A College Coach's Perspective by Brian Tompkins

"Who Knows the Scoop? Reflections On My Open Door Policy"
Why Athletic Trainers know more than coaches.
Published on May 30, 2010
If you want to get the scoop, spend some time with your athletic trainer. For coaches and support personnel, the wealth of knowledge that an athletic trainer may be able to offer could be invaluable to the success of the program. In this article written by Head Soccer Coach Brain Tompkins, he uncovers the truth that many athletic trainers know to be true .. we do more than just tape ankles! - Shelly Mullenix, MS, ATC

“I have always maintained an open door policy in my office and, except for the occasional confab that requires privacy, it literally stands open to the world all day every day. The grandiose intention of this policy is to be welcoming to my student athletes and to be available if they need advice, support, counsel or just want to sit down and chat. In essence it is my way of symbolically saying: "Bring me your troubles and concerns; I care about you and I'm here to help." So why, given this type of laudable magnanimity, do so few players, of their own volition, ever come through the door?

Daphne is a certified athletic trainer. She has worked here for more than thirty years and is one of a team of trainers and interns that function in a loud and crowded room surrounded by athletes of all shapes and sizes. In direct contrast to me, when it comes to knowing the troubles and concerns of my athletes, she knows all. Daphne knows who is struggling in school and why; she knows who was out late on any given night of the week; she knows who hooked-up with somebody else's girlfriend at a party; she knows who's mad, who's sad and who's unhappy. In reality, although I generally have an inkling of what is going on, I know about half the juicy or sometimes gory details that she knows about my athletes.

Why is it that coaches like me are not in the loop with more information? After all, when we recruit kids out of high school we develop a palpable bond and they always arrive on campus so gung-ho and excited to have the opportunity to get a great education and play high-level soccer under my stewardship. There is typically a reasonable degree of closeness that brings with it optimism for a strong personal relationship.

Once they arrive at school however, most athletes' perception of that connection with the coach becomes altered as the relationship morphs from personal to pragmatic. The coach that spent so much time traveling across the country to watch them play, getting to know them and their family, calling and writing them to come to the school, is now on the other side of some sort of moat of undergrad coolness; a divide that often lacks hostility but is nonetheless an unspoken prerequisite of many an athlete. It is no longer quite so acceptable to be close with the coach because, in spite of the fact that they may be a good person with whom they have close ties, they still bear the title of Head Coach and, in the world of college athletes and adolescent culture, that necessitates maintaining, or at least creating the perception of, some distance.

For many students, particularly upperclassmen (who then in turn influence the newcomers), the coach comes to be viewed by their title or position rather than by the content or affect their personality and although the pre-college relationship is rarely completely lost with a student, it begins to revolve around an altered axis.

Over the years I have seen that my reality is similar to that of almost every other college coach and I have come to accept that I will always be looked at in a "coach-first, person-second" manner by my athletes and consequently, in spite of my best efforts, the threshold of my open door will likely remain infrequently crossed, except in the case of dire need or emergency.

Thank goodness then for Daphne and the training room! She has told me that once within the secure confines of that room and while getting ankles taped or muscles heated, athletes will, with minimal prompting, talk openly and candidly about anything and everything from school to sports to their personal lives. She and the other trainers become almost invisible to them and the students have little compunction about the bawdy or self-incriminating content or form of their discussions with her or with each other. It is by turns a place of confession, explanation, and revelation and it clearly serves as an opportunity for the sort of therapeutic purging and release that does not come quite so easily in the office of the coach.

It is an environment that proves that young student athletes value the chance to talk and share with adults but not necessarily with those they view as having iconic authority roles. Trainers are exempt because of their "invisibility" and because they are not typically viewed as figures of authority (although Daphne can certainly lay down the law when it's required!); similarly, assistant coaches may also have more freedom of access because they tend to be younger and usually seen, rightly or wrongly, as less authoritative than head coaches.

While the potential exists for this to be an undermining or counter-productive situation wherein information is hidden and damaging secrets kept, I view it as anything but. Experience has taught me to keep my door open but to not be offended or surprised if the flow of students walking through it is minimal and infrequent; consequently if and when I need to meet with somebody I simply schedule a time for them to come in and they are invariably happy to oblige.

However, it has also taught me that what a trainer knows about your players and their lives is invaluable and that the quality of my relationship with the trainer will determine how much or how little useful information I come to find out. Daphne and I have worked together for many years and she has a highly trustworthy filter regarding what I need to know and what I don't. I respect her privileged position and try to never abuse it because she has the hard-earned smarts to know what is important and what is trivial and ultimately has the best interests of all concerned at heart.

It is undeniably challenging for a Head Coach, especially when young and idealistic, to come to terms with being viewed first and foremost as an iconic role or job title rather than be seen as the open and supportive person that you might wish they would see. Some go to great lengths to "pal up" to their athletes which can have the effect of eroding propriety and respect on both sides. The privilege of leadership brings unwanted distance, even for the most beloved manager, director, chief, teacher, superintendent or even coach; it goes, as they say, with the territory and you can't force people to love you.

Somebody once told me that it takes a college athlete ten years to appreciate their college coach and to finally "get it." After twenty-plus years I still somewhat ruefully await the enlightenment of some of my former charges while being pleased to note that many others have required far less than a decade to understand and appreciate that their experiences were not just about having fun with their teammates, wins and losses and playing time but also about connectedness and mentored life lessons from coaches and other adults, often forged through struggle, sacrifice and adversity.

So, as I look forward to a new school year in the fall, my open door policy and my good intentions will remain. However, Daphne will not; she is heading into a well-deserved retirement. Hopefully she will leave her cloak of invisibility and her legacy of great wisdom in the training room for whomever takes her place”.

Written by:
Brain Tompkins, Head Male Soccer Coach at Yale University in New Haven, CT
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