The Case for Change: Working with the Modern Athlete

summarized by David DeWinter
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Jane Miller – Senior Associate Athletics Director/Senior Woman Administrator at UVA (Retired)
Kevin Harris – Head Coach, University of Tulsa Women’s Rowing
Ted Benford – Executive Director, CRI
Nick McPartland – Director of Physical Education, Athletics and Health, Saratoga Springs School District

The 3-Sentence Summary

Coaches are expected to do more than ever before to help athletes be successful, so it is even more difficult to find the right coaches for your organization. Modern coaches must seek continuous improvement, commit to building up team culture, and focus on the team over individuals. Organizations, in turn, must provide opportunities for their coaches to grow and ensure that they create the right feedback models so their coaches keep delivering high-quality experiences to their athletes.



0:33 Introduction: How do you coach the modern athlete?

0:49 Awarding Female Athlete of the Year to Meghan Musnicki

4:30 The world is changing so quickly, and we as coaches need to continue to grow to support our athletes’ needs.

5:30 Panelist introductions:

  • Kevin Harris: Head Coach of the University of Tulsa, member of the DEI committee, member of USRowing Board of Directors
  • Jane Miller: Retired from UVA as a Senior Associate AD, served on many NCAA committees and the NCAA D1 Board of Directors
  • Nick McPartland: Director of Physical Education and Athletics for the Saratoga Springs School District
  • Ted Benford: Executive Director at CRI

Modern Athletes and Modern Coaches

7:39 What is the modern athlete?

  • Kevin: The modern athlete understands there’s a hierarchy of needs required before we can make boats fast.
  • Ted: The modern athlete cares about the whole experience. CRI is an experience provider. People remember how they were treated here and how they felt about being here. That supersedes the race performance or even the quality of the rowing.
  • Jane: Modern athletes more dedicated to having a “full”/holistic experience (school, community involvement, NIL/individual branding, social media)

11:50 With all the challenges coaches face today outside of coaching–SafeSport, mental health, helicopter parents, lawsuits, burnout, injuries, social media, DEI, COVID, safety, etc.–how do you handle old-school coaches who aren’t used to that? What is an old-school coach?

  • Nick: We have 87 teams and 135 coaches. It can be very difficult to evaluate coaches to know whether each coach is headed. “I’m an old-school coach” usually means “I’m not willing to grow,” which isn’t tolerated.

18:15 Modern coaches are lifelong learners.

Interviewing Coaches

18:53 When you’re looking to hire a coach, what essential skills are you looking for?

  • Kevin: Communication (both speaking and listening),  empathy, willingness to learn; willingness to push the team forward first (we vs. I). The assistant coach role is sometimes not about coaching; it’s about filling a role to make the head coach’s job easier.
  • Ted: Cooperation and ability to handle conflict. Programs are very interdependent, so coaches must work well with coaches of other programs. Mistakes can negatively impact other coaches and the experience of other rowers, which is a big organizational challenge. We also ensure that they are willing to learn, hear hard truths, and build connection with their athletes.
  • Jane: Empathy, integrity, humility. Humility = it’s not about you; it’s about your athletes. They come first. Proven success is not enough anymore. Candidates must be solution-oriented people who solve their own problems. Care about the overall experience of your athletes, and care about the last person on your squad. Ask yourself, “Would this person be a good teammate?”

28:27 Question: what books are you reading right now?

Legacy: “Great leaders don’t make followers. Great leaders make other leaders.” Everyone sweeps out the bay. There is no one too good.

29:30 How do you find red flags in a candidate? How do you know their code of ethics matches your code? How do you hire?

  • Nick
    • Teachers get the first crack at coaching jobs. Good teachers who are also good coaches are the best because they get the most time in front of students.
    • Red flag: when they say “I” and “me” a lot instead of “we” or “us.” The only time they should say “I” or “me” is when there’s a mistake they’re taking accountability.
    • Example interview questions: give me an example of what {empathy, humility, integrity, etc.} looks like in a team huddle, during a practice, …
  • Jane
    • Resume embellishment is a big red flag.
    • Ask them about roles on their resume–what did that role mean? Who did they work with?
    • Another red flag is overcomplimenting the interviewer.
  • Ted: It’s a brutal hiring environment, and there’s a lot of pressure to hire any coach because of the shortage of applicants. How do we recruit the right coaches? Sometimes you don’t have enough applicants, but don’t change your bar. Culture fit is critical.

Helping Your Coaches Grow

39:31 How do you create and share expectations with your coaches?

  • Nick: We start with the required certifications. Then there’s a coaches’ handbook and pre-season coaches’ meeting where we talk about expectations. I focus on expectation-setting with new coaches and the coaches not meeting the mark. I leave great coaches alone to do their job well.
  • Jane: You have to develop relationships with your coaches. Be visible to athletes and coaches. We used to meet individually and as a group once a month. We outline other expectations in contracts and the coaches’ handbook.

47:25 What is most important to teach new hires: your expectations as a head coach, improving their skills, or teaching culture?

  • Kevin: All are important, but culture is most important. Organization culture is the foundation of how coaches support the modern athlete. I encourage coaches to build on the culture and improve their skills to the point where they become coaches other people want to hire. When coaches can build a healthy culture that focuses on the right mission (enhance the education of our students), we end up taking care of our modern athletes and enable them to be successful.

51:33 When/how do you spend time finding resources for your coaches to grow?

  • Ted: Development of coaches is a priority. It’s an investment, not an expense. We offer management training to our head coaches and young managers and other professional development for coaches (even though they are sometimes reluctant to take advantage of these opportunities).

58:00 How should smaller clubs grow their coaching staff even if they don’t have a coach growth plan?

  • Chris: USRowing is starting Small Club Saturday this winter to help clubs face the same issues and challenges help each other so everyone can share resources. I also remember that I could call any rowing team and they would help.
  • Ted: There’s so much that organizations are willing to share. Take that first step to ask the question of someone who can help!

Evaluating Coaches

1:02:35 How do you evaluate your coaches at the end of the season?

  • Jane: Simpler evaluations are better. Match their goals/expectations with their performance in all areas (academic, community service, team performance). I write a summary of those areas and have a conversation with them. Coaches were very hesitant to have a number system–they all thought they should be above average and didn’t like being rated a 3, even though that means they did their job. Incorporate feedback from exit interviews, but know the context of those interviews. They like to see the data of what they accomplished (win/loss, community service projects and hours, etc.)

1:07:25 How can we create a culture of feedback where our coaches aren’t threatened by it? Do you get pushback on feedback?

  • Nick: There’s not a great system in place to evaluate coaches. (COVID has made it tough to build new systems.) There’s a self-evaluation tool, and I also make myself available to meet with coaches about their season and future needs. We want to learn more about how to support our coaches. We are currently piloting an exit interview; I look for trends.

Parent and Athlete Communication

1:16:18 How do you draw the lines with parents?

  • Jane: Building relationships is important; involve them where appropriate. If they have an issue, encourage them to talk to the coach first, but sometimes they will go above you. Listen to others’ perspectives (from parents, athletes, assistant coaches) and assemble a plan of action to move forward. I never talk with parents about playing time or another student-athlete.
  • Ted: It’s easy to make assumptions about people, so stay out of the storytelling and interpretation of what people say. Stick with the information that the parents want to share and listen to it non-defensively. Get the facts from your staff. Then close the loop between your coaches and the parents.

1:22:49 What methods for communication work well? What doesn’t work so well?

  • Nick: Remind app helps you control whether the communication is one-way or two-way.
  • Chris: SafeSport has definitive rules: emails must be from the organization, not a personal account, and one-on-one meetings must be interruptible.

1:27:18 Are your coaches employees or 1099 contractors?

  • Ted: All coaches are employees.
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