It is amazing how drastically things can change in such a short period of time. In the late spring of 2019, I set out to try and see what was on the mind of the International School Athletic Director. The first “State of the Industry” survey turned out to be a success with 73 Athletic Directors (ADs) from around the world taking part. It grew basically by word of mouth and the results were published by “Coach and AD” magazine, which organizes its own survey that mine was supposed to mirror. Fast forward to the late spring of 2021 where the world is in a totally different place as well as in the community of International School Athletic Directors. During the pandemic the “word of mouth” group of Athletic Directors has developed into a collaborative network of people all around the world thanks to the work of the Globetrottin’ ADs and others.
The 2021 version of the “State of the Industry” survey has reaped the benefits of that network and has over thirty more responses, which gives us all a much better understanding of what International School Athletic Directors are concerned about. European ADs still dominated the survey with 40 responses. However, big gains were made in the Asian and Latin American AD worlds with 23 and 24 responses respectively. The Middle Eastern and African regions also improved a bit, but they were both still under 10 responses each.
My original plan was to mirror the initial survey for years to come so we could really compare as time went on. However, it felt very obvious to me that some COVID questions had to be included in addition to the original questions from 2019. Currently in September 2021, most European schools are off to a normal start with athletic tryouts happening, teams being formed, and games being arranged. On the contrary, many schools in Latin America and Asia have started in distance learning. Regardless of a region’s current situation, it is interesting to know that the responses to all of the survey questions compiled the same top answers from all of the regions.
It will be no surprise to anyone that COVID dominated the survey responses and continues to be on the top of everyone's mind. The top concern of ADs (60 responses) was whether or not their school was going to have a normal season this year. Following not too far behind was the concern that maybe their school would not be able to play sports at all, never mind have a normal season.
From the standard 2019 questions, the top two responses remain the exact same as two years ago: the pandemic has made finding qualified coaches even harder for many schools as people are just not as willing to put themselves in potentially higher risk situations. In addition, as many participants mentioned, many schools are not allowing outside people on campus. Matt Lautenbach, the Athletics and Activities Director of the Vientiane International School in Laos wrote, “As a small school, I worry about the impact of coaching turnover, finding coaches and most of all, what these years will mean for the sustainability of the program.”
In 2019, child protection and risk management were something that more and more Athletic Directors were having to spend time on. And now in 2021, it has shifted to COVID management from a great number of us. So, it is also no surprise that, “increased workload and expectations” is high on our list of top concerns for our schools.
Andy Harrison, the Director of the Events Office, and my boss, at the American International School Vienna (AISV) said that “The stretch on resources to cope with COVID was enormous. I see risk assessment increasing as a result of the pandemic which will strain an already strained system.” While Jake Stockman, the Athletic Director at the Jakarta Intercultural School, worries that because the AD job is “not always known and viewed as a catch-all' that “we can get more work put on us.”
Environmental issues were one new answer that popped up in the comments this time around. Primarily from European ADs like Joe Monks from the International School of Prague who said, “the location of tournaments also worries me, the environmental impact of travelling so far to participate in events concerns me.” Is it time to collectively begin thinking about our environmental impact and if we in fact need to fly to certain locations? The survey responses don’t seem to reflect that just yet but that doesn't mean that individual schools are not starting to do their part. At AISV we have signed the UN Sport for Climate Action declaration and are starting to spend more time discussing our operations with an environmental slant.
Not Concerned About
Unfortunately, there has been a significant shift in what ADs can push lower on their priority lists. The top of this year’s list is “pressure to win,” which was a close second and something that I hope is always near, or if not, at the top of any International School Athletics Directors’ list. Where the shift came is with “job security,” the previous number one response. Of course, this shift is COVID related as in-person athletic events unfortunately took a back seat as many schools looked to not only repurpose their AD’s job description but even cut it out entirely in some cases. Job security still received 72 “not concerned” votes but that number is way down and even if a few people are worried about losing their job, they are not concentrating on what is right in front of them. One AD even commented that he “lost ‘his’ job this year as a direct result of a perception that an AD was not necessary.” Thankfully that AD has landed on his feet for this current school year.
In the eyes of the International AD, the voice of the parent hasn't changed much over the past two years. Parents are still contacting ADs about communication they say they didn't receive or couldn't find, and whether or not the school can offer year-round athletic teams. The debate about multi-sport participation will not go away anytime soon and it is the job of the AD to promote the positive benefits of not just playing multiple sports but also to take a break from a sport to avoid burnout and overuse injuries. As I await hip surgery that stems from a result of overuse in my developmental phase, I can only stress trying something new or taking a break. International school parents are busy and, in many cases, are overwhelmed by the information that schools are sending out. So, my advice, when you are asked again and again for information that you have already sent out or posted, is to not take it personally. Brush it off and reply to the email politely with the information requested and also where parents can easily access it. “Thick skin” and “not worrying about the small stuff” are traits of long-standing ADs.
If we as ADs had an unlimited amount of money and time, what would we do with it? I am not sure if any Athletics Directors around the world would ever be in that situation, but one can dream, and dreams do sometimes come true. In both of these situations our current survey results almost exactly reflect that of two years ago. The wish for some sort of new facility was at the top of the list, whether it be a brand-new gym, track, or pool. Personnel was a distinct second this year but with a small twist. Two years ago, the focus was on money for coaches and their professional development. This year, PD money was there but also included stipends for coaches and the creation of more coaching positions. AISV did just that this year as we were able to raise the stipend level of our assistant coaches to make sure that they were paid to attend all practices. Not only will this help our students become better athletes, but it will also help to keep them safe with at least two adults now at every practice.
Putting money aside, ADs also wish they could spend more time with their coaches and athletes, which has unfortunately not changed in the past two years. The main reason many ADs do this job is because of the impact that they can make on coaches and students, but the struggle to give them the time they deserve is a real one. So, what can be done to help in this area since cloning is still far off? Getting help from others in your school could be the answer. If you want to start an Athlete Council or Leadership Group, you do not need to be the one to lead it. Look for another member of your coaching staff or even your counselors and get them set up with a program that you endorse. Doing more with your coaches does not necessarily mean that you need to be with them in person. You can start a coach’s newsletter or sign your school up for some online coaching courses that your coaches can do at home. I have said this before but “our schools strive to have the best of everything inside the classroom, so it’s reasonable to want the same for our student-athletes.”
A Year Like No Other
Let’s get to the elephant in the room, COVID. You have already heard that the top two concerns mentioned by International School ADs were if they were going to have normal athletic seasons this year or if they were going to have seasons at all, but let's dig a little deeper.
I felt like I had to ask about school’s athletics programs last year but the responses, like the year itself, varied so much that it was hard to come to see similarities. The majority of responders did indicate that they had a variety of offerings for students. Those in Europe often switched from just practices to intramurals to local games to online meetings and then back again. What was 100% clear was that no one had a normal athletic program for the entire year. Many got off to a great start in the fall but then never made it to the winter or spring seasons. As a spring season coach, I had not had the opportunity to coach a team since spring of 2019. Derrick Quinet, the AD at the International School Nido de Aguilas in Chile, said his “biggest concern is providing a meaningful and impactful growth experience for students, despite the challenges that exist.” I wish Derrick and all of us luck in that endeavor and remember a meaningful and impactful growth experience does not need an athletic field.
Out of the Bad
Natalie du Toit, an amputee swimmer who qualified for the 2002 Olympics in Beijing said, “Even when bad things happen you have to try to use those bad things in a positive manner and really just take the positive out of it.”
That is exactly what many Athletic Directors are trying to do as we are hopefully coming out of this pandemic. This also serves as the focus of the last section of the survey. I asked what is something new that you have done and that you will continue to do in non-COVID years. Virtual meetings topped the list because of not only the ease to host but also because of the audience you receive. Many schools had stopped doing in-person parent meetings because attendance was so low but, with online meetings, mothers and fathers can join wherever they are in the world. A short online meeting can also help suppress the flood of emails that ADs receive at the start of seasons. If you are on social media, you might have noticed that International Schools have upped their online game during the pandemic. From senior spotlights or shout outs, schools have realized how easy it is to implement and how big the returns are. Some ADs are even using student clubs to run their social media which means that more students are involved and feel a part of the program.
In closing, I want to highlight the two things that ADs missed most last school year because it gives us the best view of what an Athletic Director is like and how they feel towards their communities. Games and tournaments topped the list of what was missed most and not because of wins and loses but because of “the energy on campus when games are on,” as Lee Rosky, the AD at International School of Brussels put it. Lee’s Assistant AD, Bryan Fischer added that “nothing else comes close to game day energy.”
The next on the missed list is personal connections. Connections with students, coaches, and other ADs have suffered greatly as we have hidden behind our screens. I take pride in knowing all of the students in our middle and high school, but I have already found myself asking students if it's their first year when they have already been at the school for two or three years. It's true that many connections have strengthened, and new friendships have been formed online, but there is nothing that can beat getting to know someone in person. My cross-town colleague Jason Bowie, the Sports and Activities Coordinator at the Vienna International School, simply added that he missed “laughter.” ---------------------------------------------------------------------------------
*Quotes from individuals have been shared with the author with permission.
Nick DeForest CMAA, is the Assistant Director of the Events Office at AIS Vienna, Austria and host of the Globetrottin’ ADs Podcast. Originally from Ontario, Canada, Nick has been in Austria since 2000 and is part of the NIAAA International Committee.