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Athletic directors and coaches frequently find themselves stepping into existing programs and identifying changes they would like to make. Change is a frightening word to many Lutherans. After all, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” (Heb. 13:8 NIV) right? While it’s good not to change our Lutheran doctrine and beliefs to match society, there are times when organizational changes might be needed. Change is usually required if the current methods are no longer effective, when there is a new mission or philosophy statement written, and for organizations looking into the future at possible dilemmas.

Athletic directors and coaches frequently find themselves stepping into existing programs and identifying changes they would like to make. And some have been within the same organization for years and are looking at what to do to improve conditions for the future. You’ve all watched as leaders in other areas have successfully managed to bring about a change. And you have watched an unsuccessful change and used that opportunity to learn from mistakes. You do not want to overhaul the entire program all at once. Small, gradual changes, with time to adjust in between, are easier for many people to swallow.

As you begin serving as a leader in a program that is new, first learn how the current program works and the reasons for past decisions. For instance, you don’t want to take the overpriced pulled pork sandwiches off the concession menu if they have been a tradition at that school for 20 years. When you are getting acquainted with a new program, it’s helpful to talk to other athletic directors or coaches in your conference or area and hear their honest thoughts on the current program. In other words, find out what kind of reputation you are inheriting. The leaders looking in from the outside might be able to give some insights in areas you would never consider.

One suggestion remains clear among “change experts” as you begin to communicate the changes that you want to make: It’s important to explain the “why.” After people understand the need for change, you can start explaining how it will happen and what it will look like. You should start with a small group of people who believe what you believe about the program. They will be motivated to start the process that you need, and other people will be more willing to try something after they see some initial success. Decide what your belief is and share it with people…

One easy place to start making changes is with anything that revolves around athlete safety. Safety is important to everyone.

If they see why the changes are necessary and what it will look like when the changes occur, then they can make the individual decision to act in a way that is in line with the desired change.Throughout the entire process, communication will be a key component. In their book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath explain, “What looks like resistance (to change) is often a lack of clarity” (p. 15). In order to give clarity to those you are leading, you need to “identify the tangible signs that” tell us that change has occurred (p. 36). For example if you are trying to improve the professionalism of teams or coaches, the sign that this has occurred would be everyone showing up on time and ready for practices and games. Athletic directors need to be crystal clear in their guidance and not assume that the need for these new ideas or moves is obvious to everyone. If they see why the changes are necessary and what it will look like when the changes occur, then they can make the individual decision to act in a way that is in line with the desired change.

Frequently, the scope of change is overwhelming. Chip and Dan encourage leaders to “shrink the change.” For example, “It is easier to make the house cleaner than to clean the house,” so you will focus on small victories along the way (p.130). If the goal is small, you will see small victories, which will lead to more and more positive behavior. New identities, such as better sportsmanship or positive coaching, will grow from these small victories. In situations where the coaches/players/fans have embraced the right behavior, publicize it at school assemblies and in newsletters. As you show coaches and players how they are demonstrating a professional attitude, they will want to remain professional. When everyone in the program sees themselves as having good sportsmanship, they will want to continue being good sports. According to the Heaths, “our habits are stitched into our environments” (p.227). In other words, we become what the environment leads us to become.

The good news is that, in many cases, you can easily change the environment. Consider, for example, trying to create a culture of good sportsmanship among parents. Ideally, this change begins with the coaches who have more power than they realize to control the emotions of their athletes and the fans because “behavior is contagious” (p.227). However, instead of placing all of the pressure to create the change on the coaches, you can also change the environment. Every attempt at change, however, may not be successful. In past years, parents knew that I would hand parents a sucker if they began giving the refs or coaches too much “advice” from the stands. It’s a familiar tactic to many in the athletic world. When I handed them a sucker, I was creating an environment that told these parents that they had poor sportsmanship or etiquette in the stands. The suckers, however, never changed the culture of our fans. This year, much to my chagrin, a parent started bringing poms and clappers to pass out to our fans at games. Both items brought me great anxiety as I watched the siblings of our players waving them and making noise with them. However, within a couple of games, all of our parents and fans were cheering like crazy for all of our teams…the ones who beat everyone and the ones who couldn’t win a game for anything. By the end of the season the poms and clappers weren’t even coming to the game and everyone was still cheering. One parent accidentally changed the environment at our games, and the results have been astounding—and very refreshing.

Change is tough and not just for Lutherans. If you can explain why it is necessary, get a few people on board, and start showing everyone else what it looks like, maybe it won’t feel so painful for everyone involved. “After you've done a thing the same way for two years, look it over carefully. After five years, look at it with suspicion. And after ten years, throw it away and start all over” (Alfred Edward Perlman, railroad troubleshooter).

Jill Schmitzer serves Trinity Lutheran School, Davenport as a co-athletic director and preschool teacher.

Photo © iStock/Kameleon007