Leading a School-Based Sports Program: Mission and Coaches

David Jacobson

Sport has a role in tikkun olam. No less a visionary leader than Nelson Mandela once said, “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair.”


If you want to produce students equipped for maximum positive impact on a world that very much needs it, it is critical to get sports right in your school. Classrooms can provide all manner of academic rigor, requiring and inspiring character traits such as discipline and persistence. But nothing compares to sport as a vehicle for life lessons and character development.


Sport is exciting, healthy, generally fun, often emotional and action-packed so that participation commands focus, and students are likely to engage and commit in ways quite different than they do in the classroom. Sport also offers immediate feedback and understanding of cause and effect: either you stuck the landing or you didn’t…no waiting while teachers grade your papers.


And as youth athletes consider the immediate feedback that they themselves perceive—along with soon-to-follow feedback from coaches, parents and peers—they have the opportunity to learn life lessons. The most common life lessons in sports concern resilience, teamwork, competitiveness, discipline, leadership and overcoming adversity and fear. Youth who learn those lessons can use them to succeed in sports, and more importantly, in the rest of their lives as family members, students, employees, employers and members of a community.


If you accept the premise that it is critical to get sports right, the next question is, How? The answer starts with school leaders who focus on creating a sports environment that is in sync with the highest values and mission of the school.


Sport may be viewed as co-curricular, rather than extracurricular. Sport is not what happens after the serious work of the classroom; it is an extension of the classroom that many students and parents may take even more seriously. Sport resonates more deeply and emotionally than many classroom experiences, and therein lies its potential to produce outstanding students and citizens.


A first step in creating a great sports program is for school leadership to frame it within the school’s mission statement, or generate an athletic department-specific mission statement that reflects the overall values of the school as a whole. While formulating the mission statement, view it through the lens of both your highest aspirations and your worst fears. Ask, “What is the greatest thing we can accomplish through sport?” or “If all our students had the ideal sports experience, what would the outcome be? What kind of people would they become?” Also ask, “What if we have misbehavior in the stands, poor sportsmanship, and conflict among players, coaches, parents and school administration? How will our mission statement inform our response to those circumstances?”


The result should be a mission statement that is aspirational, challenging to live up to, yet grounded enough in the reality of today’s sports culture to guard against some of our population’s baser behavior. If you imagine every best and worst scenario possible and believe your mission statement could guide you toward swift, just responses, you are on the right track.


A great mission statement inspires people and galvanizes their energy. People tend to forget about the nobler goals of their organizations in the course of pursuing day-to-day responsibilities, so a concise, memorable mission statement keeps all stakeholders in an organization mindful of their aims and helps them resolve difficult, ambiguous situations. It provides a starting point for conversations about the school’s values, which is key to assessing and modifying culture and behavior and helps hold an organization accountable to its ideals.


The next step is to generate buy-in from all the stakeholders, including teachers, coaches, parents, student-athletes and any supporters, such as fan groups or booster clubs. Sometimes that requires private meetings with key constituents, and at other times small group sessions or schoolwide assemblies. Other venues for sharing your mission statement and some of its key precepts include websites, newsletters, stickers, ticket stubs, banners and public address announcements.


It may seem too obvious to state that school leadership must communicate its sports program’s mission, values and standards clearly, thoroughly and consistently to all constituents. But it’s not too obvious, because often breakdowns in the sports culture of a school occur due to failure in those lines of communications. Put simply, you cannot expect people to behave in keeping with what you believe are cultural norms unless they understand the expectations for behavior within those cultural norms.


So far we have examined the foundations of an outstanding school sports culture. Of course, further structure on top of foundation is necessary. Let’s consider coaches as the next level of structure. You need coaches who will not only maintain what you have built, but also improve upon it.


Hiring correctly is key, and now you will see why your mission statement is so important. Does your mission statement say anything about developing character in your student-athletes? Does it specify how many games you should win? Likely, those answers are “yes” and “no,” respectively.


Therefore, you would err on the side of hiring a coach of great character, with a track record of developing student-athletes of character. If the coach brings scoreboard wins, all the better. By no means are winning and character incompatible; they often go hand in hand. But the way school leadership would weigh the two in importance illustrates how your mission statement can and should inform your hiring.


The right coaches often are right because of their own leadership skills and charisma. School leadership should use that reality to its advantage. Don’t just hire coaches to manage groups of athletes. Make coaches your allies in creating your school’s athletic culture.


Notice the respect they can inspire from their players, their players’ parents, and their fellow coaches. Empower them to lead beyond just the strict environs of the sport you hired them to coach. They will impart your school’s values and deliver on your sports program mission statement in ways you never imagined.


Among the most important ways is by keeping peace with players’ parents. Most school athletic directors face no greater challenge than managing parent-coach conflicts. These can arise from issues of playing time, the way coaches try to motivate players, the tone of a coach’s voice, how a player behaves at home after practice, the mood of the parent subject to that player’s behavior, jealousy of a rival team, etc.


The right coaches can keep you ahead of that curve by coaching the full child, not just the athlete. That desire entails a solid, proactive working relationship with the player’s family, who presumably wants the best for the child, as should the coach.


In short, the coach augments the satisfaction of the school sports program’s ultimate customer, the student-athlete’s parent. Fortunately, the sporting lives of the student-athletes, who should be the ultimate customers—served by school leadership, parents and coaches alike—also revolve around the coach. So with coaches connecting the other three stakeholders, they are perfectly positioned to ensure that all constituents are driving at the core values of your mission statement.


No matter how well your coaches work with your student-athletes and their parents, there will be occasional conflicts that end up in your office. Hire, train and manage as well as you can, but the buck still stops with you. After implementing these ideas in your school sports program, you are more likely to manage these conflicts effectively and achieve the goal of producing student-athletes inspired by your school’s core values.


To Learn More

Here are some of the resources from our website, devzone.positivecoach.org, on topics mentioned in this article:

Mission Statement for Your School or Youth Sports Organization

Athletic Directors: 3 Cs To Consider When Hiring Coaches

5 Qualities of a Great High School Coach

Positive Coaching Alliance’s Double-Goal Coach® Job Description

Tips for a Positive Parent-Coach Partnership

Creating a Strong Coach-Parent Partnership

Joe Ehrmann on Coach-Parent Relationships

How an Athletic Director May Manage Expectations

Dealing With Upset Parents as an Athletic Director

Hard Conversations With Coaches

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HaYidion Athletics Winter 2015
Winter 2015