by Guest Contributor
Dr. René Lyst
When I began to coach collegiate gymnastics in 1993, the coaching profession was much different than it is today. I had just finished my athletic career at Penn State, which was a very hard working and over-achieving program. As athletes, we would never question our coaches’ plans in or out of the gym. We did what we were told to the best of our ability, and we ended up being very successful.
During my 23-year coaching career, I have seen many changes. Some of them have been for the better, and some of them are still out to be judged by future coaching professionals. Regardless, to succeed today as a coach there are some realities you must accept. For example, you live in a fish bowl and everything you say and do can be taken out of context. In fact, you should expect that everything will be used out of context. In some cases, the popularity of social media and the ability for everyone to have a voice can be empowering. But in other cases, it can cause significant damage.
I have recently found my own voice and launched a website to start making a difference. I did this because I want to be a resource for future coaching professionals. I want you to learn from my successes and my failures. In this short article, I have identified a few harsh realities that every coach should know. My background is collegiate sports, but these practices can and should be applied to every level of coaching in any sport. Here are a few things I wish I knew before I began my coaching career.
1. Meet With a Lawyer
Even after all my experience, writing those words is very difficult. I do not like the concept of starting a situation with what seems to be such a paranoid outlook. However, my coach always told me to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. You are your only advocate!
There are two main items that should be discussed in this initial meeting.
Most of us are so happy to get a job we love doing that we do not take the time to thoroughly understand our contracts. That one document will mean more to you than you ever know should any issues with your performance come into question. Lawyers are obliged to follow that contract. I hope that you take this step before you sign the document. However, I know most of us will not. We trust in the system and are optimistic that the future will be smooth sailing.
Every state has slightly different laws. Unfortunately, sometimes your administrators, your student-athletes, and any other constituents with whom you interact may know more than you. Again, you are your only advocate. Protect yourself.
Here is just one example of how understanding state employment laws can assist you. Only 11 states require a two-party consent for recording conversations. Honestly, I was not aware of this until it was too late. I wish I had had the tools needed to be more proactive in protecting myself against untruthful claims. I wish I could have had ‘documented’ proof of conversations with certain individuals that would have provided me with a chance at a legal injunction against my administrative leave. I had some proof, but not enough, and a recorded conversation would have been a game changer.
In my last few months at Arizona State University (ASU), I was under extreme scrutiny for everything and anything. In the last meeting I had with my administrators, they began the meeting with intimidation and fear. They then presented me with various issues they had with how I was running the program. As I was sitting there shaking and trying to stay composed, I listened intently on what they were saying not how they were saying it. All of it had to do with my actions and me as a person.
Shortly after the meeting, I met with my assistant coaches at my apartment. I had post-it-notes all over my island in the kitchen of the issues that were presented to me. Each post-it-note had a subject, and I had written proposed action steps to meet the expectations of my supervisors. During this meeting with my assistants, we discussed the action steps, came to an agreement on how to move forward, and created a plan. This is how I like to manage – collectively – after all; we are all in it together. While my assistants were still at my apartment, I took photos of the post-it-notes and texted my supervisors that we had met and had action steps to move forward. I got a response that this was good work and a great step forward.
Two days later, I was put on administrative leave. The document I received said I was put on leave because I shared confidential information. There was no confidential information discussed, nor was I told not to talk to anyone about my meeting. My lawyer confirmed that, by law, I was permitted to share anything about myself that I want to anyone. I did have the text as partial proof of this, but my lawyer is the one who told me about one-person consent to recording conversations. Had I recorded the conversation, I could have tried to take legal action immediately. Of course, this is assuming I did not share confidential information, which I know that even today I did not.
2. Understand Your Organization’s Policies and Procedures
Again, this is not to be paranoid but to be a true professional you must understand the environment in which you work. I strongly advise that if you do not agree with a major policy in your environment, do not work there. Even if you do not plan to engage in activity that violates the policy with which you disagree, you just will not fit in, and your days are numbered.
One institution I worked for had a policy that staff members in the athletic department were prohibited from dating one another. I have been at multiple institutions and had never seen this type of policy. In most athletic departments, quite a few couples have met on the job and end up getting married and having families. In athletics, you are always at work and you do not tend to meet many people outside of work.
I did not date anyone in the athletic department. However, I personally do not feel it is okay for an employer to dictate a personal life between single consenting adults. I understand and acknowledge the reasons why this policy was adopted, but I personally do not agree with it.
In the bigger picture, instituting a policy on staff and their dating practices encourages an environment of intrusiveness. It also creates an environment of secrecy. People are people and will still date one another if they truly want to, but they will then keep their lives a secret. This leads to administrators looking for policy breakers. It is not a healthy environment.
3. Human Resources
Make sure you know the HR practices for grievances. Unfortunately, policies are only as good as the people that follow them. At one point in my career, a senior staff mishap of HR policy ended up being a professional nightmare on my end. While HR apologized profusely, the implications, the personal stress to myself, my staff, and others associated with the program, was personally traumatic.
There are policies and procedures that administrators must follow when a complaint is brought to them. They must also be applied consistently to all employees, whether it is a football coach or an academic counselor.
An example would be an athletics staff member being accused of dating a student-athlete. Even if the student-athlete is of age, this would not be permitted on any campus. I saw the result of this from both sides, and in my situation, correct policy and procedure was not administered. One individual was allowed to stay on staff even when there was ample evidence. In fact, the student-athlete was pressured to quit their sport. Eventually, this individual resigned from the department. They were of considerable fame, and once the issue became known in outside circles, there was no other option.
In another true story example, another athletics staff member was accused of dating a student-athlete and the administrator went directly to the Title IX office without following Human Resource policy that would require an internal investigation before notifying Title IX. Unfortunately, when the accusation was shown to be false, the complaint could not be withdrawn. The issue could have been dealt with professionally within the department, but at this point the staff member, the staff that worked with them, and student-athletes had to answer to the Title IX office. While there was no action taken by the Title IX office, the staff member lost credibility and respect from those around them from a false accusation.
4. Document, Document, Document
There is no substitution for documentation. The more detail-oriented you can become the better off you are. Here are a few suggestions:
Job Descriptions: Make sure they are written and shared
Emails: Save all emails always
Texts: Save all text messages always
Meetings: Summarize all meetings in writing
Injury Reports: Keep them forever
Itineraries: Do them for every event, make them detailed, and save them
Practice Plans: Do them and save them
Practice Results: Have a written record of what each athlete completed or did not complete
Food: Keep all food expenditures and keep receipts Record who was at the meal, and if you pre-order, what was ordered
Strength & Conditioning: Keep records of workouts
The list could go on and on. It is imperative you have documentation of everything you have ever done and that you keep the records as long as possible. If files get too large, back them up on a bigger hard drive. There are few things worse than looking for a piece of ‘evidence’ to support your case or argument and realizing you threw it away or deleted it. I still have documentation from the last three institutions at which I coached: Stanford, Arkansas, and Arizona State.
It is important to keep thorough records of all injury and illness. Coaches today are under strict scrutiny. There should be a consistent paper trail between the coach and the trainer and trainer and the doctor. The coach and trainer should decide together what to include in the injury report: name; date of injury/date of illness; injury; status; notes; restrictions. The trainer should have detail reports on all rehab, medication, and doctor’s visits. The coach should communicate with the trainer daily to stay current on all treatment.
However, there is a gray area. When the injury report states an athlete can train ‘to tolerance’ this can be a real gray area. The student-athlete wants to please the coach most of the time. The coach wants to keep them ‘in the game’ physically and mentally as much as possible. So how far do you push the athlete? The trainer is your guideline. If you, the student-athlete, and the trainer want to ‘test’ what ‘to tolerance’ is, it must be a consensual and a collective process. Best advice – ask the trainer regarding every step you want to take. If at some point in training, the trainer or the student-athlete do not want to or cannot continue, then that is it for the day. Period.
Unfortunately, some coaches do not follow a doctor and trainer’s recommendations on restrictions and injury care. Even if you follow every recommendation, you may find yourself being accused of forcing an athlete to train and do more than the medical staff prescribed. Sometimes athletes do not want to train; sometimes parents do not get all the information from the student-athlete; sometimes a fan may see something in the stands and make a complaint. These things do happen. Therefore, documentation and triangulation of information are imperative. The relationship between you and your trainer and the trainer and your doctor is the most important relationship in the department.
5. Triangulate All Meetings
When you speak to a student-athlete, or anyone whom you have perceived power over, you should have not one but two other individuals in the meeting with you. If I were to meet with a student-athlete about a gymnastics-related issue, I would have both assistant coaches sit in on the meeting. If the issue dealt with an injury, I would include one coach and then the trainer. If it was an academic issue, I would include one coach and the academic advisor. Transparency is the key.
I know most of us believe one other individual in the room is sufficient. I found that having that second person increased credibility, loyalty, and consistency. Student-athletes, especially in difficult situations, can be quite skilled at pitting one authority figure against another. If you have a staff of three, but only two are in the meeting, there is the ability for that third person to not get a full account of the meeting and may receive mixed messages. I found the third person to be an important part of protecting decisions.
Communication flows upward and downward. As coaches, we tend to communicate downhill to our assistants and student-athletes. However, make sure you communicate with your supervisor(s) regularly. It is important they know what steps you are taking to work through good and bad times. Remember to document those meetings!
Communicate with your staff daily. To do their job well, they need to know anything that pertains to the welfare of the student-athlete. Although some information should not be shared with everyone, most content can be, and it is important that all staff are on the same page so there is a consistent approach when working with the student-athlete. Make sure you have records of this communication.
Communicate with the student-athletes on a regular basis in a group or individually. You are all one team and the continuum between staff, coaches, and team should be a continuous circle.
7. Get Outside Support
This is a big one. Make it a priority to have someone that supports you. I would encourage it to be a professional – a sports performance coach, a life coach, a counselor, a mentor, a priest/minister/pastor, or anyone else with the ability to give you objective advice. You need someone to support you who is not directly involved with your staff, coaches, student-athletes, parents of student-athletes, boosters, or anyone else associated with the program. We may love all of these individuals as family, but you never know who may use a moment of weakness to their advantage.
Like most coaches, we like to work with those we feel are our friends or family. We want that connection on our staff because we want our team to be like a family. I did this. I had an assistant coach I was extremely close with and I shared a lot of my personal life with them. None of us are perfect, and we may all do something in our personal life that would paint us in a negative light. Unfortunately, we need to keep a line between our staff and ourselves. If your character ever comes under question, you cannot be sure they will not share the details of information you gave them willingly. They may not even do it maliciously. Nonetheless, your staff sharing personal information about you in that time of a manner will not turn out well for you.
I understand my suggestions are mentally sobering. For a moment, it squelches the altruistic mindset a coach innately possesses. It is my goal to make sure you can coach for as long as you want. I encourage you as you make your practice plans, are on the road recruiting, working day in and day out to teach technical skills – always remember – YOU ARE YOUR ONLY ADVOCATE.
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