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Jennifer Cross: Hello, my name is Jennifer Cross, and I’m the co-founder of Athlete Viewpoint. We’re here at the Women Leaders in College Sports National Convention 2019. And we’re very excited to be here with Athletic Director U today talking to some fabulous women about gathering student athlete feedback and about having and building great relationships with student athletes and coaches in a digital age.
I’d like to start today by introducing our panelists to you. To my immediate right is Allison Rich, Princeton University, where she is the senior associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator. Next to her is Ashley Armstrong. Ashley is the deputy athletic director and senior women’s administrator at Loyola Marymount University. And next to her is Charmelle Green. And Charmelle is the senior associate athletic director and senior women’s administrator at Penn State.
So thank you so much for being here today. I hope you’re having a great convention so far. And we appreciate you sneaking out of session, and playing hooky to talk about this important topic. We know that we are living in an age where we rely very heavy on technology, and where it’s ever present. We’re all walking around with these computers in our pockets all the time. And our students are doing the same. And as more and more technological tools become available to us in athletics, it’s important to be mindful of how they can either enhance relationships with our student athletes, or get in the way of those relationships. And so we really wanted to have a conversation today about how do you build those relationships successfully with your student athletes with that backdrop of knowing that everything we do all the time, for better, for worse, can be very public and very visible. So, I want to start by asking you just generally how do you go about building those really meaningful and personal connections with your student athletes and with your coaches and your departments. What are some things or strategies or tactics that you try to use to do that?
Charmelle Green (Penn State): Yes, you know, I think it starts from day one. And when our students arrive on campus, really inserting ourselves in a way that we can get to know our student athletes, you know, understand where they’re coming from, and to be proactive in trying to get a sense of what challenges they might be, face, they might face or, you know, what fears they may have as they arrive on our campus. And we do that by structuring our department in such a way that you have sport administrators that are assigned to each team. And those sport administrators roles are to really get to know, be intentional about getting to know the student athletes and providing the resources that help the students understand who they can go to, if they need assistance, how they can, you know, contact those who can assist them in times of need. And really just build those relationships that builds that trust that will make them comfortable in seeking resources, seeking out those resources that can help them in times of need.
Ashley Armstrong (Loyola Marymount): I think for me, one of the biggest things is being present, having the student athletes and the coaches see me in different ways. So not just at a department meeting, or at a game but seeing me at practices; see, maybe running into them in the hallways, and having informal conversations and not having it be formal all the time. Maybe going and meeting in coaches, coaches offices or stopping by and seeing coaches so that, again, they see me in different places and I think that also helps as Charmelle said building those meaningful relationships, you know, that you’re approachable and not just your office, but around the complex around the facilities, maybe on the road if you have an opportunity to travel. So again, you can have those informal conversations and gather feedback in those ways as well.
Allison Rich (Princeton): I agree completely, building those relationships, being present being a practices, being at a game, I think what’s the most important part is that they know that you care, and that they know you’re there to support them, whatever the issue is, whatever it is that they’re going through at that time. I think the same goes with coaches. It’s, it’s being there for them and them knowing that they can trust you. When you say you’re going to be some place, you’re some place that you say. When, when they ask for assistance, you provide that to them and you give them guidance and the things that they’re doing. Our coaches have a lot of jobs other than just coaching. They’re educators and they have to learn how to communicate with their student athletes as well. And so, it’s providing the support for them in that way and then also being there for the student athletes. So nobody feels that you’re there for one side or the other, but you’re there to support whoever is needed.
JC: The whole program as opposed to one, one or the other. Yeah. When you’re talking about caring about your student athletes and about showing them that they can trust you, you know, one of the things that a lot of programs do is they gather feedback. And so, talk a little bit about the process by which you gather feedback, and how you utilize that, how do you frame it with your student athletes, so that they know that what they are sharing with you is going to land in a trusting environment so that they’re authentic in the feedback that they’re giving, and also, that they trust that it’s going to be read and acted upon and in a way that really validates the time that they spent giving it to you.
AA: Yeah. So we, we do a survey every, every year at the end of their championship segment. So, for the fall sports, we do it at the end of fall. We usually give them a little cooling off period depending on when their season ends and when we do that. But one of the things we’ve changed, we used to just send out the email that said, “Here, click on this and complete a survey”. But over the course of the last few years, the student athletes have come together with their sports supervisor, the sports supervisor walks them through why we’re doing these end of the year surveys, the fact that we’re trying to collect information, this isn’t a coach’s evaluation. We’re asking you questions about your experience with your coach, but really, it’s about student athlete experience. So, we are talking about campus culture or department culture. We’re talking about the different support units that that you come in contact with every day. So whether it’s academic and student services, sports medicine, nutritionist, athletic training, all of those things, we’re asking the student athletes for their feedback and their experience.
And we talk a little bit about what we’re looking for. You know, we realized that it hasn’t been the best experience maybe for some people or they had different expectations, but really about the importance of providing meaningful feedback and taking the time to really think about how they can provide that feedback. And then also, again, following up on how we use that feedback with our annual evaluations for our coaches and staff, you know, it’s a great opportunity to provide constructive feedback so that we can work on some of those things. Our job is to coach coaches as sports supervisors, and the rest of our staff. So how can we do those things? How can we take the feedback we get from the student athletes, and really meet with those administrators or coaches and staff to help them be better?
AR: I agree, we’re exactly the same way we learned the importance of the old school meeting. We used to, you know, send out the link and ask them to do it on their own. And there would be a little bit of group think. We learned the importance of the cooling off period. So now they get together and it gives us a chance to talk to them about what it is that we’re doing here. We assure them that these are confidential and that we’re not showing the results to the coaches. We’re not letting them read the actual comments, but we’re, we’re talking to them about those pertinent issues, what the good and the bad. And we’re talking a little bit about the things that we’ve changed or the things that we’ve implemented in response to some of the feedback we’ve received in these surveys to show them that we actually do listen, we actually do care. You know, every once in a while you get a little note from one of them, “Are you reading this?” you know. So we want to make sure that they know that it’s not, that it’s time well spent. We also do in-person interviews with a select number of our seniors. So we do the surveys with everybody, but just the seniors to talk one on one a little bit more about how you provide feedback and what are some of the things that they experienced, good and bad. And talk through with them kind of asking the follow up questions that you don’t always get to ask when you’re doing the, the written surveys but very useful tool for us.
CG: And I would add, because Penn State is very similar to both institutions represented here. And in addition to that, we, we take the aggregate data, and we share that with our student athlete advisory board and then we sit down with our sport administrators. We look for consistent themes, themes that can form opinions and can help inform decisions around how we allocate resources. You know, we put a lot of resources into supporting our student athletes. And we need to know, “Are we putting our resources in the right places?” So we use our survey data as well as our in-person interviews to help us make sure that we’re allocating resources appropriately. And then we go back and we ask for feedback from our student athlete leaders on whether or not we’re living up to our promise to them, and whether or not they’re having the experience that they had hoped and dreamed of.
And then we asked them some questions in the surveys about, you know, what’s, what are their contributions to their experience. What ownership do they take in determining whether or not they’re having a, a great experience at Penn State? Because we think that it’s a shared responsibility in that effort and some ownership is on them as well as on administration, our coaches to contribute to the experience and helping them to live out their dreams and aspirations on our campus.
JG: I think that’s a really important point because it’s always easy to give someone else an opinion about them or what they’re doing. And it gives you a moment of pause when you’re asked to reflect on that in that way for yourself, which then might make you a little more thoughtful in how you deliver that when you’re asked to give that, that opinion to someone else.
How do you… we know sometimes that the student athlete survey, it can be a source of tension for coaches, particularly, people who, this is their life’s work. It provides for their family. And we’re asking 18 to 22, 23-year-olds to weigh in, in that regard. Talk a little bit about the conversations, the kinds of conversations you have with your coaching staff around not only what the expectation is about how this information is you used, but also, as you said, Ashley, to coach your coaches and, and why maybe they’re not something to be afraid of, but something to be embraced.
AR: Yeah. We talk about this all the time with our coaches. It’s, you know, we do the surveys consistently. We have these, at Princeton, we have these wonderful coaches who are successful, and they’re great educators. And yet consistently, the lowest responses are in the communication area. And that’s not because these aren’t good communicators. I work with them all the time. And I feel like I understand them. But I think the key is knowing your audience and being able to communicate with the student athletes in a way that they understand what’s happening, and they understand what the goals are, and what the purpose of things is, that you’re doing it in multiple ways at various times, so that if somebody was looking down at their phone when you were talking, then you catch them the next time. If they, if they hear something that you say a particular way, then the next time you say it a little differently so they get it. And so just continuing to remind them how important it is to make sure that they’re sharing this information with their, with their student athletes, because I think we do see that then in the responses when they do understand what’s happening, when they get the bigger picture, that makes such a difference in how they respond because they trust a little bit more. And they, they understand a little bit more even if things aren’t quite as good as they, as they might think that they are or are not.
But then working with the coaches and how to understand or how to use this, this data, I mean, we tell them, we, we take things with a grain of salt. We understand that sometimes there’s unhappy people, people aren’t happy with their playing time, or, or whatever. Sometimes it’s a timing situation, and we don’t have the cooling-off period. And it was a difficult end of the season or something. So just, to the coaches, that this is a way of getting more information that we might not get otherwise. It’s not their complete evaluation. It’s not the way that we’re judging all of their experience and their skills here, but it’s just one more piece of data to help them and us get better.
CG: And I would say, you know, we, in addition, in addition to what you’ve had to say, I would say it’s important for them to understand that this is comprehensive. It’s not just about what’s happening within the respective sports, but that we’re looking at all aspects of the student athlete experience. And if we come from a standpoint of being in a growth mindset and not a fixed mindset, that this is an evolution that we are constantly seeking to get better and grow. And this is an important instrument for, for our coaches, administrators, student athletes and everybody who has a hand in the student athlete experience to get better than… it eases the, you know, the, the anxiety that may come with a one thing that we are conducting a, you know, seeking feedback and, you know, administering a survey to learn about the student athlete experience and it starts from the very beginning. It has to be a practice, something that you do all the time and, and that you’re given that feedback and you’re making adjustments based on the information that you receive, but if you do nothing with it, then it’s not taken seriously and it is something that is just, that, that people, our student athletes, coaches, and support staff see as it’s just another check the box type of a thing rather than information that can be useful.
AA: Yeah. And I think this is where relationships come into play. If you have a really good relationship with, as a sport supervisor, with your coach, and there’s that trust, and they understand that you want to help them be successful, you want to be supportive of them and, and really help them with every part of program management, I think that it makes that easier. Also, you mentioned themes, and I think that’s another thing that you can really pull from the surveys, what are those themes, whether it’s, you know, communication, consistency, clarity, you know, maybe organization, those common themes that that come up, and then what can you do with those themes? It’s an, it’s an opportunity to do some self-reflection for the coaches. Maybe it’s an opportunity to say, “Hey, I think if we maybe had someone work with you on these types of things, that could help you be better.” So maybe looking at what resources are available not just through the athletic department, but maybe you have a consultant that works with your department, maybe you have human resources on campus that might have some things to help with that coach. So looking for those types of things. And I think, again, understanding and we hear this from coaches all the time, like today’s kids are not like they were when I was playing or when I was coaching. So how do you adapt to that? You know, I think it goes back to, you know, for, for most of us, you know, no news is good news, right. But for student athletes, no news is not good news. It usually means something is wrong. So really having to stress the importance of coaches need to… just as we as supervisors need to be providing consistency with feedback to coaches, not just at, you know, once a year, coaches need to be providing those things to student athletes as well that, that communication needs to happen in different ways. But it has to happen all of the time, and not just in a group meeting. There has to be one-on-one conversations. You know, important information isn’t something you text, isn’t something you email, it’s a conversation that needs to happen. And if we’re modeling the way for our student athletes, we’re going to create a better environment, whether we’re an administrator or whether we’re a coach, they need to see those things so that they can learn how to do those things, too.
AR: Great. And we encourage our coaches to talk to each other as well. I mean, such a great wealth of knowledge for them to, to say, “You know, this, this coach was dealing with a very similar issue just last year, you might want to connect with him or her.” And that really works because it’s another set of resources for them to learn to get better.
CG: It’s a great point. You make a great point in terms of the one-on-one connection, the conversations. While we understand that technology is the way of the world, those one-on-one conversations are so incredibly important to the growth of our student athletes and for us to understand more deeply who they are, what they value, and what they are, they’re seeking to achieve out of their experience on our campuses. And so, sometimes those conversations have to be forced. And I’m glad you brought that up, because that’s a, it’s a learned behavior. And it’s not something that our students come in feeling comfortable with. And so, we have to sometimes force interaction, one-on-one interaction, engagement, to understand them more deeply and for them to gain trust in us and knowing that we’re going to utilize the data to really help inform decisions and enhance their experience.
AR: That face time is so important for relationship building. You can’t rely on a well-placed emoji to make sure that everybody understands what you’re saying.
JC: Right. Yeah, for sure. Well, and often that, that student athlete feedback tool is the first step of getting them comfortable putting their thoughts in, in a platform or through a method that they’re comfortable with. It’s second nature for them in terms of the technology and having it in their hands. But it is that great first step to then opening the door to those conversations, which I think is really, really important.
So, as we start to wrap up here a little bit today, tell us just one or two examples from your campus of how you’ve seen collecting this kind of feedback, having these conversations with your student athletes and your coaches and having really a culture where you’re teaching people and educating them how to integrate feedback into their being and make it part of their worldview, what are some of the positive benefits or outcomes you’ve seen at places you’ve worked either now or in the past where you can point to, “I’m really glad we did this because here was the result of that”?
CG: I would say from the mental health standpoint, our students really were the drivers in opening our eyes to the, to the need of greater resources in that area. As a result, we were intentional about allocating resources for mental health specialists that focus more on student athlete needs and we separated the performance psychology from the mental health counseling so that we… so that we can educate our students in a more intentional way about what’s mental health, and what’s performance development. Oftentimes, those were being blended. And there was a misconception of what, what each was right. And so, it was something that we were intentional about. We were able from the information from the data, allocate greater resources, have increased our staff to support student athlete mental health, all the while really be intentional about the performance development. So that was something from, from our standpoint, that was a huge positive from the feedback we got from the student athlete survey.
AA: I would echo that. I think the mental health piece, I think, really hearing from the student athletes and utilizing our student athlete advisory group to really provide us with some additional feedback and for them trying to give us suggestions and solutions on where they felt the needs most were. So, really starting those conversations, having some student run initiatives, whether it would be in our student athlete mentors group or just through SAC, but really getting our student athletes involved in, in coming up with some ideas and, and opportunities to engage in different ways around topics like mental health. I think nutrition was another one. I think, again, we talk a lot about nutrition, but providing those resources, whether it’s in a fueling station, whether it’s in programming and education, around nutrition, but really taking that information and trying to figure out how can we, again, allocate resources to those things.
AR: I think we had a lot of those same experiences as well in those same areas. I think the benefits that we see of teaching the student athletes provide meaningful feedback is it’s one other aspect of education through athletics. You know, we strongly believe that athletics is such a, an important part of the educational enterprise on campus and learning skills, life skills that they can take beyond just their time with their coaches and their teammates but taking to the work world, taking to their personal relationships so they understand the concept of these, these face to face interactions, building the relationships, being able to disagree with somebody and not be an enemy because of it, you know, have these conversations where you can have constructive feedback and give constructive feedback and not have it be the end of the world or the end of a relationship is so important and it helps with the coaches but it really helps with our students as they develop.
JC: I love how you used constructive feedback. Sometimes I hear critical feedback and I say that’s just criticism. Constructive feedback is definitely what we’re looking for, I think. Well, Allison, Ashley, Charmelle, thank you so much for joining us today for Athletic Director U. Thanks for joining us as well and we’ll see you soon.