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As a result of the recent tragedies that have transpired in collegiate athletics, there appears to be an increased push by many institutional administrations for the elimination of athletic department “silos.” This coordinated integration of various independent athletic departments is an attempt to cultivate a more homogenous organization. At various higher education institutions across the country, such a merging has begun to eliminate the segregated configuration of the medical (i.e., athletic training) and athletic performance (i.e., strength and conditioning) entities into one unique “Athletic Performance” model.
Throughout my professional career, I have had discussions with members of professional sport organizations, as well as higher educational institutions, with regard to the establishment and/or continued development and management of this type of athletic department model. During these conversations, the most frequent inquiry has been: “What type of professional is qualified to lead this new model, and what are the occupational requirements?”
The commencement and management of such an athletic performance type model will require a very skilled and unique professional to assume the director’s role. As a “formal” organizational structure is beyond the scope of this blog, this dialogue will present both thoughts and guidelines for six simple strategies for the athletic performance director (APD), based on my experience as a business executive, sports rehabilitation provider, and head strength and conditioning coach. It is important to reiterate these are only guidelines offered to the reader, as there are no absolutes, so to speak. Every institutional state of affairs has its own unique concerns.
Is the Individual Candidate Qualified for the Athletic Performance Director Position?
Professionals working in their specific occupation of choice often have aspirations to eventually achieve a supervisory role. Stating the obvious, the APD should have a noted background of experience in the two diverse yet inter-related professions of sports medicine/sports rehabilitation and athletic performance enhancement training. At a minimum, they should have an extensive background in one of these vocations, as well as an extensive appreciation of the complementary profession. Optimal success for this model cannot be dependent upon an expertise in a single professional “silo” of experience.
The APD must possess the knowledge proficiency and key technical skills to both assist and advise this new model’s team. It should also be acknowledged that a weekend course and accompanied certificate of completion do not create an “expert” in any professional field of choice. The APD is the “conductor of the athletic performance orchestra” and, thus, should have a strong familiarity with all of the instruments necessary to attain the harmony desired.
The APD should also have supervisory and proven leadership experience. The ability to lead a team of professionals, organize, interrelate, and communicate—as well as work with other managerial heads and departments including, but not limited to, general managers, athletic directors, head coaches, medical (including team physicians), strength and conditioning, technology, research, video, finance, legal, compliance, etc.—in a positive manner is imperative. Just as a head coach and their team of athletes require the cooperative and coordinated efforts of all assistant coaches, senior administration, and integral related departments, so does the APD and their staff.Don’t underestimate what a critical asset leadership is for those taking a director or senior management level role. Don’t confuse it with job proficiency and/or management abilities. Click To Tweet
Lou Carnesecca, my former Head Coach at St. John’s University of New York (and in the Basketball Hall of Fame), and NFL Super Bowl Champion Coach Dick Vermeil both instilled in me this significant message: “The players and staff don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Leadership is a critical asset for all those assuming a director or any senior management level role and should never be underestimated.
This unique quality should not be confused with job proficiency and/or management abilities. The ability to perform a job well or to manage others does not directly correlate to exceptional leadership abilities. Leadership is the ability to positively influence staff and peers while simultaneously achieving the outcomes desired. This is an assumed yet often lacking quality, as demonstrated by the fact that many prominent assistant coaches have failed to establish themselves as leaders after assuming the role of head coach.
The APD should always be motivated to roll up their sleeves and work side-by-side with their staff, treating each individual staff member as a person and not an object or number. The staff should feel comfortable voicing appropriate opinions and conversations. All new staff additions should be made to feel welcome and at ease with their transition into their new department role. It should also be noted that there is a big differentiation between leadership and standing behind someone and “pushing them forward” via the scare tactics of bullying and intimidation. These destructive strategies are not only negative and demoralizing, but they may eventually become catastrophic as well.It is important not to confuse the enactment of process with the achievement of results. Click To Tweet
The APD should also be able to identify presently established as well as absent essential department needs, including the advancement, expansion, and implementation of the required processes for the vision and culture of this “new” department model. That said, it is important not to confuse the enactment of process with the achievement of results. Recognition of individual and department competencies, as well as insufficiencies, will help the APD make appropriate decisions for the sustained success of both staff and department.
Knowledge, skill, and role progression for the department as well as individual staff are essential for the retention of excellent staff. Failure to do this will result in stagnancy and regression, while the competition will likely continue to effectively progress forward. Thus, process and educational strategies for continued staff development in knowledge and skill proficiency, as well as valid objective testing to quantify all department strategies, must be employed. Objectivity is fundamental: If “x” is not measured, “x” will not likely change. The APD must also heed department financial budgets and adhere to project timelines. Failure to comply will derail progression and often results in a failure to achieve significant plan objectives.Don’t forget that the establishment of this new organizational model and director role, as well as any department staff position, is entirely for the benefit of the athlete. Click To Tweet
Lastly—and this should never be disregarded—the establishment of this new organizational model and director role, as well as any department staff position, is entirely for the benefit of the athlete, not for the advantage of any department, staff, or employed individual. Therefore, the ADP must also demonstrate the ability to relate to the athlete and their environment and prioritize the department’s obligations to the athlete in regard to medical care and athletic performance development.
Does the APD Have a Proven Organizational Model Structure?
The potential director should disclose prior success in an organizational model, philosophy, and culture as evidence to heighten the medical care and performance enhancement training of the athlete. This defined model must also positively correspond to the parent organization model. Considerations such as the number of department professionals to be employed, the variety of specific professional vocations (i.e., athletic trainers vs. performance coaches vs. nutritionists vs. additional health care professionals, etc.), and the necessary qualifications for both staff and supervisory roles are examples of some of the multifaceted assessments to be determined.
Additional considerations include, but are not limited to, the evaluation of the present-day department’s staff and existing operational methods employed to the athlete; evaluation of the medical and training facilities, equipment, and supplies; and the noted processes presently employed and intended for future implementation, as well as those to be eliminated. The APD should also be aware of the associated departments of the parent organization that are accessible to assist in the success of this new model.
The establishment of an appropriate department culture is most essential, as all staff must commit to the same medical and athletic performance philosophy, implemented process, work ethic, and goals. As NFL Hall of Fame Coach Bill Parcells has taught me, “there is a big difference between routine and commitment.” Department leaders and staff cannot “do their own thing” nor “R.I.P.” (rest in place), as a strong commitment is required for all implemented processes and programs to result in the successful attainment of all objectives.
No matter how popular an individual staff member or how long their tenure, those displaying inadequate culture, poor work ethic, and lack of commitment should not be retained in the new model. Individual popularity without the proper culture will breed inappropriate culture and likely lead to the voluntary departure of those professionals performing their role admirably due to job performance impartiality. That said, the APD must determine if an individual is truly displaying meager effort or simply lacks the tools and guided supervision for the responsibility and performance desired. At times, some staff members may lack the skill set necessary for success in their present position, and a change in role may foster the positive performance desired.The APD must determine if somebody truly displays meager effort or simply lacks the tools and guided supervision for the responsibility and performance desired. Click To Tweet
Performance evaluations of the department staff are targeted to the criteria of results. It is even preferable to employ an individual with just a little less talent but displaying the right positive work ethic and culture than a talented individual with a very poor work culture. There is a noticeable distinction in the performance outcomes that justifies a staff member’s existence versus a staff member “functioning” to justify their existence.
There must be a well-organized methodology with each staff member in terms of the accountability for their specific job responsibilities. Each staff member should be “managed by objectives” (MBO), whereby each individual professional is provided with specific job tasks and task completion timelines as determined by their supervisor. Provide “stretch” assignments to those who are deemed capable of tackling the larger projects.
All assignments/tasks should be SMART—Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Trackable—in design strategy. Communication is important and should be provided for both specific and constructive feedback during each project timeline. Although all MBOs are role-dependent, when combined together, the accumulative success of MBO achievement will result in the realization of the overall structured objectives for the APD’s department and positive contributions to the parent organization.
Some guidelines for MBO consideration are provided in the RACI format below.
- R = Responsible (also Recommender)
Those who do the work to complete the task. There is at least one role with a participation type of responsible, although others can be delegated to assist in the work required. There should also be a select process for identifying those who participate in a supporting role.
- A = Accountable (also Approver or Final Approving Authority)
The individual ultimately answerable for the correct and thorough completion of the deliverable or task; the one who ensures the prerequisites of the task are met and who delegates the work to those responsible. In other words, an accountable must sign off (approve) work that a responsible provides. There must be only one accountable specified for each task or deliverable.
- C = Consulted (sometimes Consultant or Counsel)
Those whose opinions are sought—typically subject matter experts—and with whom there is two-way communication. This individual may presently be a member of the organization (i.e., IT, research, finance, etc.).
- I = Informed (also Informee)
Those who are kept up-to-date on the progress of the deliverable or task, usually a supervisor and/or APD. This may often occur only upon completion of the deliverable or task. There is often just one-way communication with an informed.
Determine Staff Responsibilities and Roles
Whenever possible, hired staff should be qualified in dual roles. If this dual role requirement is not realized with some hires, then these specific hires should be trained, over time, in a dual role capacity. For example, an assistant athletic trainer may also be a licensed physical therapist and an assistant strength coach may also be proficient in GPS implementation and data collection.
Team athletes are assigned at times, due to injury or unavoidable circumstances, to different positions in game situations. An offensive guard in football may be required to play center, a shooting guard in basketball may need to play point guard, and an assistant coach may be called upon for the role of interim head coach. If player and coaching situations arise that possibly require a dual role, why is this same preparation not instituted in a sports medicine/sports rehabilitation and athletic performance enhancement staff model?
As previously noted, staff communication is essential and should be consistent as an implemented plan of objectives, along with all accompanying processes and progressions. Individual accomplishments and ensuing accolades, as well as noted areas of concern—and yes, when appropriate, discipline—should also be conveyed to each staff member when appropriate and on a consistent basis. Communication is optimal in a two-way environment as it is essential to both listen and share information.
The APD should also arrange for regularly scheduled one-on-one meetings aimed toward each individual’s strengths and weaknesses, as well as present solutions to problems that may arise. All personnel should receive a formal written review at least biannually to ensure no unexpected surprises in job performance are presented only at year’s end. Those individuals deserving of rewards should be recognized, while those not deserving of rewards should not receive what has not been earned, regardless of popularity, position, tenure, etc. The MBOs will provide documented objectivity with regard to the achievement or non-achievement of the individual role responsibilities, state of recognition, and overall department accomplishments.
Know What Is Important and Don’t Worry About the Rest
Establishing an innovative single entity from what was previously two or more “removed” departments is a substantial task. Utilization of a S.W.O.T. (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis or some form of formal enquiry of the present-day department(s) will help establish an operational starting point for the new, desired overall plan expectations. Once plan objectives, processes, and priorities are determined, attack the “elephants” in the room and don’t be concerned with the insignificant “ants.” Don’t get caught up in the minutiae. Don’t let the haunting failures of the past or the “what ifs” of the future intimidate the present.Don’t let the haunting failures of the past or the “what ifs” of the future intimidate the present. Click To Tweet
A well-thought-out and organized plan, including putting strong process into practice, will usually provide accuracy in predicting future results. Have the “mindfulness” to eliminate the undesirable distractions of the past and future and concentrate on the concerns of the present. Focus on the present state of affairs and determine how to successfully achieve the planned objectives.
It is important to note that when assigning initial assignments to individual staff members, these tasks should be readily achievable. Very few individuals will likely welcome and accept change positively or easily. Many will prefer the “old way” of doing things, especially if the previous organizational operation provided flashes of success. There may be occasions where the environment becomes difficult and even “turbulent,” and these events will require the APD to maintain their composure and keep the staff focused on the present strategy and objectives.
The staff’s involvement in the new process and established positive culture is a prerequisite to continued progress and success. Be sure to balance responsible work freedom for the staff while still making yourself available for advice and any other circumstances that may arise. When initiating a new organizational model/system, it is easier to achieve staff buy-in with the positive feedback of success. If the initial deliverables employed are fairly achievable and bring value, the percentages favor success. The repetitive achievement of success will then set the stage for sustained success.
There is nothing more demoralizing to an individual than consistent failure, especially when suitable work efforts have been demonstrated. Provide the proverbial “level 100” tasks before implementing “level 200” tasks to ensure that both the deliverables and the processes for achievement of the initial responsibilities are accomplished. Each successfully accomplished task will build upon future planned duties in a systematic fashion for the successful achievement of the overall objectives of the department. The ideal approach to ensure a more difficult “level 200” task is accomplished is to make certain the preceding “level 100” task was optimally achieved first.
The Similarities Between Running an Organization and Coaching a Team
During my role as a chief executive officer (CEO), I had strategic conversations with Coach Bill Parcells. I have known Coach Parcells since my time working with Hall of Fame Strength and Conditioning Coach Johnny Parker and the NY Giants players during their off-season training throughout Coach Parker’s tenure with the team. I personally believe a CEO responsible for a “business team” correlates closely with a head coach who is responsible for a “sport team.” Each scenario requires the ideologies of coaching.I personally believe a CEO responsibility for a “business team” correlates closely with a head coach responsible for a “sports team.” Each scenario requires the ideologies of coaching. Click To Tweet
The ability to recruit and develop players; implement administrative strategy, game plans, and personnel changes; and integrate various departments to optimize the common cause of “winning,” as well as many other considerations, are imperative in both roles. These scenarios and many more confront both the CEO and the head coach on a daily basis. Both “executive” positions require the ability to lead, communicate, and positively direct staff, as well as make appropriate, and at times difficult, decisions. Most importantly, both the CEO and the head coach must execute! Execution is the key element in the role of the CEO, head coach, and yes, APD.
An important lesson bestowed upon me years ago occurred when an NFL coach from an opposing team made an interesting comment after reviewing the game films of both the 1986 and 1990 NY Giants Super Bowl Champion team seasons. The coach stated he was looking for the “tricks”—the special plays and situations that placed the Giants above their competition. What were the NY Giants implementing that was significantly different than the rest of the teams in the NFL?
After reviewing hours upon hours of game film, he concluded that the Giants had no tricks; they did nothing “special” when compared to other teams in the league. The Championship Giants teams, and frankly all teams under Coach Parcells’ command, simply executed. They executed harder, longer, and better than their competition.
Execution is also imperative when running a business or a department within an organization. Success is highly dependent upon the execution of the organizational plan, including the department staff’s execution of their obligations for that plan. During the initial periods of an organizational change, there may be many excuses and/or defense mechanisms engaged. Staff members may occasionally present “justifiable excuses” for a lack of progress and/or a lack of objective accomplishments; however, the additional inclusion of action plans, as well as the timeline for action plan execution for correction of these deficiencies, are often nonexistent at the time of this same discussion. The choice is to accept excuses or mandate execution, and frankly, there really is no choice, as only plan execution will sow success.
Al Groh, a former Head NFL and Division I College Football Coach who was an assistant coach on Coach Parcells’ staff with the NY Giants, NE Patriots, and NY Jets, once made a significant comment that has remained with me to this day. It is important to note that prior to Coach Parcells’ arrival as a head coach to these NFL organizations, these teams were not very successful in terms of their win and loss record. Coach Groh realized that the ability to bring each team’s culture to a positive and the team record to winning was not magical, a secret, or a result of trickery. Based on his successful experiences with Coach Parcells, Coach Groh believed in the following remedy: “Get the players organized, get them disciplined, get them in condition and keep them conditioned, come up with an organized plan, stick to the plan, and the losers will eliminate themselves.”
Much of this philosophy of coaching can also be applied to any leadership administrative position, including the APD role and the department they lead. An organized and successfully executed plan, with appropriate process as well as the commitment of the staff, will go a long way. It’s all about the ability to execute a plan and the associated accountably of each role, with no tricks or gimmicks necessary. The losers eliminate themselves via their lack of plan execution.
Don’t Be Afraid to Make the Difficult Decisions
There is an old saying that “Good judgement comes from experience. However, experience comes from bad judgement.” Throughout the course of a career, everyone makes mistakes. The key is to learn from them, don’t repeat them, and over time, minimize them. That stated, don’t forget achieved successes, as you can utilize these victories as future road maps: Success generates success.Throughout the course of a career, everyone makes mistakes. The key is to learn from them, don’t repeat them, and over time, minimize them. Click To Tweet
Success is a strong staff motivator and a reinforcement for continued optimal performance. You should also remember that success is never final, but failure can be. Be organized and execute a disciplined implementation of a well-thought-out plan of action where every staff member is held accountable. Positively develop and enhance the knowledge and skill proficiencies of the staff within the department, focusing on the entities that can and will be measured. Eliminate all that is negative and allow for two-way communication.
Collect data for a specific purpose related to the plan of action and objectives to be achieved, not simply for the sake of the random collection of data. Base decisions on the information provided by collected data, facts, and results. Do not make decisions centered solely upon opinion, as everyone can have their own opinion but not everyone can have their own facts.
Lastly, never base sound judgment and decisions on fear, as the concerns related to the fear will likely not occur. Decisions based on fear will eventually become problematic to both the new model strategy and the staff.
Many difficult decisions will arise during the formation of this new Athletic Performance model, but if all leadership responsibilities, choices, and decisions were simple and easy, everyone would be qualified for the APD role.