Updated: Mar 31, 2020
If you survive in the coaching profession long enough, it’s inevitable that things will happen. One particular year in my own career, it felt like I was constantly dealing with one issue after another. I remember calling a mentor, a prominent Power-Five coach, and asking for advice. The response always stuck in my mind: “That’s great! It just means you are checking things off the list this year. Coach long enough and you will experience everything.”
I hung up the phone and thought, wow they're right! What a great perspective. Another opportunity to learn and grow as a coach.
Unfortunately, as luck would have it my sport supervisor didn't share my enthusiasm. "Will basketball always have drama?" The words barely came out before I caught myself saying, "Well yes!" Every coach knows to mentor Gen Z (please don't call them millennials!) comes with its own set of challenges.
Unfortunately, not everybody is as familiar with the responsibility and challenges that coaches face on a daily basis. Some of this is simply because often the people in supervisory roles of coaches also have a ton of things they are juggling on a daily basis. And the elephant in the room for coaches, is a growing number of administrators, particularly in Division-1 athletics, have never walked a sideline themselves. But we'll save that discussion for another post! Suffice it to say, if you work daily with 18-22 years olds, younger for high school coaches, you'd have a different perspective on what 'drama' really looks like. Often the problem itself is not the real issue. It's the circumstances around the problem that puts coaches in challenging positions.
When administrators don't have context surrounding a coach's response or disagree with disciplinary action taken to a particular event, the consequences can be severe.
Consequences can manifest in a variety of ways: negative performance reviews, daily micro-aggressions, isolating the coach or calling them out in front of their peers, lost bonuses, and, in some cases, letters placed in a coach’s personnel file. Too often, these letters weigh down the files of many well-intentioned and passionate coaches. Most people working outside of athletics would be surprised by the contents of these letters. The tone contained within them is often subjective, lacking context and objectivity.
We've seen these letters reference violations of policies that don't actually exist in any manual or departmental website. Allegations of mishandling situations and the departure of department guidelines despite internal policies that have never been communicated or were specifically created for a single coach or sports team based on gender.
Personnel letters placed in a coach's file can also be aimed at placating the discomfort of one or two student-athletes, unhappy about everything from their playing time to the choices they were presented at a pre-game meal. Yes, that was a real thing for a coach! Salmon for breakfast anyone?
By nature, most coaches work extremely hard to ‘get it right,’ and, more often than not, when coaches make mistakes, they genuinely try to learn from them and move forward. That is why letters in their personnel file can feel so debilitating. And no matter how many podcasts or webinars they watch on the importance of ‘failing fast’ and ‘making mistakes and owning them’ with administrators in the starring roles, coaches often aren’t afforded that same luxury.
So, coaches, IF (let’s stay optimistic) or WHEN such a letter ends up in your personnel file without a whole lot of discussion as to why, know your rights. Generally, you have not only the right but also the ability to rebut the letter that is likely to keep you from sleeping at night.
To be clear, no federal law grants coaches or other employees the guaranteed right to see their personnel files. However, many states will grant you this by request and will spell out what you are allowed to access in your personnel file. Check Google depending on which state you coach in—or if you are unsure, consider consulting with an employment attorney.
Regardless of whether or not you are given full access to this file, you can (and should) provide a response to such a letter and have it placed in your permanent file. Rebuttal letters should be factual, polite, and address only the issues outlined in the original letter.
It is critical that your response provides context around the issue, which is often lacking in most instances.
Example: A coach reprimanded for an on-campus drop off spot following a road trip. Student-athletes complained about the spot to an administrator as it was a longer walk back to their dorms. In your response letter, you may wish to point out:
Consistency of such drop-offs in the past.
Do other teams use the same spot?
What time did the drop-off occur?
What were the weather conditions?
Were there extenuating circumstances for managers or injured players that created a perceived need for a change in the regular routine?
Finally, was there an athletic department policy in place that outlined best practices? Or one mandating specific procedures for coaches in both male and female sports teams? Responses like these can actually lead to positive dialogue between coaches and administrators, especially if the agenda is truly about the health and safety of the student-athlete in your care.
An added word of caution: Some university HR departments will periodically “purge” employee’s files for reasons that may not prove fair or accurately portray your overall time at a university.
Example: As a long-tenured coach, you may have a rich history of glowing performance reviews. But upon requesting your file, only the last few reviews are available. Ironically, it just may be the last few reviews have suddenly taken a negative turn.
This is why it is vital for coaches to retain and preserve their end of year performance reviews for their own records and safekeeping.
Bottom line: Periodically reviewing your employment file and rebutting claims against you not only can open the door to clearer communication between you and your sport supervisor, but it may also serve as a practical reminder to the author of such letters that unwritten and unspoken athletic department policies don't serve the needs of anyone in an athletic environment.
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