NCAA News Archive - 2006

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Balancing act
Administrators and coaches left to weigh family and career in competitive culture

University of Northern Iowa volleyball coach Bobbi Petersen (shown with husband Duane and her first set of twin girls — the family has since added another pair) makes time for her family and still heads a competitive team. The six-year head coach, who relies on nearby family members for help, said, “You can’t do it without support.”
Jul 30, 2006 1:01:05 AM

By Josh Centor
The NCAA News

Three months ago, Bobbi Petersen gave birth to her second set of twin daughters. As summer winds down and Petersen becomes accustomed to having four girls in her house, she also is working long hours at the office, preparing once again to lead the University of Northern Iowa women’s volleyball program.

While most college coaches don’t have two sets of twins, Petersen is one of many individuals working in intercollegiate athletics who struggle with balancing their professional and personal lives.

As coaches and administrators continue to spend countless hours at work to excel in a competitive environment, the Association has established a task force to examine the demands that environment places on employees.

The task force essentially is studying the issue of balancing work and life commitments in intercollegiate athletics, said Carol Cartwright, former president of Kent State University and chair of the group.

"We know that the nature of competitiveness in athletics places excessive demands on individuals who work in the field, and if we don’t find ways to address those issues, we will be dealing with stress, tension and health consequences," said the woman who chaired the NCAA Executive Committee from April 2003 through April 2005.

Not only are individuals’ health and safety at stake, the overall field of athletics administration often loses quality personnel — or inhibits the influx of new members — because of the daunting hours and expectations.

A typical day for Petersen, for example, begins around 5:30 a.m., when she wakes up to take care of a few things around the house and get her older daughters ready for school. She drops her girls off around 8 a.m. and gets to the office by 8:15.

"I try and get in by 8:30 at the latest and spend the day running practice, recruiting and whatever else needs to be done," Petersen said.

During the season, working until the early evening doesn’t provide Petersen with enough time to feel that she’s giving her program everything it deserves. So after going home for a few hours, she usually returns to her office when her daughters have gone to bed, staying there until at least midnight.

"I always try to make it home for a time every day. That’s helped," Petersen said. "My life is definitely family and volleyball, but it’s worked out really well for me so far."

Petersen, who has led the Panthers to an impressive 133-30 record during her six years at the helm, acknowledges that she puts in a lot of time, but she’s willing to do it because she loves her job.

"I don’t know what can make it any easier. It’s so competitive — and recruiting is just a war," she said. "When you choose to spend a weekend at home instead of recruiting, you feel like you’re getting behind. There are definitely times I feel I’m away from home too much, but I know that’s part of the job, and in order to be competitive, you have to be at certain places at certain times."

Tough culture to change

Cartwright and her group, which includes presidents and chancellors, athletics directors, conference commissioners, coaches, faculty athletics representatives and other athletics administrators, will look at establishing practices that will help Petersen and her colleagues find a way to achieve a desired balance.

The task force will hold two in-person meetings — the first of which is in August — and a series of conference calls before submitting a final report to the Executive Committee at the 2007 NCAA Convention. Members hope to identify recommendations for institutional policy as well as tools for assessment that will help administrators and coaches recognize areas that can be improved in their own lives.

"We’re trying to look across a broad base of individuals who work in intercollegiate athletics and determine whether we can recommend some policies that institutions will consider adopting," Cartwright said. "Our job is to look at the overall environment and policies that already exist and appear to be working well. We need to find out what we might need to recommend that would make these kinds of practices and policies truly helpful in the field of intercollegiate athletics."

Some people, though, don’t believe that the culture can change. They say it’s more a matter of learning how to prioritize each day rather than expecting demands to lessen.

"There’s nothing you can do to make it any easier. I can’t do this job correctly unless it’s a way of life," said Boston College Athletics Director Gene DeFilippo. "It’s always a tough balance, and it’s especially hard when you’re coming up and you’ve got dreams and goals. It’s hard not to get caught up in it."

DeFilippo does his best to make time for his family, and he and his wife have traveled to Italy in four of the past five years.

When he was in Europe two years ago, one of the assistant men’s basketball coaches was offered a job at another school. DeFilippo had to put his vacation on hold to make sure Boston College didn’t lose a valuable staff member.

"He had two days to make a decision and he had to talk with me. The head coach wanted me to do whatever I could to keep him, and you just can’t put that off," DeFilippo said. "You just can’t turn everything away."

The nonstop culture that comes from late-night basketball games, mid-week football contests and countless weekend events is one that administrators and coaches haven’t been able to change — in fact, many acknowledge that the will to win feeds a work-life arms race. Coaches often are cited for the hours they spend breaking down film; others are described as "tireless recruiters." Even student-athletes are trained to "outwork" their opponents.

"Administrators and coaches are probably lucky if they have a 60-hour work week," said Jennifer Alley, executive director of the National Association of Collegiate Women Athletic Administrators. "You’re always on, and even if you’re not coaching and you’re just a spectator, you’re still talking to parents and fans. It’s part of your job, and even though to the outside world it looks like great fun, you’re always working."

Coping with the culture

Even if coaches and administrators accept the plethora of hours required during the season, as well as bowl games on Christmas and baseball contests on Easter and Passover, recruiting and nontraditional seasons have made intercollegiate athletics a 365-day culture.

"I’m not sure the culture will change, but I do believe it’s possible to help the people who work in the culture see what their options are," Cartwright said.

For Petersen, her only option was to commit to both parenting and coaching, relying on the people around her to help make success a reality.

"You can’t do it without support. My husband works hard, too, and it’s very busy for him, but we make it work," Petersen said. "The kids go to someone different every day and that makes it interesting, but we have family that’s close and we’re very fortunate. I feel bad for people who don’t have family close and are trying to do both."

Dena Evans also chose to balance coaching and parenting. It worked well for a while —Evans in fact led the Stanford University cross country program to the 2003 national championship.

Evans, who ran at Stanford, gave up her dream job in 2005 because she believed it was taking too much time away from her two daughters.

"For me, there was a combination of feeling completely run down and I didn’t see things getting any less complicated in the near term. Things only looked to be getting more and more complex," Evans said.

Coaches and administrators frequently rely on day-care services for their children, but the odd hours that come with intercollegiate athletics can make that option expensive.

"I don’t think I was necessarily paid unfairly, but we were doing so much craziness as a family to deal with the travel and child-care costs," Evans said. "We didn’t keep a traditional schedule and it no longer seemed to make sense for our family."

Evans wants to see a transformation in the intercollegiate athletics culture — she in fact has become an advocate for change so that others aren’t faced with the same difficult decisions she was forced to confront.

"It’s important to have conversations early and identify what everyone’s limitations are going to be," Evans said. "The more things that are in place that aren’t ad hoc or decided on the fly will help the coach plan to have her career goals and family protected."

‘A meeting with myself’

The impact of the culture on women is another part of the issue.

"Women have so many roles that we tend to burn ourselves out if we try to be too much to too many, too often," Alley said. "We certainly are aggressive and prideful in the professional work we do, and want to do a good job, but sometimes we tend to work too long a day to get it done. At the same time, we feel guilty if we don’t get home to elderly parents or children. Eventually we’re burned out and asking how long we can continue to do this."

Alley said the work-life balancing act has been on the NACWAA agenda many times over the years, with discussion often focusing on solutions for female coaches and administrators who are looking to remain in the profession while raising a family.

She said she’s heard many suggestions, from younger mothers taking their kids to work with them to seeking more day-care alternatives. But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution, Alley said.

DeFilippo worries about all of his coaches and administrators, but he said he is most concerned about his female staff members.

While the culture of intercollegiate athletics affects both men and women, DeFilippo believes that women have more challenges when it comes to time demands.

"For better or worse, more of the household things get dropped in the mother’s lap, and I often worry if they have enough time to spend with their children and to coach, particularly when it’s in season," he said. "I talk to the men, too, and tell them they better make sure they spend time with their kids and wife. You only get one chance to do it; when it’s over, it’s over."

DeFilippo encourages his coaches to include their children and spouses in team activities, especially bringing them on trips. Last year, women’s soccer coach Alison Foley took her toddler to the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament in Florida.

"It’s a great lesson for our women’s soccer team. Not only is Alison teaching them how to be a good citizen, student and player, she’s teaching them what it’s like to be a good mom and wife," DeFilippo said.

Both Alley and DeFilippo acknowledge the importance of scheduling time for self and family.

"We have to be willing to make some changes and book time for ourselves. If I know I need some time for me, I’ll just have to block my time. I’ll have a meeting and that meeting is with me," Alley said. "We have to give ourselves higher priority than we give other people."

When he was coming up through the ranks, DeFilippo used to schedule a "date night" with both of his daughters once a month. He and his son went on frequent golf outings.

"We have to actually put the things that are important to us on our calendars so that we make sure they get done," he said.

Alley believes athletics departments should take the issue of flex time more seriously. With coaches and administrators often working until after midnight, perhaps they should take some personal time during traditional work hours. But the competitive nature of intercollegiate athletics often precludes people from asking for what they need, she said.

"That kind of flexibility is probably used less in athletics than in any other place. We’re all just running as hard as we can on the treadmill to stay one step ahead of the next coach or team," Alley said.

Cartwright said the task force will look at all aspects of intercollegiate athletics and try to develop best practices for institutions to implement, but she acknowledged that the ingrained culture of sports is likely to continue to put demands on coaches and administrators in the future —which may point back to the prioritization model as the best option.

Alley emphasized that people have to determine what’s truly most important in their lives and then decide how that fits with a career in athletics.

"I’ve never heard anybody say, ‘I wish I spent more time at work,’ " Alley said.

But people do often say to themselves, "I wish we had more wins" —which means more time at work may be the priority they select.

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