A research study examines NCAA Division I swimming coaches who leave the profession

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A research study examines NCAA Division I swimming coaches who leave the profession

Courtesy: Dr. Kelsey Sachs, Dr. Lauren Beasley, Dr. Elizabeth Taylor, and Dr. Robin Hardin

A research study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Georgia State University and Temple University interviewed 12 former Division I swimming coaches to understand their decision-making process for leaving the coaching profession. All coaches were former Division I swimming coaches (assistant or associate head positions) who had voluntarily left the profession to pursue a new profession within the past five years (at the time of the interviews). Participants had a mean coaching experience of 13 years with a range of 7.5 to 25 years. The interviews cover their entire coaching careers, with topics ranging from why they started coaching, when they started to consider leaving coaching (and why!) to their eventual retirement and experiences working in a new profession.

Participants described five main reasons why they considered and ultimately left coaching. The main reasons (or themes) were financial strain, dominating the coaching role, isolated experiences, unethical and abusive leadership, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be noted that not all participants were practicing during the COVID-19 pandemic, as some had left the profession before the pandemic.

Financial stress

Former coaches described significant financial strain resulting from low salaries, which ultimately influenced their retirement from coaching. Participants described working multiple jobs and struggling to support their families, which caused significant personal and professional stress.

Dominating the role of coach

It was evident from the interviews that the participants felt that the coaching profession did not adapt to the development of their personal lives. Rather, as coaches married, had children, took on parental care responsibilities and experienced health problems, the coaching profession remained demanding and any other acquired responsibilities or roles were in addition to the all-in coaching, with coaching remaining at the top priority.

Siled Experiences

Former coaches described isolated experiences both literally and figuratively within their athletic departments. Figuratively, as coaches of an Olympic sport, many participants perceived that there was little concern for their sport and administrators spent little (if any) time building relationships with them. In a literal sense, the swimming staff’s offices were usually in the pool rather than the main athletic department buildings, thus creating a disconnect between the swimming staff and other coaches and athletic department staff members.

Unethical and abusive management

All participants were in assistant or associate head coaching roles prior to their departure, and a major contributor to considering leaving the profession was unethical and abusive leadership, namely from the program’s head coach. Participants described experiences where other staff coaches belittled them in front of athletes, called them derogatory or derogatory names, ignored their presence, made sexist remarks and/or engaged in sexually harassing behavior, and spread rumors about their personal relationships.

Covid-19 pandemic

Finally, of the participants who were still coaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, it served as a catalyst to consider leaving coaching. One participant referred to the pandemic as “the best time” of his life as an adult, while another participant said “thank God for COVID.” In this way, COVID-19 served as a mechanism for participants to see life outside of coaching and experience the health benefits of more balance and time for themselves.

Not all participants described all of the above themes for themselves; however, each participant had a unique combination of experiences that led them to consider leaving coaching and eventually withdraw from the profession.

The research team concluded their study with recommendations for retaining competent coaches in the sport. Their recommendations are rooted in both reducing stressors and increasing resources to cope with stressors.

Increasing resources

Coaches (especially Olympic sports coaches) need additional resources to support their various roles and responsibilities (ie, parenting, childcare, etc.) with the demands of coaching. Therefore, increased salaries for assistant and associate head coaches in Olympic sports are needed to retain competent coaches. One participant shared that their last salary (as an associate head coach) was approximately $30,000 prior to their departure. The salary in their first non-coaching role, however, was $60,000 with an opportunity to earn a $10,000 bonus in the first year. Also, the average salary of coaches in their first non-coaching role is higher than their final salary as a coach (after an average of 13 years of coaching experience). Therefore, it is obvious that swimming coaches can earn more in outside occupations and unfortunately, they may choose to leave coaching unless they are paid more competitively. Coaches have demanding schedules, usually working outside normal working hours, but if they don’t have the financial resources or financial rewards to compensate for the demands of this lifestyle, their departure may be inevitable.

Reducing stressors

One of the main stressors for the participants was the constant demand for recruitment. However, when comparing swimming’s recruiting calendar to that of other sports within the NCAA, this may be an area of ​​opportunity to reduce the constant stress of recruiting without losing a competitive edge. The current swimming and diving recruiting calendar has one dead period for a total of four days. In comparison, women’s basketball has three dead periods totaling 30 days. Additionally, women’s basketball has a complete recruiting blackout (four days) prior to the start of each school year, which does not allow recruiting activity of any kind (electronic or otherwise) at all NCAA Division I women’s basketball programs. Therefore, an audit of the NCAA’s swimming and diving recruiting calendar could identify a systematic change that would affect coaches and their well-being and therefore sustainability within the profession.

The collegiate athletic department workforce is at a crossroads, and it’s clear that athletic departments and governing bodies must respond to retain coaches and staff.

Full quote from the study:

  • Sachs, K., Beasley, L., Taylor, E., & Hardin, R. (2023). Investigating the voluntary turnover of sports officials using the transtheoretical model of change. Journal of Sport Management, 1-16. Extended online edition. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsm.2022-0066ig/1

Author Biography:

Dr. Kelsey Sachs

Kelsey has a PhD in Sport Studies with a specialization in Organizational Behavior and a Graduate Diploma in Evaluation, Statistics and Methodology. Her research focuses on the intersection of wellness and high performance within teams. There are publications devoted to cultivating psychological safety in sports teams. Prior to her academic pursuits, she spent five years as an assistant swimming and diving coach at three Division I institutions.

Dr. Lauren Beasley

Dr. Lauren Beasley is an Assistant Professor of Sports Administration in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Georgia State University. Dr. Beasley is also a licensed social worker and has clinical experience in inpatient and outpatient behavioral health care. Her research focuses on the intersection of social work and sport with a specific focus on athlete mental health and mental health literacy in sporting spaces.

Dr. Elizabeth Taylor

Dr. Elizabeth Taylor is an assistant professor in the Department of Sport and Recreation Management at Temple University. Dr. Taylor’s research examines the workplace behavior and organizational culture of interscholastic athletic department employees, including the work-family interface, work engagement/addiction, burnout, and employee well-being. Additionally, she has worked on projects related to sexual harassment and sexual assault education and diversity, equity and inclusion in sports. Dr. Taylor is also a volunteer volleyball coach at Swarthmore College.

Dr. Robin Hardin

Dr. Robin Hardin is a Professor in the Sport Management Program within the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research interests are in the management of collegiate athletics, focusing on administrator career mobility and holistic athlete care. Dr. Hardin is also a member of the official statistics staff for the Tennessee football team and the Tennessee men’s and women’s basketball teams.

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