Pat Hogan, Mecklenberg Aquatic Club Ken Stopkotte, Cincinnati Marlins Duffy Dillon, Parkway Swim Club Moderated by John Leonard
Hogan: The Mecklenberg Aquatic Club was already very, very good when I got there. The club had enjoyed a tremendous amount of success over a long period of time. There was a lot more right with the program then wrong. There was a great staff, great parental support, and incredible base of talent to draw from. We have a lot of advantages and we understand that. If I had to identify any specific things we did that made a difference in our improvement over the past few years — first, I tried to respect the traditions and success of the club in my first year there. When I went in I asked a lot more questions than I ever had before. I was slower to make changes and spent more time evaluating before anything else. I think by not coming in and imposing my personality or my program or my way of doing things on top of the situation which was already very successful made for a very successful transition where I ended up doing the things I wanted to do without some of the bloodshed that could have taken place. By being respectful of those people and that tradition, that was one of the most important things I did well.
Secondly, we improved the lines of communication. That is a very all-encompassing comment because I am talking about the swimmers, the coaches, and the parents. We did a handful of things such as institute a weekly staff meeting where we able to do things in that staff meeting on a regular basis over and above run the club administratively. We spent a lot of time reviewing how we were going to do things top to bottom in our program from the standpoint of having basic practice behaviors we expected from our 8 & unders all the way through our senior swimmers. In trying to establish consistency from bottom to top in stroke technique, drills, dryland exercises, and all aspects of the workout we needed to make sure we were all using the same language. When you have a big program you have to do things like that.
We started putting out a weekly newsletter to our membership which was our way of communicating to both swimmers and parents. It is something I have used wherever I have coached and I have found it to be incredibly valuable in terms of letting the membership know when to things like when to sign up for swim meets and what time to be at the meets and that type of thing. It’s also a way, over time, to do a little bit here and a little bit there in terms of parent education — things about what you believe and what your philosophy is.
And third: I realized that our competition calendar had slowly crept to the point where our kids where not training as much as they needed to train. In an effort to be part of a regional age group championships in late March we were conducting our short course age group championships in the early part of February. We were losing about six weeks of the short course season from a training perspective. I tried real hard to instill what an aerobic base was and sell a foundation of training. We try to have kids wait and shave and rest to the absolutely the last point possible in any season. I do not believe in sacrificing three or four weeks of training this year in order to make a time standard to move to the next meet this season. I would rather wait and rest and shave at the end of the season and maybe go really fast at a secondary meet in the short course season so we can go to a major meet really well prepared in the long course season.
Stopkotte: When I came to Cincinnati the numbers where down to about 110. In the club’s peak we were around 270 to 300 kids, back in the mid 1980’s. The moral was pretty low. In Cincinnati we have quite a few YMCA and other USS clubs within the belt-way with 150 to 200 kids each. There are about 2,000 kids swimming in the winter time and in the summer it is a big summer club area. In the past, before I came to Cincinnati, a lot of the coaches relied on older kids coming in from the Y or USS clubs. The kids would stay with their club until they were 13 or 14 then automatically switch over to the Marlins.
The club was in financial trouble. We were $200,000 in debt to St. Xavier High School who has the deed on the facility. They didn’t tell me we were in debt when I interviewed for the job. I came to find out when we switched presidents. The first year I was there was really miserable. There was a lot of things going on as far as traditions, and I had to ask a lot of questions. I almost decided to leave after that first year because it was so frustrating. Nevertheless we recognized the problems. One of the things we did was stop waiting for kids to come into the program because that wasn’t going to happen anymore. I had a staff of 8 people. We split the staff up to go to different areas. My area is Northern Kentucky. We started going out to the summer club dual meets and talked to as many people as possible and took club information to hand out. They always paid the head coach a good amount of money but the assistant coach salaries were poor. I pleaded with the board to increase the amount of money being spend on assistant coaches. One of the most important things I have done there is that I have brought outstanding people in to work with me. We brought in Bill Behrens and Cary Belyea. I rely on people who can work with national level swimmers in addition to myself and are team players.
Lastly, make sure in a parent run club you have a real strong president. If you have a team president now who you know because of team bylaws is going to be off the board in a year or two you need to start looking now for the person you want to take over. I have had a very ideal situation since the middle of my first year. The president in place when I came was a leftover from the previous regime and he was very supportive but he was active in the business community and he just didn’t have time to do it. The previous coach before me was very good but also a little more militant than I am but he was left out in the open for people to take pot shots. I learned this from my previous job at Countryside Y, it is really important to have a strong person as your team president because — the mistake I made at the Y is I let another guy come in and take over and he did a real poor job and he was a weak leader and it really hurt the program even into the next couple of coaches who were there. Here at the Marlins we have a guy who took over during my first year. He was a banker. He didn’t know anything about swimming. All he cared about was getting the club back in shape and his big motto with parents was, “Look, I’m the team president. I don’t do flip turns. If you have a problem with the coaching staff go talk to Ken. The board of directors are going to support him.” He was there to handle the financial aspects of the program and that worked well for three years. Later I started recruiting Tim Blood to be on the board and eventually to become team president. He is very supportive of letting the coach’s coach. Make sure you are always recruiting good people to come on to the board.
Dillon: I think the big thing for us is consistency of philosophy. I was in a situation in California with a parent run club. After John Leonard and I had a meeting I bought into the coach as CEO model and I was trying to instill that into the club. We were getting there but not at the rate I wanted to. Parkway was not a program I knew anything about other than I remember swimming against Tom Jaeger as an age grouper swimmer and then again in college. John had gone there in the fall on 1992 and done a Club Assistance Program at which point in time they chose to relieve their head coach and went on a ten month search for a head coach. In March of 1993 I became aware of the job and in 11 days from the moment I heard of the job I had accepted the job. When I went out for the interview, one of the things John had impressed upon me was that I shouldn’t say things just to get the job if that is not what I truly believe. The interview took about four and a half hours in front of 8 parents and Penny Taylor who is the founder of the club. That afternoon I called my wife and told her that I thought I was pretty good but had no idea what they thought. I knew I had said what I would do. The group of parents who were there seemed to like what I had said and offered me the job and I started a few weeks later.
There were a couple of things that were left out of the equation. I asked during the interview if anyone had applied for the job from the existing staff and I was told that no one had. Later I found out that was not the case. The other thing that I realized is that they should have hired someone single because it was going to take about eighteen hours a day for two years to get the situation turned around.
The other thing I found is that the consistency of philosophy worked with the eight people I interviewed with but not necessarily with the rest of the club and definitely not with the rest of the coaching staff. Some did, but many did not. It was an interesting situation. It was a club of 350 to 380 people. It’s a public school district. At the time it was a parent run team. There was no communication amongst the coaches. We swam out of four high school pools. The changing of groups was almost like the draft. The higher up the totem pole of coaches the better chance you had in the draft. You could just pull kids at any time. There were a lot of empty promises saying if you worked hard you move up but then many did not. Parents were extremely involved early on. I was there only 9 days before I went to our first swim meet. Every parent on deck had a stop watch. I was pretty freaked out about that. By the end of the week I figured out that every parent had a watch because not one of our coached did. So I went out and bought some stop watches! Later that fall I had to let a couple of coaches go and that was a pretty scary process. Trying to get people that believe in the same things — you can have agreements, you can have disagreements, you can agreeably agree to disagree, but you can still have a consistency of philosophy — takes 257 work. We went through a period of six weeks when we got a new age group coach and the coaches we had released were going through our roster and recruiting their past swimmers at a rate of 5 or 6 kids a week. Over the six weeks we lost 80 kids, 60 just from the senior group. We ended up below 300 kids that fall.
At that time, myself and the head age group coach were the only two full time coaches. Then we put our vision and plan that the board and I had developed together along with the plan the school district had for us to within a few years be a school district program with the parents taking a reduced role as a booster group, and we went to work on that plan. We built our membership up to about 400. We changed our fee structure from a trimester basis to a nine month system and that increased our budget in one year by about sixty percent. That allowed us to become part of the school district. We went from two full time people to five with full benefits. We advertised in the ASCA Job Service and we hired people that I still have today. I believe this to be one of the best staffs in the Midwest. We work and play hard. We have fun first and we enjoy the work we do. Our program is largely based on working but we have fun in our dryland program. We play Frisbee, we play rugby — we like to play and have a good time.
We have good communication. We keep the lines of communication open as much as we can. Working out of four pools can be difficult. We don’t work for parents, we work with parents. Their views are important and we try to include them in the decision making process as much as possible.
Leonard: Let me ask each of you a specific question about the comment Duffy just made. Pat, most people around the country probably do monthly newsletters. You commented that you do a newsletter a week for how many families?
Hogan: 300 plus.
Leonard: Can you describe the process it takes to get that newsletter out?
Hogan: We put it out every Wednesday. It is something I drive myself, although I don’t do it completely by myself. I do delegate out parts of the newsletter to various members of my staff. I found that not only is it a good way of communicating to membership, it is also my way of managing my program.. By doing what I am doing on a weekly basis with the newsletter from the standpoint of practice schedule changes to meet entry deadlines to promos and results for meets we have been to as well as upcoming meets, it is my way of staying on top of what is happening day to day. I have different members of my staff who are responsible for putting together things like the calendar that we put in every week or practice schedule changes at our various facility sites. They share responsibility for writing certain articles. It is one of the things we talk about in our staff meeting every week and through the staff meeting we set up the mechanics of doing the newsletter every week.
Leonard: Ken, you had commented that after your first year in a rough situation you were ready to leave but you decided to stay. Please share your thought process on deciding to stay and make it work.
Stopkotte: I was in Orlando in the summer of 1993 for juniors and I was at the point where I was thinking about leaving Cincinnati so I was talking to people at juniors. We had four swimmers at the meet and two of them had come from outside of the state to train with us and we were usually done by the end of the first heat so I had a lot of time to think. I remember sitting next to Joe Bernal and his team and they had an incredible meet and they looked good, and had great team spirit, and I said to myself, “that’s the kind of program I want to create.” I started thinking about ways to get to that point. I knew it would take more than a year or two. When I saw what Coach Bernal had done in making his team faster through team concepts and team spirit, I almost hit myself because that is something I had sold my previous team on when I was there for seven years but I had not done it at Cincinnati. From there on I decided to stay at Cincinnati and make it work.
I remember Pat Hogan talking at the world clinic a couple of years ago about your first year on the job and how you have to be real subtle that first year and in the second year you can really start doing things. We changed our practice schedule. We started an elite age group program. We started going to meets as a team. We did more big brother – big sister type things. If you are going to do it, jump in with both feet. If you do not believe in what your program is all about then I recommend you look around and find some place you are going to be happy at.
Leonard: Duffy, you talked about a first year to year and a half where you had coaches who decided they didn’t want to be with you. You had 60 senior athletes who decided they didn’t what to be with you. You had a transition period that had to make the board that you worked for very nervous that they had made the right choice. Something must have helped protect you. What was that?
Dillon: A contract. I had a three year contract and it was one of those things where they would have to buy me out. But more than that it was consistency of philosophy. The people who hired me were still involved and they saw that everything that was being promised was being executed and that the difficulties was something we had to go through. The people that left were not people who bought into the philosophy but as soon as the initial drop off had happened we started increasing pretty quickly and it didn’t take long to build back up.
Leonard: So your three year contract gave you the room to recreate the program. I wanted to bring that point out because I wish I had a dollar for every time I heard the opposite story or someone said, “Gee they hired me to do this and we did it and then all of a sudden I’m out the door and I didn’t have a contract.” That might have been your situation if you didn’t have the contract.
Dillon: I think so.
Leonard: In the role of trying to create excellence in your program, did you feel any resistance to doing that, and if you did what were the significant discussion points you used to overcome that so at least some part of your program could be focused on excellence at the national level?
Hogan: My charge from the first committee that hired me at Mecklenburg was to take the program to the next level. I felt from the very beginning that that was what they were interested in doing and my challenge was to get people to think bigger and believe that they could be better than ever before. I had a very similar first year at nationals to that described by Ken. We were not very good. The kids that swam the best were not even in my training group. It was obvious to me that those were not going to be the group of people that were going to take it to the next level. So we tried to concentrate on making it happen with the younger people in the program not only in my group but in the group below mine. We encouraged them to think big and work hard and to put the foundation down that they needed to do to be successful. They were just young enough and naive enough about what all that involved that it was a relatively easy sell.
Leonard: If you had to characterize your board at that point, when you were hired was there and excellence component described in what they wanted.
Hogan: Only that they wanted the program to move to the next level. It was fine with me that it wasn’t any more specific than that because I was then able to define the next level.
Stopkotte: In our situation I was asked to get the numbers back up and to bring back more camaraderie. There was nothing stated to me about performance. I made it clear that there would be performance goals and my goal would be to take the program to as high of a level as I possibly could. I took a big gamble going to that program and I would not have taken it without a contract. I negotiated a four year contract with an eighteen month buy-out if they felt they wanted to move on. I started making changes in my second year. I used to go up to the balcony after practice to ask for any questions from parents. Through that and the newsletter I was up front about changes and I was able to sell it to the people. We also had a bit of success in the pool right away and that always helps.
Leonard: Was excellence not on the agenda?
Stopkotte: That was not the priority at the time. We realized we would not get to that point unless we went out and got summer club swimmers so we set marketing the club and growing the club as priorities.
Dillon: My program was not about excellence. It was about getting some order out of chaos. The biggest part of the interview process was, “Do you have the ability to use the word ‘no’.” Because the coach prior to me did not have that ability and that’s how they became a parent run organization. I’m not talking about the 15 people on the board, I’m talking about the 400 parents out there. Anybody could get anything they wanted. Any parent could call and ask for a favor at any time. We put in a very objective structure. We’ve been under that structure for about four and a half years. Out coaches cannot even chose who goes where any more. We will probably add some subjectivity back to that. We have hit the stability the staff is comfortable with. Excellence is going to become more of a goal. It has been a long slow learning curve. We have tried to shed as little blood as possible. We didn’t want to shed any blood but we made a 180 degree shift. Excellence will be more of a focus in the future. In a program as large as ours and being affiliated with a public school system, education is our biggest foundation. We do it within our own staff. We do it with the parents and we do with the swimmers. That makes our booster board happy and it makes our board of education happy and it makes my bosses in the school district happy. We have a place for everybody in our program. We have a very big emphasis on non-competition — that makes the board of education very happy. We have groups for everybody from national level down to stroke classes. Even in our competitive age group groups probably 50% of these kids do not compete. Everybody had a chance to come to practice once a week or nine to ten times a week. Our swimmer to coach ratio on any given night is probably 12 or less to one.
Leonard: Each of you works in a parent owned club. Pat works freely as a CEO coach. Duffy and Ken are developing your positions to that point. When you look at your board today and when you look at the characteristics of that board and the people who are on it, are there things you can pick out that are extremely positive characteristics or things that might be characteristics you prefer to change if you were to continue to evolve your board?
Hogan: I have a very good board. Certainly there are characteristics I would like to see different. I really believe in a situation like mine you need a combination of two types of people on the board. You need heavy hitters. These are 259 people well connected in the community. They have the money and the backing behind them to allow you to do some things financially. And then you need the busy bodies which are people to do the work. They have the time and energy to commit to your program. In either case they all have to have a “we” or an “us” philosophy. That is the most important criteria in choosing board members. At the present time we are a little heavy on the busy bee group and a little light on the heavy hitter group. We have 18 parent members and 3 staff members on our board. The terms are 3 years on a rotating basis, six rotate off every year and we maintain 12.
Stopkotte: I like to mix our board up a little bit. I like a third to be people who are either alumni or past coaches. Many of our past team members return to Cincinnati after college. They can give some insight into problems in the past. They are a little more balanced and less likely to have the “I” or the “me” syndrome. I like to try to find people, like Pat said, that are going to do a lot of work but they are not going to do it for selfish reasons. They love the team, that comes first. There are so many times when I see other clubs that get people with their own selfish interest on the board and then there are problems. I like to have a representation from each of the practice groups. I like to have a parent of 10 and unders who comes to practices who can bring back concerns. Our board has 13 members who serve 3 year terms, each year 4 rotate off the board. The coach has the 13th position which is a voting position.
Dillon: We like to have a mix of the heavy hitters and the workers. I have been in situations where we had lots of heavy hitters and lots of visionaries but nothing gets done. And if you have nothing but busy bees everyone wants to do something but nobody will tell them what to do so nothing gets done. We also work hard to keep the board part of the process and to keep them motivated. They very much have a “we” philosophy. One of my staff members just asked me today how much does the booster board know about what we do as a swim club and I said they know everything. If they do not know what we do or what our position is within the school district then I think it is pretty difficult to keep them motivated. We have some pretty large plans for the future. We plan to make another transition and we cannot do it alone. We are a mix of a board run team and a coach run team. Our staff is very involved. They have responsibility for their own groups and pool and they take care of certain responsibilities to run the whole program. We rely mostly on our parents to run our swim meets, fund raisers, and social events.
Leonard: Duffy, you said your board knows everything. How do you keep them informed?
Dillon: We have at least once a month parent booster board meetings. We informally meet more often. I probably meet with at least the older board members individually in person or on the phone once every other week.
Question: How involved in writing the contract were you and what are some specific things you asked for?
Stopkotte: From my standpoint it is a very basic contract. It lists out the terms of employment. It specifies reasons for termination. I haven’t looked at it in a long time. I had a lawyer take a look at it before I signed it and it was all OK. If there was a situation where they wanted to terminate the employment it is very clear that there is an 18 month severance pay.
Dillon: I started off with a contract. When we became a school district program I had to rescind my contract with the parent group. School district employees who are not teachers are not on contract. I do have a written agreement that includes all the coaches with the parents group that lists the duties we perform as consultants and then in turn what they give back to us.
Hogan: I have nothing exceptional. It is basically a letter of agreement that outlines what my responsibilities are and compensations. Last year I began my second three year agreement. I added one thing in the most recent agreement that might be a little unique and that is that at least once every four years the club pays my way to one major international competition because I feel if we are going to be developing swimmers to that level then I need to be tuned in to what is going on at that level of swimming. You are not always guaranteed that you are going to have people there so this way I still get an opportunity to learn.
Question: Any thought on using the Internet or e-mail for communication among your swimmers or parents?
Stopkotte: We have a website we started a year ago. We are moving slowly on it right now. It is there more or less to show to other people across the country. I have been using e-mail with my own practice group a lot more not. I have everyone’s e-mail address in my group. I use it to keep in touch. I think it eventually can be an effective way to communicate with families.
Dillon: We use a website that is pretty extensive. It was developed by one of my swimmers who now is off at college. All of our head coaches have e-mail addresses. We are two computers short of each individual coach having their own computer. Computers and communication is a big part of what we do.
Hogan: We have a website we use primarily for external communication. We have not begun to use it for internal 260 communication yet but it is something we plan on doing in the future.
Question: Coach Hogan, are any of your board members from outside of your membership?
Hogan: Our board members are made up of parents of swimmers who are actively on the team. We have had alumni parents be active in the past.
Question: Ken, can you elaborate why it is important to have people on your board who are from outside of the club?
Stopkotte: I think they bring a lot of balance to the board especially in a crisis situation. When you are dealing with people’s kids there can be some very emotional issues. We had a situation this summer where we had some discipline problems on some of our team trips and this came out about 4 weeks before senior nationals. One of the things we did is set up a discipline committee and the people on that committee didn’t have kids in the program and they could be objective. We have other situations where they have brought other things to the board such as fund raising.
Question: My question comes from the perspective of a YMCA coach. You talk a lot about the head coach becoming the CEO of the program. When you sit down and have board meetings and you consider yourself working towards being the CEO of the program, who runs the board meetings, the coach or the president? And when you set down to set the team goals over the course of the year, is that something you do with the board together or with the board president — how do you outline those goals?
Hogan: Relative to the goals question that is something done internally with the coaching staff. The board of directors has nothing to do with setting performance goals of the athletes. Your second question — the board meetings are run by the board president. We have a typical agenda that we follow. He and I discuss what is going to go on in the agenda prior to each board meeting. I do my best to control what is in the agenda. I think most swim team board of directors in this country micro-manage their teams. They do not look at the big picture points of view that they should be focused on. They try to get too involved in the coaching. We try real hard to make sure that our board meetings are limited to the kinds of things that are appropriate for the board of directors to discuss. To do that fairly successfully I need to talk to our board president about the agenda prior to each board meeting.
Stopkotte: In my situation our board president runs the meetings. There is a strict agenda. We have department heads in our program. Each board member takes over a department for example publicity, meet director, concessions, and so on. They give their report. I have a report that I give that is brief and geared toward what is going on, who we have hired, meet information. We rarely discuss the performance goals of the program. We do have something I instituted in my third year — a planning committee. When I started we had two senior national kids and three junior national kids. The senior national kids where going to graduate within a year. I recognized that we needed to do some things to build the excellence. I sat down and wrote where I wanted the team to be in 1996. I wanted to be in the top 5 at juniors, I wanted at least 5 senior national qualifiers. I wanted to be able to travel to major meets. That is where our performance goals came from. The planning committee works on those things and brings a report back to the board.
Dillon: My role with our booster board is strictly as consultant. I have a formal agreement as consultant. We are similar to the Marlins in that our board is run by committees. Board meetings are for returning committee decisions only. We have gotten away from the dog and pony shows and the emotional routines. Most club things are handled in committee. Our committees all meet once a month and I attend all those committee meetings. As consultant I have a better perspective meeting with three to five people rather than ten to fifteen. With a committee the focus is narrow and it is easier to get things done. Then we bring recommendations to the board and the board usually approves. Most of what we do is done by consensus. We try not to do anything unless we have consensus. If it hasn’t been done by consensus then we try to get the point across and the board president does this.
Question: I have been with my program for about a year. There are times when I will have 30 to 40 parents at practice. We are trying to implement a program to limit parents at practices. Have you implemented such a program?
Hogan: We have a glass wall viewing room and require parents to watch from there.
Stopkotte: Ours can be kind of an intimidating situation for first year or young coaches. Our parents are not allowed to be on the pool deck but we have a balcony that overlooks the pool. Parents are allowed to be up there. We have people who come from 45 minutes away and there isn’t any other place for them to go. I had a situation a couple of years ago where I had to ban someone from the natatorium. One parent who was making signs down to their kid about how to do their stroke. If they step out of line or bother the coach I can ban them and I have board support for that. That was something I instituted my second year there.
Dillon: When I started at Parkway we had something called parent observation week — the initials were POW. The kids thought that was pretty funny. The board meetings were closed when I started. I think that led to a lot of the chaos that went on. Now, everything we do is completely open. All practices are completely open. All board meetings are completely open unless it involves personnel. All lines 261 of communication are open. My parents can watch from the stands but they are not allowed on the deck. In my own particular group I started out with some parents who were pretty intense. They used to bring their stop watch to practice and I would sarcastically kid them about it. Difficult problems have gone away. They are welcome to watch. I like them to watch. It keeps me honest. I think it is important that people get a chance to see their children. It has worked to our advantage in some situations. When we have a discipline problem the parents are there to see it.
Leonard: What would you recommend for preparation or skills for a coach who might be contemplating taking a job with a club that wants to move to a higher level?
Hogan: I was fortunate as a young coach to mentor under some outstanding coaches. I worked for three years for Richard Quick and for another year for Skip Kenney. Certainly that experience in itself was more valuable to me than anything else I could have done. I would strongly encourage anyone who has not had a mentor to try to adopt a mentor or somebody you can work with where you can visit them or their workouts on a regular basis. I think this is a sport where you can learn best by apprenticing under somebody who knows how to do it well. I encourage any young coach to learn how to run a business. You need to spend the time thinking about how to run your business. Just because you know how to coach doesn’t mean you know how to run a club.
Stopkotte: I agree with Pat. When I was at the Y it was basically a one or two man show. We had two or three coaches working with 130 kids. We had total say in everything and we did everything. Here at the Marlins I have eight coaches working for me. That was one of the things that I need to learn how to do in a hurry. I needed to work on communication skills with the people working under me and learn how to delegate things a lot better. The only other area, be careful of socializing with parents. They will act like they are your best friend and as soon as there is a problem with the kid, discipline or lack of performance, they will use anything in your personal life they have learned from you to get you. With the program, if you step into a new situation it is important to have a computer and have good writing skills and you can express your thoughts with newsletters.
Dillon: I think mentoring is very important. I also think coaches should learn to call the ASCA office or another coach and ask. Most coaches are willing to share. I also think it is important learn how to listen before trying to get your point across. Listen to your parents, your swimmers, and your staff to learn exactly what they are looking for and then you can modify your direction. The third thing that I think is extremely important is you have to understand the business side of the sport. You have to have a business plan that talks about managing, about marketing, and about budgeting. You need to have influence or control over all those areas. I have seen great deck coaches actually get budgeted out of their job because the program gets so small it could no longer support them and they had no idea where their finances were and when it came time to renew their contract the club could no longer afford them