself. Departments should furnish mandatory in-service training in leadership development, navigating parent relationships, and understanding today’s Generation Z student-athlete. (Let us know if we can help.)

3. Athletic Directors Should Act as Coaches to the Coaches.

Obviously, administrators have various gifts. I believe the best ones not only make themselves available to coaches for personal mentoring, but also they should schedule such times. This doesn’t mean they have to know all the answers, but they can offer support and wise counsel for the new territory coaches find themselves in today.

Want to prepare athletes for excellence in sports and life?
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  • Build teams where every athlete thinks and acts like a leader.
  • Build athletes who make wise decisions that keep them in competition and out of trouble.

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One Secret to Survive the Coaching Climate Today