Editor's Note: The following is an interview with Joanna Smith-Stephens, CMAA, athletic director at Potomac High School in Oxon Hill, Maryland, and a representative on the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association Executive Council, regarding problems facing high school athletic administrators at urban high schools.
Question: Due to the location of many urban schools, athletic administrators may not have all of the necessary, desirable field space available for their athletic program. What are some tips or secrets for solving this problem?
Smith-Stephens: With only two fields, we constantly face this problem. This means that you have to maximize the space that you do have by splitting and sharing fields, using any available, small plot of grass and perhaps also using a parking lot. To survive in these conditions, your coaches need to concentrate on teaching skills and being flexible. The athletes may not be able to practice game-like drills or scrimmage. They have to depend upon the skills that are taught by the coaches, who have to be master teachers. And for the most part, our teams have succeeded and competed on the highest levels.
In addition, an urban athletic administrator may need to use community and park facilities to meet the needs of the program. In order to do this, you have to be creative and it does take additional planning.
Question: What are some of the challenges of using off-site venues such as those located at recreation facilities or parks for practice sessions and games? How do you go about creating a good working relationship with the managers of these facilities?
Smith-Stephens: Developing a personal working relationship with the manager of community facilities is imperative. It is important to personally meet this individual to understand the demands and responsibilities that he or she faces. The personal contact is vital. Since many of these off-site facilities may not be ready for our use early in the spring season, I’ve tried to move our home games and make them away contests as much as possible. This also means that you need the understanding and cooperation of your fellow athletic directors to make these changes.
An additional concern with use of off-site facilities is communication with parents. Parents and guardians must be made aware of the practice and/or game sites. Any changes must be communicated as well.
Question: If you do have to use off-site facilities, does the school provide transportation for the team or do students have to provide their own transportation. What problems do you have transporting the necessary equipment to conduct practice sessions or do you have to arrange storage possibilities at the site?
Smith-Stephens: While transportation is provided, occasionally we have to push the start time back due to complications. With dwindling daylight, some games have to end before they are actually completed. In terms of equipment, there are no storage possibilities at off-site venues. If all of the equipment cannot fit on the bus, a coach has to transport it in his or her car.
Question: Are there some sports that are a challenge to get enough young people to fill a team? What approach and steps do you take to overcome this hurdle?
Smith-Stephens: Yes! Historically, culturally and for socio-economic reasons, sports such as baseball, tennis, golf, track, softball, lacrosse and wrestling are often difficult to field teams. Also, some may have a “higher barrier to entry” due to the high cost of equipment, the need for parental involvement or the lack of youth development programs.
While it may take 5-10 years to reap the rewards, it is, therefore, important to encourage and partner with youth leagues in order to identify and develop potential athletes for the high school program. It is also important to connect with middle school students and teachers to drum up interest and to introduce the sports that may be new and different to them.
In addition, there are sport associations and groups that help to provide inexpensive or free equipment for start-up programs. US Lacrosse, for example, has a grassroots initiative called the First Stick Program and that helps greatly.
The biggest pieces to this puzzle are the coaches. They need to constantly encourage young people, develop off-season and conditioning programs and generally show the athletes that they care. The connection between the coach and the athletes is critical.
Question: Is it difficult to maintain and refurbish your facilities in your setting? Do you have any alternative funding sources such as booster clubs or community groups which can help?
Smith-Stephens: Since our limited budgeted funds go to operating costs, there is virtually nothing left to take care of the facilities, and our buildings are fairly old. Occasionally, a few parents help to maintain the fields, but we don’t get parental involvement as part of a booster club. Obtaining a state grant has been our only alternative and last year we were successful in obtaining one. However, without this help from the state, we really wouldn’t have been able to make any improvements. But long-term, continuing solutions are difficult to find.
Question: Do you have any unique challenges finding coaches for some sports in your setting? What special steps do you have to take to attract candidates for some of your most difficult positions to fill?
Smith-Stephens: Finding coaches isn’t a major problem, but keeping them is a challenge. If a coach isn’t a graduate of the school or doesn’t teach on site, he or she may become frustrated. The lack of athletes in a sport, transportation issues and other difficulties often lead coaches to move on to other positions. We constantly have to replace coaches. To counter this trend, I try to be very transparent in the interview and hiring process. It is important to provide an accurate picture, the challenges coaches will face and what exactly we are looking for in an ideal candidate. But despite this approach, we still lose a lot of coaches each year.
Question: What is the greatest challenge that you face as an athletic administrator in an urban school? What do you find as the most rewarding aspect of the position?
Smith-Stephens: My challenge is two-fold. The budget and trying to stretch limited money is the greatest hurdle. And, of course, we just don’t have enough field space. In spite of these limitations, it is extremely rewarding to see our teams excel. Students have earned scholarships and have done fantastic things beyond athletics. In many cases, athletics has provided the structure and character traits to succeed in life. When former athletes come back and say “Thank you,” you can’t beat that feeling!
Dr. David Hoch is a former athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Maryland (Baltimore County). He assumed this position in 2003 after nine years as director of athletics at Eastern Technological High School in Baltimore County. He has 24 years experience coaching basketball, including 14 years on the collegiate level. Hoch, who has a doctorate in sports management from Temple (Pennsylvania) University, is past president of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association, and he formerly was president of the Maryland State Coaches Association. He has had more than 450 articles published in professional magazines and journals, as well as two textbook chapters. He is the author of a new book entitled Blueprint for Better Coaching. Hoch is a member of the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.