Editor’s Note: Dr. Karissa Niehoff became the sixth full-time executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations on August 1 after serving as executive director of the Connecticut Interscholastic Athletic Conference-Connecticut Association of Schools for seven years. Now three months into her tenure as head of the national leadership organization for high school sports and performing arts, she reflects on the experiences of the past and looks ahead to the challenges and opportunities in this national leadership role.
Question: You were a teacher, coach, athletic director and principal for 20 years, then directed the Connecticut association for seven years. What led to your interest in this national leadership position?
Niehoff: My interest in the national level position developed for a number of reasons. First, as a state association leader, I thoroughly enjoyed serving on NFHS committees and the NFHS Board of Directors and participating in NFHS-sponsored events and conferences. The professional relationships that exist among association colleagues are unsurpassed. We truly do have an NFHS “family” that shares a commitment to our youth and our work, to all those involved in our work, and to one another – as people and professionals.
Second, I am passionate about athletics and activities and believe wholeheartedly these events have a significant impact on the lives of those who participate. The NFHS and state associations have an obligation to promote and protect – as best as we can – healthy education-based environments for sports, performing arts and other student activities.
The NFHS is poised to expand its influence, its guidance and its relationships with other sport, activity and educational organizations. The opportunity to serve in a leadership role – a role that could facilitate growth at a national scale – was an exciting one!
Question: You were fortunate to be in high school after the passage of Title IX and participated in several sports. Tell us about your high school athletic experiences and the importance of these programs for both girls and boys.
Niehoff: I am so grateful to the many women – and men – whose efforts led to the passage of Title IX. Just as important are the many women who pursued their passion for sport before Title IX – all the while knowing that they would not have equal opportunities, or even the moral support to play.
One of my primary competitive sports growing up was equestrian – showing and eventing. Although we didn’t have competitive middle school sports, I participated in recreational basketball and had talent as a runner. When I got to high school, I initially only played basketball and ran track. Our high school basketball team won state championships three years in a row. I was very successful in track, running the 440, 880, 4 x 440 (yes, yards back then) and throwing the discus.
One late summer day, I was walking by the high school field hockey field and the assistant coach, who was also the assistant basketball coach, convinced me to “grab a stick.” (Apparently, forms and liability were not a concern!) Well, I was hooked. I played my senior year and set my sights on college. I was able to compete in the Junior Olympics and earn a Division I scholarship – something that would have rarely, if ever, been available to women before Title IX.
While I appreciated the advanced collegiate experience and loved my teammates, I must admit, my most special memories are from high school. High school sports and activities are unique – and so very important. The high school age is one of development; figuring out who you are and who you want to become. Sports and activities discover and develop a wide range of talents outside of the classroom, and research demonstrates that participation in co-curricular activities can enhance academic performance. High school teammates are often classmates; all share the many experiences in the life of a school. High school sports and activities can and should be about participation – in multiple activities – and about skill improvement, character development and FUN.
Question: You were a principal in Connecticut at one point in time and worked closely with school administrators in your role with the Connecticut association. What role do principals and superintendents play in the continued success of activity programs in our nation’s schools?
Niehoff: School and district administrators play a critical role in the continued success of activity programs. They are in key positions to influence resource allocation, certainly, but more importantly they set the tone in schools and districts as to what matters. Principals and superintendents must believe in the value of activity programs and support them publicly. They should allocate appropriate resources toward programs so that quality coaches, facilities and opportunities are provided. We hope that all educational leaders realize the benefits of participation and vigorously support activity programs in the future.
Question: You have been on the job about 90 days. What are some of your takeaways about the NFHS and its role in advancing high school sports and performing arts in this country?
Niehoff: Within the first 90 days, I had the privilege of traveling with other NFHS staff members to each section to attend the annual section meetings. I learned a number of things about the NFHS and the Federation family through conversations with association staff from around the country:
Question: The NFHS is celebrating its Centennial this school year. Since a full-time office was established in 1940, the organization has been led by five males. What are your thoughts about being the first female to serve in this position?
Niehoff: I do think about it on occasion. Throughout my career, I have looked around meeting rooms and noticed that I was one of only a few women – or the only woman – at the table. It is an awareness that you both “do” and “do not” get used to. Within the Federation I have not experienced any negativity regarding being a woman in a sport leadership role; however, that’s not been the case elsewhere. So, I do know how significant this is, especially when I think about the women who paved the way for my generation, and for all young women. I hope that I am just the first of many women to serve in this position, and that we see increasing numbers of women and other minorities at all levels within the Federation.
Question: There has been a growing concern over the past few years about safety aspects related to high school football. Certainly, the NFHS has been a leader nationally in risk minimization in football and all sports, but there are those concerned about the future of the sport. What do you see ahead for football in the next five to 10 years?
Niehoff: We are also concerned about the sport of football. I think we will see a number of things occur:
Question: During the month of September, you attended section meetings involving leaders of NFHS-member state associations. What are some of the key issues being discussed today?
Niehoff: Discussion at the eight section meetings focused on a number of common issues:
Question: Participation in high school sports increased for the 29th consecutive year this past year, yet we still hear about some kids moving away from high school sports to concentrate on one sport on an out-of-school team. How do we continue to keep the numbers rising in education-based sports and emphasize multiple sports participation?
Niehoff: At times it feels like we are fighting an uphill battle regarding sport specialization and the influence of non-education-based sport programs. However, we can keep our numbers rising if:
Question: What are some of your specific goals to accomplish during your first year on the job? What do you see as some of the biggest challenges in this new position?
Niehoff: There are many challenges before us – each of which can be embraced as an opportunity. The concerns expressed by our member states during the section meetings capture some of those challenges. In general, I think we are working constantly to strengthen our presence in the larger world of sport. When appropriate, we would like to be included in discussions and policy work along with the NCAA, NGBs, the USOC and even professional organizations. When these groups delve into youth- and high school-level conversations, we need to be at the table.
Another significant challenge – and not a new one – is the increasing disruption that third-party agents and sport organizations cause in the education-based landscape. Emphasis on unhealthy sport specialization and inappropriate recruitment practices, quite frankly, are a type of abuse of our young people, and can bring many negative consequences. These issues are among the biggest overall challenges for the NFHS.
In terms of goals, I would foremost like to strengthen relationships with colleague organizations and grow our collaborative efforts. Our work with the NCAA and coaches associations regarding the Division I Men’s Basketball June Evaluation events may lead to other initiatives intended to bring the high school back into the college selection and recruitment processes.
The NFHS Board of Directors has developed five excellent goals that we intend to meet. The goals address engagement in new research, risk minimization, promotion of school-based athletics and activities through many efforts, and becoming the “go to” organization for professional development on a national scale. In realizing these goals, I hope to represent the NFHS as an organization that is collaborative, committed to its mission, well-informed, and the leading authority in the world on education-based athletics and activities.