One of the primary responsibilities of an athletic administrator is to evaluate each of his or her school’s athletic programs and their respective leadership to provide appropriate support or, if necessary, make significant changes to ensure young people are having the best experience possible. One tool that is being used more frequently and helps the athletic administrator get a closer, more in-depth look at his or her programs is an end-of-season exit interview with senior student-athletes.
The exit interview allows the athletic administrator to see the program through the eyes of the participant, which is extremely important but often overlooked. The athlete’s perspective is especially important considering that the media and vocal parents frequently exert a loud and constant pressure on high school athletic programs, coaches and teams.
When possible, the exit interview should be conducted with five to seven randomly selected senior student-athletes. In this way, the athletic administrator can be sure that he or she is interacting with players who no longer have “skin in the game” and are more likely to offer an honest, even critical insight into their experiences.
Another reason to select seniors is that they have been in the program longer than any other athletes on the team and they should have a more in-depth experience to share.
Finally, selecting seniors at random makes it likely that the athletic administrator hears from a range of athletes – the star, the role player and the bench player – which should allow for a more complete picture of the types of experiences participants are having within the program. If a particular program does not have five seniors from whom to choose, the activities administrator will need to decide whether to use a smaller sample size or to include juniors in the interview process.
Once the selection of student-athletes is completed for each program, interviews can begin. It is imperative that the athletic administrator build trust with the interviewees. In a small-school setting, this may be easier as a personal connection has likely been developed with the lion’s share of student-athletes in the school. In a larger school, the activities administrator needs to take care to create a non-threatening environment for the student-athlete who may be nervous about having been called to the office to “talk to the AD.” Interviews should start like this:
“You’ve been randomly selected to provide feedback to me about your experience as a participant in [sport]. This feedback is anonymous and consists of your response to five questions. Only my secretary and I know that you’ve been selected to participate. I am taking notes to recall your responses, but will not record your name anywhere in my notes. Your participation is voluntary. You are not required to talk with me and are free to return to class if you wish. Are you willing to visit with me for a few minutes?”
Dr. Troy Urdahl, activities director at St. Anthony-New Brighton Schools in Minnesota, uses four questions and a graphic for his exit interviews. His questions and their purpose are:
Some athletic administrators may also add a simple, but powerful fifth question: If you had another year of high school remaining, would you sign up again for your sport?
The graphic (at top of page) he uses stems from the Minnesota State High School League’s “Why We Play” program and contains a coaching continuum and asks students to plot their coach on the continuum based on their interpretation of their coach as a transformational or transactional leader over the course of the season.
Follow-up questions can then be asked for clarification depending on the answers given by the student-athlete. Sometimes, young people may have a difficult time articulating informative, helpful responses. The effective athletic administrator will ask clarifying questions, ask for specific examples and restate answers to provide for the best understanding of the feedback given during the interview. Most interviews can be completed in 10 minutes or less.
Are these exit interviews effective? The short answer is, “yes!” When answers are consistent across the board, there’s a pretty good chance there’s merit to the feedback – either positive or negative. The activities administrator can uncover many things that surface during the exit interviews. Is communication effective? Do players feel prepared for contests? Are they training hard enough? Are kids having fun?
For example, the student-athletes of a soccer team gave rave reviews about the quality of their experience. This was a competitive team, practices were fun, coaches taught life lessons and a sense of team was developed. One negative theme, however, emerged from each of the interviews.
An assistant coach tended to be harsh toward the players when things weren’t going well in practice sessions and games. This anonymous feedback was used as a basis for a conversation with this individual and it was clearly stated that changes in demeanor were needed. This interaction accomplished the purpose and the coach had a much more positive impact the following season.
The exit interview should not be the single tool to determine the health of a high school athletic program, rather it should be one of several that helps the athletic administrator understand his or her programs in a more intimate fashion.
Charlie Campbell is the activities director at Brainerd (Minnesota) High School and is the president of the Minnesota Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association. He also serves on the coach education faculty for the Minnesota State High School League.