Spotlight

At the Core of Good Sports: Good Coaches

by Linda Chion Kenney

As the culture of school sports becomes more competitive, athletic officials say their most promising game plan is to train, certify and evaluate coaches to focus more on the kids and less on the wins.

“There’s never been a bigger need for teaching sportsmanship than there is now,” says Harold Slemmer, executive director of the Arizona Interscholastic Association and a national faculty member and adviser for the Character Counts! Coalition and Leadership Council. The latter organization has developed the “Pursuing Victory With Honor” sportsmanship campaign used by schools and districts nationwide.

“Sportsmanship is all about a person’s character and values and his wanting to be fair, wanting to be trustworthy, wanting to be respectful during and after the game,” he says. “These are character traits good coaches teach kids and sport is the medium through which they teach. If these character traits are taught well and enforced by coaches, it carries over into the field and into the stands.”

Necessary to counter the rising tide of foul play both on and off the court is a coaching staff that understands that “high school athletics is educational athletics,” Slemmer says. “Teaching kids character and sportsmanship has to be done by design, not chance, and you do that through a curriculum that focuses on sports and character building.”

The job is as daunting as the need.

Certifiying Coaches
According to Tim Flannery, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis, Ind., a certification program his group made available in partnership with the American Sport Education Program has been reaching about 16,000 coaches a year. But that’s a small number, Flannery says, considering an estimated 750,000 individuals coach high school sports nationwide.

According to Tim Flannery, assistant director of the National Federation of State High School Associations in Indianapolis, Ind., a certification program his group made available in partnership with the American Sport Education Program has been reaching about 16,000 coaches a year. But that’s a small number, Flannery says, considering an estimated 750,000 individuals coach high school sports nationwide.

To better reach that market, Flannery’s group is in the process of ending its 15-year agreement with ASEP and intends to launch by January 2007 its own training and certification program for low-cost, online and widespread delivery.

"If we have, as estimated, a 20 percent turnover every year, that’s 150,000 coaches, so the 16,000 coaches we’ve been reaching annually isn’t really making it,” Flannery says. “We need to reach between 100,000 and 150,000 coaches a year if we want to have a chance at changing the culture of high school athletics.”

That culture, he says, has been moving over the past 30 years more toward winning and less toward developing young people physically, psychologically and socially. “And when you put winning first,” he adds, “it becomes a business or it becomes entertainment, but it does not become an educational experience.”

The NFHS, which supports but doesn’t govern state athletic associations, was to begin developing its coaching certification program May 1, working with state associations and member schools to encourage coaches to become certified. Slemmer says the Arizona association will require all 239 high schools in its membership to certify its high school coaches.

Flannery notes that about 37 states have some kind of requirement for coaches’ training, “but those 37 states primarily are requiring only non-educator coaches to have this kind of training, which means not all coaches are getting trained.” California, he adds, “is one of the few states requiring that all coaches have this training and Massachusetts is also taking that jump. Our role will be to get all states to follow the lead of California and Massachusetts.”

Training for coaches will cover CPR, sports first aid and “coaching principles,” which involves the fundamentals of working with youngsters, Flannery says. Also available in the fledgling national program will be single-focus components of coaching that address pressing issues, such as hazing, sexual harassment, steroids use and sportsmanship.

Non-Educators
John Olson, after 40 years in education, laments no national mandate or legal requirement exists for the training of coaches at a time when the participation level in high school sports has been steadily increasing over the past two decades, up to 7.2 million last year. “We are different from Europe and Canada in that regard,” says Olson, who, since retiring from the Madison, Wis., school district in 2000 as assistant superintendent now serves as director of curriculum and instruction for the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association.

Instead, Olson adds, “you see there’s some attempt at emulating collegiate or professional coaching behaviors that are not appropriate for developing students.”

Olson is behind the push for a national mandate for certification, noting its positive impact on sportsmanship and character development. “Ninety-five percent of amateur sport in the United States is controlled and directed by educational institutions,” he says. “Please tell me the justification for swearing at a kid, berating an official or encouraging rough play and then paying for that with tax or tuition dollars.”

Complicating the issue is the growing number of coaches who do not have teaching degrees.

“The real secret to the career coach is that when Jimmy or Mary talk back to the English teacher during the day, the coach can say you go apologize before the end of the day or you won’t participate in practice,” says Olson, who prepared teachers and coaches for careers in physical education and athletic administration for seven years at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “The coach who’s walking in the door at 3:30 doesn’t know what Jimmy or Mary did in school that day.”

Flannery estimates that on average 50 percent of today’s coaches are non-educators. “Texas is the one state that requires every coach to be an employee of the school district, whether it’s a teacher or a custodian or some other position. Most of the other states permit what we call ‘off-staff coaching,’ maybe not for football and basketball, but for all other sports,” he says.

Still, Flannery says, while years ago a physical education major had coaching courses, that’s not necessarily true today, which makes the implementation of certification an even more pressing need.

Slemmer’s organization has responded with the “Pursuing Victory With Honor” sportsmanship campaign. It advances the “six pillars of character” (trustworthiness, fairness, respect, responsibility, caring and citizenship) espoused by Character Counts, a nonpartisan youth ethics initiative. Arizona schools have been using the campaign for five years and will be piloting and eventually adopting the National Federation of High School Associations model, which Slemmer says will complement the sportsmanship initiative.

Evaluating Coaches
One unmet need, the experts say, is to effectively evaluate coaches, taking into account the genetic and developmental differences of student athletes. “We should assess coaches on those factors for which they have control,” Olson says, “and winning is not always one of them.”

Flannery’s national federation hopes to eventually train and assess school districts on their training of sports coaches based on the exams the coaches take through the association. He notes that while some evaluation lends itself to checklists, as in turning uniforms in on time at the end of the season, the better part of the evaluation needs to be observational.

“Let’s say you lost the game last night,” Flannery says. “How does the coach react? Is he or she under control, watching to observe for bad behavior? If a kid is acting inappropriately, does the coach intervene and say, ‘Just relax, calm down, it’s not the end of the world’ and carry that through in the locker room? Or does the coach complain that the calls were bad and that the team didn’t get any breaks. To really evaluate coaches, you have to observe these behavior issues.”