Building a Winning Athletic Program

“I think school sports are by no means more important than academics,” says Sam Harrell, head football coach for Ennis High School in Texas, and president of the Texas High School Coaches Association, “but they complement academics so much. Yes, you have to work hard in math and, when it gets difficult, you don’t give up. And that’s reinforced in sports: When the going gets tough, you keep going.”
Indeed, it’s possible to create a long list of the benefits of school sports. That list includes, but is not limited to, building teamwork, self control, leadership, integrity, character and school pride; improving grades and physical fitness; keeping students busy after school so they stay out of trouble; and reducing obesity.
And, while most school districts have athletic programs that are as second nature as academics, even braving reduced budgets in recent years to keep their programs running, it’s possible to improve on the tried-and-true. Here, a number of experts offer their wisdom in three areas (budget, programming and athletes’ needs) for building winning athletic programs. Let’s start with the budget.
Budget Victory
In this day when budgets are becoming tighter and tighter, it is only too easy to cave to the group that believes sports programs should be cut entirely because they’re non-academic. “If we cut sports programs,” says Dan Gould, director of Michigan State University's Institute for the Study of Youth Sports and a member of the national advisory board for the Positive Coaching Alliance, Mountain View, Calif., “we save money now but, in 30 years, we go broke because of obesity-related health issues. So, there’s good evidence that to completely cut is a real mistake.”
“We hear repeatedly that we’d save lots of money if we’d just get rid of sports programs,” echoes Harrell. “And it’s clear it would save money. But what would we give up? The opportunity to keep students involved and off the streets? Our opponents won’t admit it, but they know that sports help students stay in school and graduate.”
Gould’s advice? Realizing that sports programs are not sacred cows and are as subject to cuts as every other school district budget, work to justify your existence. First, propose ways in which the budget can be cut, such as limiting the distance traveled to contests and asking two teams to share the same bus to an out-of-town contest. Second, demonstrate how you already are handling money wisely: Perhaps you use parent volunteers to clean the stadium after a contest, or perhaps you sell used equipment instead of throwing it away to offset the cost of new equipment.
Programming for a Win

When it comes to the athletic program, our experts have three thoughts to share. The first is all-encompassing: “We like to promote the idea of an ideal program,” says Gould.
An ideal program boasts an active, attentive athletic director who sets the bar high and contributes to meeting those high expectations. Here, adequate is not good enough. “The athletic director has to have a good-enough radar to stop an eight-year-old from swinging from the bleachers because it’s inappropriate and unsafe,” says Gould.
An ideal program builds skills while teaching that we don’t talk trash about the other team or to the other team. An ideal program catches athletes doing right; for instance, celebrating if the golf team has the highest GPA in the conference, or offering each sport a sportsmanship award. Finally, an ideal program employs trained coaches who are good with the athletes.
Speaking of trained coaches, that is the second thought the experts made regarding using programming to build a winning athletic program. Gould notes that the specific effects sports have on students are directly related to the quality of trained leadership they receive. “If you put students in sport programs,” he says, “you get some benefits, such as keeping them off the street from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. But, if you put them in programs with coaches who teach responsibility, you get better effects.”
In addition to hiring trained coaches, it’s important to provide continuing training. This can be as simple as providing online seminars. “Sports have a lot of physical, psychological and social benefits,” Gould emphasizes. “But those benefits come more often when you hire coaches who emphasize good sportsmanship and who don’t swear at officials and who don’t teach athletes to cheat because it’s important to win.”
The third programming component is having a strong philosophy about how your athletic program benefits your athletes. For example, it may say that, if a student’s GPA falls below a certain level, he or she becomes ineligible to play. Further, everyone — from the athletic director to the coaches to the parents — has to buy into it. And that is accomplished through training your coaches and publicizing your philosophy in parent handouts and on your Website.
Developing Successful Athletes
When it comes to taking care of athletes’ needs in order to build a winning sports program, our experts have two main ideas to share. The first is to institute developmental progression — build a program that’s appropriate for students at every age level. “Sports can easily get out of perspective in today’s society, where winning counts more than anything,” says Gould. “And that becomes a problem when it drips lower and lower in the system so that athletes are cut from the 4th grade basketball team.”
Gould recommends, at the front end, emphasizing fun and fundamentals. Allow all players to have equal playing time, and encourage the referees to explain the rules during the competition.
There is a time for tryouts and cuts in high school. And be sure to tell players who don’t make the team about other community and intramural options, encouraging them to continue to play, especially with obesity on the rise.
Further, Gould continues, educate parents that they’re watching developmental athletics, not the high-level sports they see on television. “We have to do a better job of that,” he says.
The second thought about providing for athletes’ needs is intentionally teaching sports principles. Part of this will come through the strong philosophy already mentioned. Another part comes from educating team captains. “A significant number of coaches never actually talk with their captains about their duties and responsibilities,” says Gould, “but would say that they built leadership.” A better way is to truly teach captains and potential captains what their responsibilities are, how to communicate with their peers and coaches and what it means to be a leader. This can be accomplished through one-day leadership seminars.
In a similar vein, the non-profit organization Positive Coaching Alliance has a model for athletes called the Triple Impact Competitor. It is designed to teach athletes to make a positive contribution on three levels: personal mastery (making oneself better); leadership (making one’s teammates better); and honoring the game (making the sport better).
“We think of leadership as telling people what to do,” says Jim Thompson, founder and executive director of Positive Coaching Alliance. “But really it’s about making the people around you better and more productive. What if our schools were producing hundreds of thousands of Triple Impact individuals?” To learn more about this program, visit
In fact, Thompson feels so strongly about the benefits of school sports that he thinks it should be researched and increased so that more students can participate. For this to happen requires an understanding that sports is an extension of the classroom, as Harrell notes at the beginning of this article.
“There is all kinds of emphasis on making sure students have high-quality teachers and are prepared to succeed academically,” Thompson says, “but most people don’t understand sports as a way of teaching life lessons — a character education program of the most important kind. We have to understand that sports are where students can learn life lessons — probably better than in the classroom.”
If you have to defend your program against budget cuts and nay-sayers, or if you simply want to improve upon the tried-and-true, look to make improvements in the areas of budget, programming and meeting athletes’ needs to create a real winner. You can do it!