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Experts’ Roundtable: Women’s Soccer Sport Administrators

Sport oversight in college athletics can be accomplished in a variety of ways. Each sport is unique, each coach is different, and the respective student-athletes require different levels of attention. AthleticDirectorU connected with Women’s Soccer sport administrators from four institutions to get insight on the techniques used to ensure success for one of the country’s most popular sports for young women.

 

What tenants do you operate by when administering a sport program? Are you hands-on or hands-off? Do you commonly meet on the HC’s turf or in your office? How often do you stop by practice? Are there any unique elements of overseeing Women’s Soccer compared to another sport?

 

Andrew Donovan (Associate AD for Compliance – Tennessee): My approach to sport oversight is that of support and advocacy – for our coaches, student-athletes and all other entities involved in the program. It is my job to ensure that our coaches and student-athletes have everything necessary to succeed in one of the most competitive conferences in the country. On any given day, that may require budget analysis, communication with departmental and campus entities, interacting with a recruit’s family, personnel evaluations, facilities planning or simply providing a presence and conversing with a coach or student-athlete. I consider my style to be somewhere in the middle of hands-on and hands-off. I do not micromanage our coaches nor do I interfere with the initiatives and decision-making of entities such as facilities, event management, marketing and media relations. I will certainly offer input if I recognize opportunities for improvement, but I believe it is important to allow support staff to do their jobs. They are the experts in their areas; my role is to support them and foster a communicative environment whereby they are on the same page as our coaches and making decisions that give our student-athletes and program the best chance to be successful.

 

The location of my meetings with our head coach varies (mainly based on convenience), but I make an effort to visit his office on a regular basis. I stop by practice a couple times each month. I believe it is important to have a presence that shows your coaches and student-athletes that you are part of the team and freely available to them, but it is by no means necessary for me to be at most of our practices; that time is better spent working on administrative items and communicating with departmental entities on initiatives aimed at improving our program.

 

Cindy Hartmann (Deputy AD for Administration – Florida State): For me, sport program administration is a quintessential element of the job. It is the foundation to my “why”, in having influence and impact on the lives of student-athletes.

 

There is always uniqueness to each respective sport, so it’s not a one-size-fits-all model for me. The primary difference is in the personnel and the culture of the team. Understanding who they are and how you can be of assistance is a critical success factor. Knowing these factors, it is easier to adjust your management style to a particular coach. Some coaches desire a more hands-on approach, while others prefer a level of independence. That said, I think visibility and accessibility is important, and observation is a great way to learn. The value of working closely with a sport program is understanding their needs and wants and being a voice at the management table for that respective sport. In turn, it also allows you to assist the sport program in decisions and direction in alignment with the vision of the Athletics Department as a whole. Essentially you are a conduit to enhanced communication, understanding and ultimately advancement of the program.

 

Dan O’Neil (Senior Associate AD for External Affairs – Georgetown): Our Director of Athletics, Lee Reed, has instilled the mantra that Georgetown Athletics is student-athlete centered, coach driven and administrator assisted. In working with all of the teams on a day-to-day basis I always have this in mind. I am in daily communication with Coach Dave Nolan about his program with the topics changing depending on the time of year. We typically meet daily in his office suite during the season where I also check in with his assistants Lyndse Hokansen and Kristen Meier. I stop in to see practice every few days and travel on a few road trips as well. One item which separates Women’s Soccer from other sports is that they report around August 1. I think the team has time to bond and freshman are allowed an adjustment period.

 

Alexis Williams (Associate AD for Ticket Operations & Sales – Colorado): As a sports administrator, I operate as an advocate for the sports program and make sure the goals of the team align with the strategic plan of the department and athletics director. I am hands-off, yet present by attending games and practices. I meet with our head coach twice a month, we meet in my office and at times the head coach’s office. Many times I stop by the head coach’s office to just say hello or check-in and we end up having a brief impromptu conversation.

 

The unique elements of sport oversight for Women’s Soccer relate to it being an outdoor sport, which brings the concerns of weather issues (team, fan and staff safety, delays or possible cancellations). Additionally, it’s an equivalency sport with 14 scholarships divided among a team roster upwards of 25.

 

With heightened awareness on mental and emotional well-being of student-athletes, as well as the frequency of concussions in the sport, what tools do you & the larger support staff use to maintain an understanding of each student-athlete’s overall health profile? Are there times during the season that necessitate more attention on these important topics?

 

Donovan (Tennessee): Open communication and frequent education are our biggest allies in serving the mental, emotional and physical needs of our student-athletes. Our sports medicine staff serves as the frontline in identifying and addressing health-related needs. They do a fantastic job of communicating the vast availability and support that is available to each student-athlete, and regularly communicate the importance of reporting all injuries and illnesses. Given their near daily interactions with our student-athletes, the strength & conditioning and academic support staffs also play a key role in these efforts, particularly as it relates to identifying red flags. The necessity to monitor and address the mental and emotional well-being of student-athletes is a daily priority. However, there are times of the year, particularly the beginning of the academic year and during final exams, wherein the risk of these issues is heightened.

 

Prior to participation on any of our teams, each student-athlete must undergo a pre-participation medical exam, which includes a mental health questionnaire as well as concussion-related testing (i.e., baseline ImPACT test and baseline SCAT 5 test). The mental health questionnaire is collected on an annual basis and used to identify potential issues that may require a greater level of monitoring. This information is shared with our head team physician and an in-house clinical social worker who provides annual mental health and wellness education to our student-athletes in addition to as-needed individual counseling.

 

On top of the frequent concussion-related education that each team’s athletic trainer provides throughout the year, our head team physician educates student-athletes on the signs and symptoms of a concussion on an annual basis prior to the start of each season. Additionally, concussion baseline tests are performed prior to each student-athlete’s first season of participation and subsequently every two years for student-athletes who do not sustain a concussion. Student-athletes who sustain a concussion undergo baseline tests prior to the next season. These tests are used as a tool by our medical staff to assist in making return-to-play decisions. Further, all new student-athletes and returning student-athletes who sustained a concussion in the prior year meet one-on-one with our head team physician who evaluates the need for any additional testing or medical referrals necessary to continue to participate.

 

Hartmann (Florida State): There are several departments dedicated to support, well-being and holistic development of student-athletes. We have an excellent Athletic Training staff and medical professionals who are very well versed on the issues facing student-athletes. We take a proactive approach in educating student-athletes and staff on warning signs and protocol should there be an issue or concern. This is typically done in the very early stages of reporting back to campus. But it is an on-going dialogue that does not have a shut-off time.

 

As a sport program administrator, and a non-coach, it is important to have an open door policy and be approachable for student-athletes so they can voice their concerns or address personal issues they may be going through. We also have dedicated staff in respective departments (e.g., academic support, student-services, etc) who work closely with their assigned sport programs and create another avenue of accessibility for student-athletes outside their coaching staff. The student-athletes today have an abundance of resources available to them at all times.

 

O’Neil (Georgetown): I am constantly impressed with the service our Sports Medicine staff provides. They have files with baseline testing on each student athlete with constant monitoring and attention to the wellness of our students. We also have added a doctor of Counseling Services in the area of mental health. We are a national leader is this space.

 

Williams (Colorado): Our Psychological Health & Performance team and our athletic training staff work together on the mental, emotional and physical health of our student-athletes. Our medical staff uses Edge 10 to keep up with all things related to the student-athletes health.  As a staff we all pay attention to these things throughout the season. We pay even closer attention to the mental and emotional well-being during mid-terms, finals, holidays, unsettling events in the country or when something personally might happen in a student’s life. As the season continues our trainer is definitely watching for symptoms for concussions. When administrators attend games and practice and travel with team, we create a relationship with the athletic trainer and sports performance coach, making it easier to discuss what’s best for student-athlete in terms of their overall health.

 

How will program leadership prepare for the travel associated with post-season play? (Unique travel dynamics, academic support, nutrition/strength & conditioning personnel, etc.)

 

Donovan (Tennessee): As with most elements of any organization, our success in this area is contingent on widespread communication. Preparation in this area starts several months before the season with the annual budget planning process, which includes the head coach, sport administrator and designated business office personnel. While the NCAA covers the majority of a team’s postseason travel expenses, there are limitations in travel party size that require our department to subsidize additional costs. Therefore, it is essential that we plan ahead to ensure availability of the necessary funds to travel the personnel needed to give our program the best chance for success – on the field and in the classroom – and others who have contributed to the team’s success throughout the season. This includes individuals who may not regularly travel with the team such as an academic counselor and strength & conditioning coach as well as additional sports medicine and media relations personnel.

 

The importance of communication extends to the actual execution of travel plans once the postseason field is announced. Our program (mainly the director of soccer operations) works with the NCAA’s travel partners on transportation while communicating with our opponent to secure lodging. Communication regarding missed class time – with the team’s academic counselor and by student-athletes with their professors – is another important piece of the puzzle. Perhaps the best solution to successfully navigating postseason travel is to earn a host bid. But, then again, that scenario comes with its own set of challenges given the NCAA’s appropriate expectation of a first-class event. So, while your student-athletes gain the benefit of sleeping in their own beds and a home field crowd, efficient communication, cooperation and execution is essential among entities such as facilities, event management, marketing, media relations, the NCAA, and visiting team.

 

O’Neil (Georgetown): Having been a regular participant in the NCAA Tournament, including a College Cup appearance in 2016, our staff is ready for postseason to assist students and coaches. We have been reviewing potential play dates and travel for a few weeks. Following conference play we will notify our academic staff which, in turn, communicates with professors, the travel coordinator, equipment staff, communications, sports performance and other offices. The overall idea is to provide support to put the team in the best possible position to be successful.

 

Hartmann (Florida State): We support our sports consistently throughout the season with appropriate personnel. The post season travel does create some concerns with length of time away from campus, as well as lack of advance notice of travel and days off campus. We accommodate additional staff to travel with the sport programs as deemed necessary to ensure teams are supported and positioned well to make a successful run deep into the postseason. Often times there will be the necessity to travel a teams’ academic advisor to proctor exams or facilitate study hall when significant class time is missed. Nutritional needs can be addressed in a multitude of ways, but may not always require traveling with a team. One of the advances of technology is the connectivity of our world, which certainly makes a difference in staying in constant communication even when geographically spread out.

 

Williams (Colorado): When preparing for travel associated with post-season play we keep in mind the academic support needed for the team as well as their health and well-being. We always want to travel the most efficient way (no layovers or few layovers), while being fiscally-responsible, yet aware that post-season travel is handled by NCAA travel partners which impact efficiencies. It’s nice to keep post-season travel as close to regular season travel as possible and be student-athlete friendly (team travel together and miss as little class as possible). Ideally all teams would prefer to travel via charter. To make sure the student-athletes academic needs are met, we travel the team’s academic coordinator or the FAR, to administer any tests or quizzes and study hall. Throughout the season we are fortunate that we are able to travel our sports performance coach on all trips. He can consistently work with the team without missing a beat.

 

What stance does your program currently take on the potential of expanding Soccer into a two-semester sport?

 

Donovan (Tennessee): We are not firmly for or against the potential expansion of the soccer season. We will continue to closely monitor the ongoing discussions surrounding this topic and evaluate the myriad considerations associated with such a change, including finances and student-athlete time demands in addition to the growth and development of the sport within the United States.

 

O’Neil (Georgetown): Both the men’s and women’s programs have enjoyed top-tier success during the last ten years. We expect to compete at a national level annually. Our AD has been in conversations regarding the two-semester model and will continue to monitor. At the end of the day, we want to and will remain committed to supporting soccer at the highest levels.

 

Hartmann (Florida State): This concept was only supported by the ACC men’s soccer coaches. Our women’s soccer coaches didn’t want the academic year model.  When the legislative concept was presented to FARs/ADs/SWAs at ACC meetings, it was not supported to submit as a legislative proposal for a number of reasons, but primarily due to the concerns that no other NCAA sport has a similar playing season model.

 

Williams (Colorado): We are happy with the current one-semester schedule for Women’s Soccer! At Colorado, playing during the spring semester would be very problematic from a weather standpoint, which would negatively impact our growing attendance. Extending to a two semester schedule would also increase overall budget and require more travel, requiring student-athletes to miss more class.