Activity directors in rural school districts face a number of unique issues – from finding coaches, dealing with transportation issues, recruiting people to work events and – perhaps most importantly – recruiting athletes to field all the teams. Rural schools have to be creative and collect resources to fulfill all of these needs.
Finding coaches to fill positions in general is a challenge. In a rural school, there might be three applicants for an open position. If two of them are not qualified, you are only interviewing one person. If he or she does not “fit” the position, you either have to hire the applicant and hope to “mold” him or her, or you are back to the drawing board. The next option is to contact former graduates. You determine what you know about the candidates and their abilities and decide if you should take the chance.
Another option is talking to a teacher who works well with students. If the teacher has a good rapport with kids and manages the classroom well, perhaps you take a chance on the teacher.
Having a coach who is on staff in the school is so helpful. He or she has extra contact with the student-athletes, is available for quick communication and would be (hopefully) a proponent of education-based athletics. The last option is always the activities director taking on a coaching position, but this is the absolute last resort.
The reality of a rural school is the shortage of resources. Personnel can be the hardest and most daunting task for any activities director. So, what are solutions to the staffing issues in a rural school so that it is a place where student-athletes can be competitive and be surrounded by education-based athletics?
Besides looking for a coach, an activities director must find workers for each event. Keep a list of recent graduates. Get their contacts and stay in touch. Alumni can be a key resource to all things school-related. Keep track of who lives in the area. Recent graduates are not always at the top of the list for coaching positions, but they can run the clock, officiate, serve as an assistant coach or become part of the chain gang. Many times, a rural school will have one person who has worked the clock for years. Hang onto this person as long as you can. Knowing you can count on him or her to show up will make your job so much easier.
Another challenging issue for rural schools is transportation. This can be a concern for any school with bus driver shortages. However, besides this issue in a rural school, there is also the distance between schools. Schedules are manipulated so that the faraway opponents are on Friday nights. This is also a financial strain on districts with transportation. It can limit lower-level games. Students need to leave school earlier and have to miss classes.
The best solution is to make the bus driver a member of the team. Give the bus driver a team hat or sweatshirt. Have the players be thankful and talk to the driver. Having one driver transport the team creates a bonding situation and buy-in. Hopefully, the bus driver will continue to want to drive.
An issue that affects the conference schools and anyone on the schedule is the low numbers in participation. In very small schools, there may not be enough bodies to field all of the teams. Class sizes may be 30 students in a grade, and there just may not be enough kids. In a small-school setting, many athletic directors have had to make that phone call to report that there will not be a seventh-grade team or even a junior varsity team to play the game. The opponent loses a game for the lower levels, and it can be frustrating on both sides. The coach is a big influence in this situation and really can make or break the program (truly in any program and school). However, if the coach is not getting it done, there may not be any other options.
School pride is a big selling point to students. If the athletic director is diligent and purposeful with building pride, students will want to participate. Also, it is essential to be mindful of the sport offerings and to increase participation numbers – not take from another sport. Student participation is really a part of the culture of the school. The key is to get buy-in from students.
Although these issues happen in ALL schools, solutions are a little more difficult in a rural setting. Creating the school as the hub or center of the community has a huge turnaround for resources. Look to retired people to take tickets, to drive buses, to work the clock and to help supervise the doors. There are many jobs that can be offered to retired people, and it gives the members of the community a sense of pride and ownership in the school’s activities. Parents are also a great resource for the long trips to out-oftown competition.
Parents can prepare sandwiches and drinks for the athletes to eat before or after they compete. They already have the buy-in and will help out. The key is to not ask them to do something that prevents them from watching their kids play. You also do not want them too close to the coach during the contest.
Alumni are another resource. A newsletter can be created for alumni to let them know what is going on with the activities. Also let them know what you need as an activities director.
Athletic directors in rural school districts need to be creative. They need to find their resources, and potential coaches do not always fill out the application on their own. It is essential to stay positive and encourage those who already are part of the programs. Does this mean one coach may coach more than one sport? Yes. Be aware of supporting that coach and ensure that he or she takes breaks.
Quite often, rural schools have lifelong residents who offer tremendous support. Be a community athletic director. It will be more work, but if you do it with due diligence, you won’t have to look for a new football coach every year. And you won’t have to coach everything.
Lisa Myran-Schutte, CAA, is the athletic/activities director at Pine Island (Minnesota) High School after serving in a similar capacity at Houston (Minnesota) High School for several years. She is a member of the High School Today Publications Committee.