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Why Coaches Still Matter

Posted Tuesday, January 02, 2007 by School Board Journal

Why Coaches Still Matter-taken from School Board Journal 2006

Coaches can play an important role in the lives of children, but the coach-athlete relationship must meet some challenges if it's to be successful. The dingy gyms and patchwork practice fields of the high school ranks are a far cry from the gleaming basketball palaces and football cathedrals where professional and major college ///coaches work. Those ///coaches also enjoy seven-figure salaries, endorsement deals, and a celebrity reception that are nothing like the reality high school ///coaches face.

Most high school ///coaches are teachers who work additional hours after school because they love sports and working with young people. The days can be long, and the pay is skimpy -- they may receive a small coaching supplement, but they probably could earn more at some other part-time job.


Increasingly, too, ///coaches face greater pressure, as do the administrators who hire and supervise them. Outside influences, from neighborhood troubles to overenthusiastic parents, make it more difficult for today's ///coaches to connect to young athletes than it was for their predecessors. Fans are less patient -- sometimes even hostile -- when programs are not successful in the win column. Even when ///coaches' jobs aren't on the line, they still feel the burden of winning and losing.


"The pressure to win is greater than the public thinks," says Joseph Reda, athletic director at Bloom Township High School in Chicago Heights, Ill. "Playing Monday morning quarterback is easy."

Coaches say the challenges they face make their role more -- not less -- important. Today, more than ever, young people need the personal guidance and attention that ///coaches can provide. Positive lessons learned in high school sports carry over into other areas of life, they say, and if students aren't learning those lessons at home, then ///coaches can help fill that vital role.


Impatient fans, shorter tenures. Unlike pro or even college ///coaches, high school ///coaches are supposed to be educators first. In high-profile, high-revenue sports like football, however, success is increasingly measured by wins and losses.


The last thing a coach wants to encounter after a long day and a tough loss is a "For Sale" sign in the front yard or an angry, anonymous message on the answering machine. But it happens, especially if the team is not winning, because the public sees the performance on the field, not the good work the coach does during practice or at school.


Joe Boardwine, associate executive director of the Easton, Pa.-based National High School Coaches Association, says administrators and school boards are feeling the heat to make changes when a team does not win consistently. The result, he says, is that "coaching tenures across the country are getting shorter."

Just look at a few recent examples:


- Jim Verden, head football coach at Texas' Pottsboro High School, was let go in December 2005 after consecutive 0-10 seasons. Verden had been on the job for only two years.


- Officials in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg (N.C.) Schools relieved Harding High School head football coach Mike Jones of his duties after a 1-10 season. Jones was with the team, as either an assistant or head coach, for 12 years.


- In Michigan, Morenci High School football coach Dan Hoffman was fired after posting a losing record in 2005. Hoffman had been the school's head coach for nine years.

- In November 2005, Cooper High School in Abilene, Texas, fired football coach Marty Secord. He compiled a 9-11 record over two seasons.

While the pressure to fire a coach usually comes from the community, school board members and educators sometimes join in. Julia Samuels, president of the Port Arthur (Texas) school board, publicly called for the firing of Memorial High School head football coach Dean Colbert in December after his team finished with a 2-5 record in 2005.


"How much further do you let it go?" Principal Gail Gregg told the Abilene Reporter-News after Secord was let go. "If we wait, and if we continue the downward spiral we're in, where will we be a year from now? That's what really concerned me.''

The pressure to win can affect a coach's relationship with his or her players. If winning becomes the bottom line, character development may take a backseat to game planning and strategy sessions. Talented players with poor discipline records may get opportunities to play that, under more ideal circumstances, would go to better-behaved students. The desire to win also may change the types of ///coaches who get hired. A school may select a winner over a good role model.


Joe Kinnan, the longtime football coach at Florida's Manatee High School, says high school ///coaches need to tune out the external pressures as much as possible. "I'm driven from inside to want to do a good job," he says. "You have to be secure in your own mind to do what you think is right. Our approach has never been to win at all costs."

Teacher first, coach second

Coaxing moody, distracted teenagers to perform at the level of expectations isn't always simple, but many fans wonder why a player who has an outstanding game one week can turn in a lackluster performance the next. The easy excuse is to blame the coach.


Kinnan, who has won four state championships in 21 years of coaching football, says his most important job isn't teaching X's and O's or winning games. Instead, it's teaching young people values like compromise, self-sacrifice, and teamwork.


"A lot of these things were being taught in the home when I was growing up," Kinnan says. "Now, ///coaches have an even greater responsibility to teach the values that will serve students well later in life."

Sadly, parents too often are hindrances rather than helpers. Some complain about their child's playing time or the coach's play calling. Overzealous parents may not care about what's best for the team; they just want their child to get more minutes, a starting job, or more touches of the ball.


Those disagreements occasionally turn ugly or even tragic. Last April, an enraged father shot and critically wounded a football coach at East Texas' Canton High School. The parent, Jeffery Doyle Robertson, already had been banned from football games after confronting ///coaches numerous times.


In January 2005, Salinas (Calif.) Union High School District officials decided to hold a high school basketball game in an empty gym after a coach received intimidating calls. The decision was extremely unpopular; fans ultimately were allowed to attend, but under heavy security.


In 2004, the Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, N.C., established a detailed series of guidelines governing parents' interactions with ///coaches. Parents receive information about team rules and requirements, individual expectations, and guidelines for making the team. They can request meetings to discuss their child's behavior, ways to improve his or her skills, or the coach's treatment of their child. But parents are not supposed to question ///coaches about playing time, game strategies, or other players on the team.


Bobby Guthrie, the school district's athletic director, believes the guidelines have helped prevent misunderstandings between parents and ///coaches. "It's been very positive for us," he says.

Changing challenges


The coaching profession is changing in other ways, too. The days of the all-around athlete, who played one sport in the fall, another in the winter, and a third in the spring, are disappearing. Today's athletes increasingly are specializing in a particular sport. That, in turn, fosters closer relationships between students and ///coaches.


"One thing I think has changed is that ///coaches are spending more time year-round," Boardwine says. "You're seeing your coach a lot more now than you did 30 years ago."

Boardwine sees pluses and minuses to this increased specialization. On one hand, ///coaches get to know their players better, he says, and forming those types of nurturing bonds is one of the best aspects of high school athletics. However, the push to specialize in a single sport year-round also can result in burnout in students and ///coaches alike.


Another major change in high school athletics is the rise in the number of girls who participate. In 1976, only 300,000 girls played sports in U.S. high schools, according to the Women's Sports Foundation. Now, 2.8 million do, while the number of boys has remained at about 3.6 million.


Title IX is the biggest reason for this increase. The federal statute, approved in 1972, prohibits publicly funded schools from discriminating based on gender. As a result, high schools must offer comparable sports programs for girls and boys.


Marj Snyder, chief program and planning officer for the Women's Sports Foundation, says teenage girls particularly benefit from participating in athletics. Student athletes are less likely to be sexually active, get pregnant, use drugs, or smoke. Sports also can boost girls' self-esteem and body image, Snyder says.


"The world is a competitive place. For many years boys have had an advantage because they learned how to compete," she says. "Now, girls have that opportunity."

Problematic relationships


Coaches are in a position of authority and trust. They spend long hours with students after school, away from campus, and on weekends. They serve as counselor, friend, and in some cases, surrogate parent.


On rare occasions, however, the relationship between coach and player can get too close. That can lead to problems, and in some cases, criminal charges.


"It can be similar to a teacher who teaches music or theater," Hofstra University professor Charol Shakeshaft told the St. Petersburg Times after two Florida ///coaches were arrested for inappropriate sexual conduct with students in the fall of 2005. "You are spending time after school together, on weekends, during practice. And that doesn't immediately raise suspicion."

In February 2005, the 55-year-old coach of the New Paltz (N.Y) High School ski team was charged with having sexual relations with a female skier. Two months later, police arrested a 34-year-old coach at California's El Dorado High School for having sex with a 16-year-old basketball player. And in Wisconsin, a 40-year-old female basketball coach at Wausau West High School was sentenced to 11 years in jail after pleading guilty to the sexual assault of a 15-year-old player.


Shakeshaft, who has studied sexual abuse between staff and students for the U.S. Department of Education, says ///coaches are "at the top of the list" among educators who "cross boundaries."

The Women's Sports Foundation recommends that school boards create policies expressly forbidding sexual harassment and sexual relationships between ///coaches and players. Other organizations support similar stances, while emphasizing that the overwhelming majority of player-coach relationships are positive.


Some observers suggest that male ///coaches shouldn't work with girls teams and vice versa. But Snyder disagrees: "Coaches who are good ///coaches can coach boys or girls. It shouldn't matter if they are male or female."

Why ///coaches still matter


Given the win-at-all-costs mindset of many students and parents today, is there still room for ///coaches to serve as role models?


Absolutely, say ///coaches and youth sports advocates. In fact, they believe a relationship with a high school coach can be a lifeline for many teens.


Boardwine says high school sports can teach many positive values, including how to win and lose with class, how to set goals, and how to deal with failure. Playing sports teaches students how to work as a team and coexist with people from diverse backgrounds. It also promotes health and physical fitness.


Despite the growing challenges, Kinnan says the relationships make high school sports worthwhile for players and ///coaches alike.


"The kids haven't changed as much as their surroundings have changed," he said. "A lot of them still want discipline in their lives."

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