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Building Your College Tennis Program

Chapter 4: Building a Positive Relationship
within your Athletic Department

How do you get tennis to be seen favorably within your athletic department? Winning matches seems like an obvious answer, but in many cases it takes more than winning. Just like any other professional in today’s world, coaches want to impress their bosses (Athletic Directors) and co-workers (other coaches and department officials). How your program is viewed within your athletic department can affect things like your program’s budget, facilities and maybe even whether you still have a program five years from now!

There are several little things you can do to have your program be seen in a favorable light, even if you are not notching conference titles and winning seasons every year. Four general ideas for building departmental support are:

  • Have a plan

  • Know your image

  • Put an emphasis on success off the court

  • Take an interest in others in your department

Administrators will tell you that that while they don’t necessarily mind their coaches coming to them with a problem, it annoys them if the coach has no solution or plan for the problem. If you show that you have a plan and ways to fix some of the problems you are facing, you are more likely to get your AD’s support and interest. You need to let your AD know that you are very interested in doing the work needed to make your program better, whether it be a facility improvement or fundraising for a bigger budget.

Stanford’s Dick Gould gives this advice on working with superiors: “Present your ideas to superiors with as much information as possible. If you get a ‘no’ answer, be firmly, but ‘nicely’ persistent and come back with another ‘twist.’

"Pick your 'battles' well - don't waste your energy and your administrator's time on picky little things," adds Gould. “Rather spend your energies on those which you feel will make a marked difference in your program.”

“It is difficult to ignore a large and positively vocal group,” says one AD, noting the importance of having a wide-base of community support. “A coach needs to be part of the solution, rather than part of the problem. My coaches have learned that I respond much better to their issues when they bring positive solutions to the table, and I don’t think I am much different than any other administrator when it comes to this.”

A coach should stop to think about personal areas which can be improved. What type of image do you think you have within your department? What is your reputation?

Can you sometimes be seen by others in your department as a “high maintenance” coach? This is not necessarily a bad thing. It could mean that you are active, ambitious, a hard worker and getting the most out of the resources within your department. But it can also mean that others in the department are always being brought into your problems or that you tend to complain too much. Which end do you fall on? It is very important to know this.

This is what on AD says about coach-AD relationships: “I get turned off quickly by coaches who I only visit with when there is a crisis or they want something. The question I ask is ‘When you talk to me, is everything always 'heavy'?’ I actually have coaches who stop in just to ask how my dog is doing or to inquire about my latest remodeling project or ask me to lunch and not talk about business. Coaches need to understand the importance of non-confrontational conversation. It is better to practice casual office politics 75 percent of the time; otherwise administrators are loathe to see the coach when they appear. I tell my coaches they will have more success with me if every conversation we have is not about their problems or themselves.”

There are times when a coach needs to be aggressive to get the best results for his or her program. But there are other times when a coach needs to consider how his or her actions may be viewed by others around them and what kind of long term effects they may have.

Notre Dame’s Bobby Bayliss suggests requesting an end of the year meeting with your Athletic Director for the purpose of receiving constructive criticism, if something like this is not already in place.

Bayliss also recommends asking your team for an evaluation of how they feel about you. He distributes a questionnaire which is completed anonymously and returned to the captain, who gives it to him. Bayliss says: “I don’t always like what I read, but at least if there is a problem with the way I am doing things, I will know about it.”

Also take stock in what your player’s images are. If an administrator came out to one of your matches, what kind of team would they see? Would they see solid sportsmanship or arguing and yelling? Are your players wearing six different shirts? Also, what are your players like off the court? Sound students and role models or sub par students and partiers? Players are a reflection of their coaches and can impact how a department views a coach.

The ITA now offers a weekly ITA National Team Sportsmanship Award, another thing to strive for to help build your team’s image.

One coach says her Athletic Director told her: “Your standing is safe here so long as you or your players don’t ever do anything to damage this department’s reputation.” Not exactly a news flash, but something coaches should always keep in mind. This means paying attention to success off the court.

First, there is the academic arena. Set a team grade point average goal. Make it known that this is a big priority for your program. Maybe your program isn’t known for winning matches, but it can be known for players earning academic accolades at the conference and national level or within your own athletic department. For instance the ITA honors several schools each summer for registering a 3.20 GPA as ITA All-Academic Teams, and hundreds of student-athletes who have a 3.50 GPA as ITA Scholar-Athletes. If your team and/or a player receive an academic honor, you should publicize it. Make sure people know your program is doing things that can make your university proud.

There is also the opportunity for community service, which has been documented in previous Building Programs chapters. This is another area you can set goals for your program. While teams obviously should not participate in charitable activities just for publicity and to pat themselves on the back, they do need to make their community activities known in order to encourage others to do likewise; you and your players can be seen as positive role models. If your athletic department does not have any type of community service participation award for its programs, start one and have your team strive to win it each year. Community service and involvement is also, as emphasized throughout these chapters, a great way to connect with you community and gain support.

It might be a cliché, but be a “team player.” This means supporting the other programs in your department. As explained in an earlier chapter, a good idea is to set up a system with other coaches looking to fill more seats in the stands - your team is going to be at the soccer matches and the soccer team is going to be at the tennis matches. Send a note or leave a voice mail for another coach in your athletic department congratulating them when their team does something special.

Invite your administrators to your matches. Show them that it is important to you that they see what you are trying to accomplish and that what you are doing is special. Some teams have also set up tennis clinics and/or tennis mix and match events for the faculty and athletic department as a way of connecting and as a good will gesture.

The bottom line is that in any type of employment, if your superiors like and respect the type of person you are, your team’s image and the effort you are giving, there is a good chance you will be at that place for a long time.