Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Bench pressing with the king of analogies

This morning as I had breakfast with my son Nathan, I was reminded how words and actions can be influential.  Nathan calls me the "King of Analogies".  I love using them to better explain myself and provide helpful examples.

Nathan shared with me an analogy about weight lifting - specifically, bench pressing.

The child is the weight lifter and the weights are "the weight of the world."  Considering some of the things going on around us right now, I'm sure to a teenager it feels that way.  I know it does as an adult.

The parent is the spotter.  Do too much work as a spotter and the child doesn't get stronger.  Don't provide assistance at the right time and the weight lifter gets crushed.

Pretty good analogy, right?  Nathan was fired up for developing it, and I was fired up that he embraced the power of the analogy.

As a coach, leader or parent - what's your approach?  Are the the people you have responsibility for getting crushed?  Are you doing too much "spotting" - in effect micromanaging and helicoptering?  Or are you providing security and encouragement, helping only when necessary?

Your approach as a spotter matters.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

If you want to stop the ride, you need a three-legged stool

2017 had many of us in athletics feeling like we were on Mr. Toad's Wild Ride - and that the operator couldn't turn it off.  The coaching carousel has never spun faster, with coaches losing their positions after short tenures and unmet (perhaps unattainable) expectations.  Public measures of success such as fan satisfaction and wins or losses can mask more complex situations and stories lived by those most effected - the student athletes themselves.  

Receiving student athlete feedback, asking the right questions, developing actionable and chronological data, and implementing coaching and mentoring before it's too late are not only desirable but appropriate first steps for all involved - student athletes, administrators and coaches.

The trouble is many athletic administrators don't have these measures available to support a coach on the hot seat, to respond to an anxious booster or president to explain patience may be prudent or to put a plan in place to redirect an off-course program.  This doesn't have to be the case, as the following real life example demonstrates.

Last year an athletic director colleague did their post-season coaching evaluations and found that one of their head coaches was at risk of losing the locker room.  Their team reported numerous examples of behavior by the head coach that were not in alignment with the department-wide culture, and it was coupled with a dismal team record and a poor student athlete experience.

In addition to qualitative data mined from student survey questions, anecdotal comments that were repeatedly shared by student athletes last year included:

"Speaks to players and assistant coach in a rude and harsh manner. Not professional."

"Doesn't respect the players of our own team."

"Does not discipline those who go against team rules. Rarely addresses issues or team conflicts."

"Very knowledgeable about the game but a terrible coach who is immature and inappropriate."

""Forgot" to provide the team breakfast multiple times before away trips."

The athletic director faced a choice - do nothing (which was not an option), make a coaching change, or dig into the issues and develop a plan for improvement.

The athletic director utilized the data collected using Athlete Viewpoint and presented it to the coach to develop specific, actionable feedback.  They met regularly and put an action plan in place to help the coach grow professionally and personally.  As the 2017 season began, the AD had regular check-in's to make sure that new, positive habits weren't crumbling under the pressure of being "in-season".

After the season, the data came in from their student-athlete surveys.  The athletic director had data from both last year and this year to compare and see if progress had been made.

In addition to dramatically different evaluations and ratings from the student athletes, their comments told an incredible turn-around story:

"Last year we were all brutally honest with the coaching evaluation, so this year I think credit should be given where it is due.  Our coach really stepped it up this year and I personally think we had a phenomenal season as a team on and off the field."

"Our coach improved greatly and she has the ability to be a really great coach."

"Our coach completely destroyed my expectations for this season.  Her readiness to help us in any way that she could and her overall coaching abilities were outstanding. When she gets more experience she will be an amazing coach with a record of wins and championships."

This coaching success story was possible because 3 critical factors existed for this AD and supported a positive outcome:
  1. Actionable Data - Their department's use of a student-athlete survey instrument that was professionally built to collect meaningful data provided a compelling case that change needed to occur with specific, comparative examples to other programs of strengths and weaknesses.   
  2. Leadership - An athletic administrator who was willing to look for the causes behind the losses and negative reviews and decide there was a possibility of improvement while personally investing time in mentoring the coach.
  3. Introspection - The coach was open to hearing direct feedback from their team, didn't become defensive, looked in the mirror and decided their career was important enough to them to do the work required to improve.  
It was rewarding for both the coach and the AD to see their efforts achieve the desired results.  And this year's data will yield a new plan for the trajectory of improvement to continue.

Like all three-legged stools, if any one leg is missing, then it will tip over.  It's great if you are willing to give your coaches feedback - but what is it based on - gut reaction, experience, anecdote?  If your coach is naturally introspective, you've got a chance to intervene, but what if they aren't?  Can you visually show a problem exists and provide actionable feedback.

Having real data and analytics should be incorporated into all areas of your athletic program to
enhance performance, mentor, lead, and support decision making.

If you would like to maximize performance in your department and stop the wild ride, I encourage you to support with your data collection initiatives by joining the growing list of campus partners who are using Athlete Viewpoint.

Athlete Viewpoint will be at the NCAA Convention.  Shoot us an email if you would like to meet.  

Athlete Viewpoint is a customized tool designed by industry experts to alleviate the time and labor your staff spend on this valuable process.  Let us do all the work gathering feedback, so you can spend your over-stretched minutes improving the student-athlete experience and making data-driven decisions in a strategic and thoughtful manner.

Watch a brief video and schedule a demo of Athlete Viewpoint at

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Student-Athlete Survey Data: To Share or Not to Share

Improving Student-Athlete Surveys: A “How-To” Guide for Athletics Administrators
This is the second in a series of posts that will provide guidance on moving your student-athlete survey from a “vanity metrics” activity to a valuable and actionable tool to gain competitive advantage for your department.  

Post #2: To Share or Not to Share
You have a lot of challenges as an athletic administrator and there is already a lot of “noise” surrounding your program, teams, coaches and athletes.  Fans weigh in relentlessly on not-so underground message boards and the media always have their own opinions about what you are doing.  One seemingly innocuous tweet can land you in the middle of a firestorm.  This information age we are living in is both a blessing and a curse. 

In an age of ever-present sharing it may be tempting to trumpet your “great student-athlete survey results” to recruit future student-athletes.  Similarly, it may seem enticing to allow students the opportunity to like or dislike the comments of their peers. Your decisions to facilitate these things should align with your purpose for doing your the survey in the first place.  Is your philosophy one of education, risk management and quality control for your department?  Or are you seeking to provide a favorable, but not necessarily accurate, view of your department or team through social media?  If it’s the latter, you could be opening your department to legal scrutiny.

Three trends are happening today regarding data and social media:

1. News outlets are using FOIA requests to review and then write about what your student-athletes are saying about their experiences.  Here’s one article from New Mexico which published quotes student-athletes gave during exit interviews.  The more you publically volunteer that you are gathering this information, the more at risk you become.  Remember the National Enquirer ads that said, “Enquiring minds want to know.”? Well they do want to know now more than ever, so for athletic departments the question becomes do you want people to have to dig to find this information or do you want to advertise that you have it and hand it over with a bow?

2. People sue each other - a lot.  Talk with just about any athletic director in 2017, and they can probably share with you a story about either themselves personally, or a colleague who was threatened with a lawsuit. Maybe a student-athlete didn’t like the medical treatment they received or perhaps they thought they should get more playing time.  Or maybe there was a coaching change that left them scrambling to find their place in a program and finish their degree.  The scenarios are endless and an unfortunate drain on time and resources.

Now imagine you posted a row of 5 star reviews about your program on your website.  “Jordan” joins a team in your department as a freshman and is really excited to be a [insert your mascot name here!]  But as the year goes on, Jordan realizes that being a college student-athlete, maintaining GPA, etc. is a lot of hard work. Perhaps they were the star of their high school team, but now they are sitting the bench - a lot.  They go back to those 5 star reviews you posted on your website and think, “None of this was true - this isn’t my experience. I was lied to and I have proof.”  Adding fuel to their case is the less-than-full picture shared with selective data reporting, and seeing that you dropped out all of the negative reviews and ratings they can claim fraud.  

3. Social Media creates drama.  The Pew Research Center did a study in 2015 that showed that one quarter of teens responded that they frequently experience drama on social media.  Now translate that to your soccer team.  If your student-athletes are posting comments that their peers can then react to, and a quarter of your team ends up arguing on-line as a result, how is that helping you win?  How is that contributing to team chemistry and a positive culture?  By making their remarks public, rather than dealing with issues privately, you create factions and could be throwing lighter fluid on an already smoldering fire.  

This approach puts the Hawthorne Effect to work in ways that aren’t likely to be beneficial to your evaluation.  Some people will tailor their comments to receive a reaction, while others will withhold information for fear of providing personal thoughts that aren’t well received by their peers.  It can create some unintended power dynamics on your team that can have lasting negative repercussions.

Gathering data about your student-athletes experiences is critical component of running an athletic department and should be handled with care.  Aligning the purpose of why you are conducting the survey with your actions, and using a tool built to meet your intentions, is likely the best way to guide your decision making.  

When you align your core values and work hard to provide every student-athlete a distinctive education and a championship experience, everybody wins.  And that news will spread on social media all by itself.  

Next Up in Post #3: Ways Actionable Student-Athlete Data Supports your Work  
When you collect actionable data, it can support your program in a holistic manner.  Read about the top areas where better data can positively impact your department.

Athlete Viewpoint is an actionable tool designed by industry experts to alleviate the time and labor your staff spend on this valuable process.  Let us do all the work gathering feedback, so you can spend your over-stretched minutes improving the student-athlete experience and making data-driven decisions in a strategic and thoughtful manner.

Watch a brief video, view a sample survey, and schedule a demo of Athlete Viewpoint at

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Vanity Metrics are Useless

Improving Student-Athlete Surveys: A “How-To” Guide for Athletics Administrators
This is the first in a series of posts that will provide guidance on moving your student-athlete survey from a “vanity metrics” activity to a valuable and actionable tool to gain competitive advantage for your department.  

Post #1: Vanity Metrics are Useless
The single most important improvement you can make to your student-athlete survey, is to move away from asking insignificant questions and gathering useless data.  Many evaluation tools are rooted in “vanity metrics” as opposed to actionable data.  Serial entrepreneur Eric Ries gives a great overview of the difference:

“The only metrics that entrepreneurs should invest energy in collecting are those that help them make decisions. Unfortunately, the majority of data available in off-the-shelf analytics packages are what I call Vanity Metrics. They might make you feel good, but they don’t offer clear guidance for what to do…That makes sense, since they are the easiest to measure and they tend to make you feel good about yourself.”

Survey questions crafted using vanity metrics tend to measure things like satisfaction, hits and likes.  Let’s dissect a common example from a student-athlete survey to illustrate the difference.

Typical survey question focused on vanity metrics:

On a five-point scale, rate your head coach.

Say the head coach gets an average rating of 4.4 from their student-athletes.  Seems pretty good, right?  But what does that really mean?  What indicators are your athletes really rating them on?  What kind of actionable feedback can you give your coach from that question?  What should they do to improve?  What are they already doing well that they shouldn’t change?  And how does that coach compare to other coaches of the same sport at other institutions?

This is a great example of feedback that lacks context and has little meaning.  Layering in “stars”, “likes” or “thumbs up/down” may look weightier but in the end you still get the same useless data.

Survey focusing on actionable metrics:  

Using a five-point scale, please rate your head coach’s communication ability:
My head coach communicates clearly with me.  4.8
I have talked with my coach about my role on the team.  4.7
My head coach uses appropriate language around the team.  4.9
My head coach knows how to successfully develop and communicate a tactical game plan.  3.2

The average for this head coach is actually the same as in the first example – 4.4.  But we now know that by assessing just this one aspect of the head coach – communication - they excel at the day-to-day communication, but struggle when it comes to communicating technical, game-day strategy to their athletes. Now we clearly see that this coach has many strengths that we can build on to improve an area that needs some work.

Additional variables that impact coach ratings:
Now take this actionable data and layer in other variables that impact coach feedback such as:
Were you recruited by your current head coach?
What is your average level of playing time?
Do you have a leadership role on your team?

Suddenly you have a much richer picture of this individual on your staff, and more importantly as the AD you are better equipped to support this individual in their development and enhance team success.

Improving your Student-Athlete Survey:
Crafting an actionable student-athlete survey will yield a myriad of benefits for your department.  Some examples are:
  • Better recruiting and retention of student-athletes who are a good fit for the strengths of their coach and overall program culture, thus minimizing transfers and “problem” student-athletes.
  • Demonstrate an arc of progress and improvement in your program.  If student-athletes rate their locker-room as substandard, the data (especially when used in comparison with your competitive peers) can support prioritizing resources for a renovation.  
  • Educational opportunities for key support staff such as athletic trainers and strength coaches regarding confidentiality, communication, and “appropriateness.”

Your Action Item: Review your current survey questions and determine whether they are focused on vanity metrics or actionable data.  Do your results help you support measurable coach/staff development?  Are you gathering data that supports resource allocation requests for your program to your President/Board of Trustees?  Are you gathering information to help you mitigate risk in your program?  Do your results demonstrate improvement in the student-athlete experience at your institution year over year?

If you are generating pages of results that leave you with little information you can act on, it’s time to invest in crafting a more useful student-athlete survey.

Next Up in Post #2: To Share or Not to Share.  
In an age of ever-present sharing it may be tempting to reveal your student-athlete survey results.  We’ll discuss why selectively sharing your data can put your institution at risk.

Athlete Viewpoint is an actionable tool designed by industry experts to alleviate the time and labor your staff spend on this valuable process.  Let us do all the work gathering feedback, so you can spend your over-stretched minutes improving the student-athlete experience and making data-driven decisions in a strategic and thoughtful manner. AV was co-founded by Michael Cross, a tireless advocate for both the student-athlete experience and the overworked AD.

Watch a brief video, view a sample survey, and schedule a demo of Athlete Viewpoint at

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Athletic budget update #75

University athletic departments are making some very tough financial decisions to reduce budgets for next year.  The result is a significant decline in the number of student athlete opportunities.  Recent moves include:

New Mexico dropping their men's and women's skiing teams.

North Dakota dropping women's hockey, men's and women's swimming.

Buffalo dropping men's soccer, baseball, men's swimming and women's rowing.

Missouri State dropping their field hockey program. 

Savannah State announcing they will move their entire athletic program out of NCAA Division I and into Division II. 

Drake and Illinois State announcing they are moving their men's tennis programs to the Summit League which will end sponsorship of the sport by the Missouri Valley Conference. The move was forced by earlier decisions at Stony Brook, UMBC and Southern Illinois to drop their men's tennis teams and Wichita State's move to the American Athletic Conference.  This is part of a significant downward trend in the number of schools sponsoring men's tennis.  

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Everyday is Student Athlete Day

Earlier this week I published an article about the day-long celebration that was "Student Athlete Day" and shared how Athlete Viewpoint can help you make each day Student Athlete Day.  I encourage you to check out the article through Dan Tudor's site or learn additional information about Athlete Viewpoint.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Transparency necessary to fix college recruiting

Imagine you are searching for a new home.  You visit ten houses and finally find the right place.  You tell the real estate agent, "This is the one, we are ready to buy."  The agent says, "Great! You'll just have to wait until 18 months from now to sign the paperwork on 'National House Buying Day.'  In the meantime just verbally agree that you'll buy the house and the sellers will verbally agree they will sell it to you.  You have nothing to worry about and in 18 months you'll be able to move into your home." How confident would you feel about actually moving into that house under the verbally agreed upon terms?

There are serious problems in college athletics surrounding early recruiting that are finally being recognized. This issue is being looked at by the NCAA and the Ivy League is advocating for changes in the recruiting approach to delay when and under what circumstances people can talk about and/or offer a scholarship to prospective students.  The debate is being fueled by college coaches and grammar school prospects making "commitments" to each other.

For decades the NCAA has tried to regulate who can talk to whom, when it can occur, and under what circumstances. It is classic bureaucracy.  The magical first day a coach can call someone is July 1 of their junior year, unless it happens to be June 15 after their sophomore year, or September 1, or some other window of time.  You can't call the prospect but they can call you.  These arbitrary dates and rules have become the recruiting equivalent of the now infamous NCAA regulation of not being able to provide cream cheese for a bagel.

As long as the NCAA rule book has existed, armies of compliance staff have instructed coaches how to work around/within the rules.  This bureaucratic system fosters an environment where "advisers" and youth level coaches flourish in order to facilitate communication between prospects and college coaches.  Families seek to work around arbitrary recruiting dates to become educated about college enrollment opportunities.  And coaches work around the dates to secure the services of talented prospects.  Both parties want these conversations to occur, otherwise they wouldn't working so hard to have them.

The regulations simply don't work and have contributed to the current state of affairs.  And unfortunately, new regulations won't work either.

Few participants in the current system are honest brokers.  The prospects and families have incentive to shop for the best deal (particularly in equivalency sports.)  After making a "commitment" - that they are often pressured into - they can still continue to look at other schools and will continue to receive inquiries from other coaches until they are officially signed.  Coaches have incentive to offer earlier and earlier because they know the system better than anyone; they know that even a soft commitment is helpful; and they know if a better athlete comes along they have lots of opportunities to escape from their verbal "commitment" with no accountability for failing to honor their offer.   The NCAA, colleges and universities are complicit in the behavior because they continue to allow the system to persist.

It is time for a radically different approach to college recruiting by creating transparency in the strange and unethical world we've created.  College athletics should eliminate all restrictions regarding athletic commitments and related agreements by permitting prospects of any age and colleges to move at the pace that is best for each individual situation by implementing the following changes:

1) Eliminate all "signing days."  When I got down on one knee and proposed to my now wife of 20 years, I didn't say "will you marry me?" and then after she said yes, tell her the ring was coming on "National Ring Day."  Amazon will deliver things to your house in 24 hours.  You can buy a car when you are ready to buy.  Once a buyer and seller have an agreement, you make the purchase.  The same principle should apply in the college athletics recruiting process.

When a school and a prospect agree to the terms of their relationship for what should be among the best four year's of a person's life - their college career - they should be able to seal the deal in writing and sign a National Letter of Intent, financial aid agreement or a similar contract making all parties explicitly clear about their intentions.  With a binding commitment the school is protected against poaching or dishonesty by the family. And the prospect is protected against losing their offer due to coaching changes, injury, failing to develop at the correct rate or a coach simply wanting to go in a different direction.  Everyone is on the same page - no room for funny business.

2) Allow signed commitments to occur at any age.  Yes, this is radical, but currently coaches and schools hold most of the power in the relationship and face no accountability when they break their agreements.  Families face no accountability when they break their commitment either.  For those who are worried about high pressure sales, require a delay of a week or two between the offer and being permitted to sign and the signing cannot be in the presence of a coach - similar to the current rules about signing the Letter of Intent.

3) Under this deregulated system, if both parties agree to part ways they are free to do so.  But if the prospect wants to leave against the school's wishes after signing an agreement it would trigger use of the one-time transfer exception for those sports that permit immediate competition without sitting a year - preventing use of that exception later.  For those sports that require a year in residence to compete after transferring, the student athlete could leave but would have to sit a year, just as they do now when they transfer after enrollment.  If the school is no longer interested in the prospect but the prospect still wants to attend the school, the prospect would retain the rights in the written agreement.

How does this solve the early recruiting and commitment problem?  It's simple - when coaches and athletic programs know they actually have to live with the decision to sign a 7th grade prodigy who may suddenly stop growing or develop a bad attitude as a high school junior the early offers will stop.  Similarly, when families know their child will actually have to enroll at their fourth back-up choice school they committed to and can no longer shop for better offers they will pause, further educate themselves and become more sure about their decision.  Further, knowing how much movement occurs within coaching ranks, families will become far more focused on the total educational opportunities of the school they plan to attend rather than their sport and the sales ability of a coach when their son or daughter commits.

Critics of this concept will contend that early decisions are impractical due to undergraduate admission standards and young students being unprepared to make such a decision.  But what is "too early" for one individual isn't "too early" for another.  Every student is different and their preparation and ability to evaluate their college future is also different.  Consider Ivy League Cornell University's recent decision to admit a 12 year-old student. Cornell determined the student was able to handle their college curriculum and it was a national story.  Prospective student athletes in similar situations with athletic talent should be able to do the same thing.  It's already happening internationally with 9 year olds.  And it is obviously happening with slightly older prospects in the NCAA recruiting environment, but without the transparency of written agreements.

The problem that needs to be addressed isn't the age of recruiting, which is not a predictor of readiness, maturity or decision-making ability.  The problem is the pressure college athletics' fosters through a system of arbitrary dates, indirect communication and "commitments" that have no meaning.

Allowing signed commitments at any time eliminates the winks, nods and crossed fingers behind backs.  Coaches and families will have to be up front about their intentions because they will have to actually live with their decision.  Advisors and agents will become less integral to the system because communication can occur directly between coach and prospect rather than via third parties who help circumvent the NCAA's recruiting contact rules to achieve what everyone wants - open communication about the future.

Going back to my original home buying analogy, some states provide a three day window in which the person who signs the paperwork to buy a home can change their mind for any reason and back out.  Ask a real estate broker what happens during those three days - the buyer and seller often continue to look to see if they can find a better house or attain a higher selling price.  Obviously the same thing is happening in a recruiting environment where prospects and coaches have months and often multiple years between their "commitment" and actually signing documents ensuring the commitment will be upheld.

The desire to eliminate the pressure associated with early recruiting, while laudable and necessary, isn't going to happen through regulation.  It can best be achieved through deregulation and transparency.  Creating another version of the same system with new dates and more regulations will be no more successful than the current system.  More regulation will let everyone feel better because they tried to address the problem - but the problem won't be solved.

Creating a system with transparency by providing open communication, freedom in decision-making and written agreements - in real-time like any other important life decision - will push recruiting decisions to the appropriate time for each individual situation and significantly improve ethical behavior in a system in need of reform.

Feel free to share your opinions via the comment section on

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The importance of mission

There are numerous and significant "elephants in the room" across college athletics.  1) the seemingly endless parade of stories about unethical or illegal behavior happening at a too-long list of universities across the country; 2) student athlete exploitation concerns, particularly in football and men's basketball; and 3) a never-ending discussion about the need to find more financial resources coupled with criticism over how they are spent.

The common response to unethical or illegal behavior is to create more policies and procedures, call for additional oversight, and suggest we can regulate our way to better morals.  Committees and external reviewers are empowered to make recommendations and provide the appearance of action. Carefully wordsmithed statements of outrage coupled with steadfast assurances nothing similar will happen again are part of the process too.  Yet impropriety repeats itself as sure as the sun rises.

The unfortunate by-product of these incidents is additional bureaucracy, expense and lost time for the 98% of the people who do things correctly.  And there is little evidence behavior actually improves with increased regulation because when everyone becomes responsible, no one is responsible.  The elephant sneezes, and everyone else catches the cold.

I've been fortunate to have some excellent mentors throughout my career.  One in particular consistently reinforced the importance of mission in successful organizations.  The mission is fundamental for aligning action, avoiding problems and properly addressing problems that do arise.

Every athletic department has a mission.  It's your reason for existing.  It provides purpose.

Do you know your department's mission?  Have you and your staff memorized it?  If not, why not?  Most likely it's because your mission is far too lengthy - perhaps paragraphs long - for anyone to remember or recite in a meaningful manner.  A mission that long probably needs to be redone - reduced to one meaningful paragraph, or better yet, a sentence.  Stringing together lofty but meaningless word-salad phrases is a recipe for eye rolls and glazing over.

Direct, specific, unambiguous and narrow are good traits for your mission.  If you list 15 things can you really expect to do all, or any, of them well?  Simplicity of purpose radiates and makes important decisions easier - hiring and evaluating staff; accountability for performance; strategic decisions with limited resources are made easier with a clear mission and philosophical grounding.

Accountability to the mission is important.  From top to bottom, everyone should understand how their role and decision making relates to the mission.  Does everyone in your organization fully embrace your department's mission?  If not, why not?  And what are you doing to change that situation?  If someone isn't furthering and supporting the reason you exist and doesn't act accordingly, you have problems and those problems left unaddressed corrode your department from the inside. And double standards can be just as damaging.

So much of this really comes down to walking the talk, which is hard to do if you aren't clear what the talk is.

Your department, your teams and you can benefit from a mission that is memorable, simple and repeatable.  You know the elephants in your room, and so does everyone else.  Re-establishing your mission could be your first step to helping the elephants out the door.