Get In The Stream

By Dr. Chris Hobbs

Have you ever been outdoors in the woods and walked out into the middle of a stream? I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia. It was very stereotypical suburban living in the 90’s complete with a ‘rat pack’ of boys in our neighborhood that spent an enormous amount of time together. I lived close enough to woods that I could get out there if I wanted. Few things were as fun for a group of 12-year-old boys as finding a stream and playing in and around it for the day. There is something about the energy of the water moving past you that is invigorating. Standing knee deep in the clear, clean, and moving water allows you to gain a unique perspective of what is in the stream when you can look directly down into it. We rarely get this perspective because we want to avoid getting wet, but there is something exhilarating about standing in a place and having a view that you usually would not have. When you get into a stream (on purpose) you are reminded how awesome nature is and that there is a different world below the surface of the water.

I am an athletic director. My days overflow with everything related to coaches, athletes, games, and practices. In a COVID-world, broadcasting our games has even been pushed to forefront of my responsibilities. Despite the busyness, one of my favorite weekly activities is walking around campus during practices. The time flies by as a I listen to coach concerns, receive ‘on the fly’ requests, fist-bump student-athletes, encourage athletic trainers, ask strength coaches about the newest techniques, and make notes on facility issues. It is amazing how much passion and energy I feel for the people that I serve when I go out into the flow of practices, when I get in the ‘stream’ of my athletic department.

The whole idea of managing or leading by walking around is not new. It was coined by management expert Tom Peters. Bill Robinson, author of the book Incarnate Leadership, believes people are deeply impacted by leaders that get out of the office and onto their turf. It is important to note that I believe there is a very specific mentality or intention that needs to be coupled with the idea of getting into the stream of what is happening in your athletic department. If your intention is to nit-pick on things you do not like or find things that people need to be held accountable for then stay in the office. No one wants to interact with a micromanager. However, if your mentality is to encourage, listen, and ultimately serve your coaches then go get into the stream. I have found that I plant a lot of seeds with the people that I’m responsible to lead through these types of interactions and it also helps me to know what to prioritize when I get back my office. I can see and influence the culture of my department when I am standing ‘in the middle of the stream’. Athletic Directors should be intrigued by ways to have 3D influence on their coaches if they expect their coaches to have a 3D influence on their student-athletes. Here are a few suggestions to make ‘getting into the stream’ one of your most valuable and maybe most enjoyable leadership activities. These suggestions may help you develop a practical plan for nurturing a ‘3D culture’.

Get In The Stream

Consistently – The technological age has brought about change almost daily as billions of bits of information are shared globally with the click of a button. What may have been lost in all this change is the value of consistency. Leaders should be an advocate for and adapter to change but few things a leader do speak as loudly as the things a leader does consistently. Leaders that consistently go out and get into the stream of their people when it is not required send two strong messages: 1) what you are doing matters and 2) you matter. If athletic directors believe in the 3D impact that coaches can have on student-athletes, then it is critical that the athletic director try to be around when it happens the most, in practice.

With no agenda – The world of educational-based athletics requires athletic directors to be constantly evaluating their coaches. Athletic directors must always be in a mode of critiquing their departments. Coaches are also constant ‘critiquers’ of their student-athletes. This ‘theme’ of critique causes two problems when an athletic director gets into the stream. The first problem is that the coaches assume the athletic director is present to critique. The second problem is that the athletic director can engage the Baader-Meinhof effect. This is the psychological effect of seeing exactly what you are looking for. Have you ever noticed that when you are considering switching to a new apparel brand, you start seeing that apparel brand everywhere you look? The same is true when athletic directors arrive to a practice with an agenda. The problem is the Baader-Meinhof effect often distracts an athletic director from seeing all sorts of things happening in practices that are often very valuable. When an athletic director decides to jump into the stream with their coaches, the athletic director should leave their agendas in their office.

Eyes and ears open – Once an athletic director has decided to leave their agenda in their office, they should make sure that they bring their eyes and ears. Be on the lookout for where 3D influence is taking place. Where is a coach giving student-athletes space to create and innovate? Where is a teammate speaking life into another teammate? Where are focused repetitions taking place? When you have no agenda and keep your mouth closed, it is incredible what you begin to see and hear in practice.

Commit to leave people encouraged – Leaders will always make their people happy in at least 2 ways. People will always be happy to see you or always happy to see you leave. Fortunately, leaders get to decide which of these ‘happys’ their people experience. Make a commitment to yourself to encourage one coach and one student-athlete before you walk away from practice and they will want to see you at the next practice.

I am not advocating for athletic directors to attend every practice. Often practice time is the only quiet office hours an athletic director can have because the people that are responsible to serve, coaches and student-athletes, are actively engaged. However, a consistent habit of getting into the stream of practice with no agenda, with eyes and ears open, and with a commitment to encourage will lay a foundation for coaches to allow their athletic director to have a 3D impact on them. Coaches that allow their athletic director to have a 3D impact on them are likely to have a 3D impact on their student-athletes. And it can all start by just getting into the stream.

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