Albemarle High School, Charlottesville, Va.
There's a saying in Albemarle County, Va., that when the going gets tough ... give Deb Tyson a call. Few administrators have faced more adversity than Tyson, CAA, who for 20 years has been the Athletic Director at Albemarle High School in Charlottesville, Va.
During a recent two-year period, Tyson helped shepherd her community through the deaths of three student-athletes and the school's swim coach. This February, a historic winter storm pummeled Virginia and closed Albemarle for 15 days, forcing difficult decisions about game and season cancellations. And like most athletic directors, Tyson has spent the last couple of years dealing with budgetary issues.
Despite the challenges, Tyson, who is a past president of the Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association and former Head Volleyball Coach at the University of Virginia, has persevered, setting a positive example for her student-athletes, her coaches, and her colleagues. In this interview, she talks about her approach to crisis management, what inspired her to become a high school athletic administrator, and the importance of cultivating relationships.
AM: Take us through your career.
Tyson: I coached college volleyball for 13 years--it was my first career, my love, and my passion. Then one day, I was sitting in on a budget meeting at UVa and our situation looked pretty grim. We were adding more scholarships to become fully funded at 12, but there was some dispute about whether we would be allowed to add additional personnel to our coaching staff. I was extremely frustrated, so I left that meeting and drove to the nearest high school, which was Albemarle.
I walked in, introduced myself to the secretary and asked, "Do you have athletic directors at the high school level?" That's how ignorant I was about how the system worked. The secretary called the athletic director who talked to me about the profession, and a year later, I left coaching and became a physical education and health teacher at Albemarle. In my second year I was named Assistant Athletic Director, and my third year I was hired as the Athletic Director.
What drew you to the high school level?
College athletics is a saturating environment. It's 24/7. I saw first-hand how hard it is to have a balanced life working at the Division I level. Not that high school athletic administration is much better, but at least our coaches go home to their families every night. There's a normalcy at this level that doesn't exist in collegiate athletics, and it very much appealed to me.
What skills transferred from college coaching to high school athletic administration?
The things that carried over were my organizational skills, knowing the importance of structure, and being consistent at applying policies and practices. I also learned from coaching that to have a team that's above average--regardless of talent level--you must relate to your players on a one-on-one basis. As an administrator, I need to relate to my coaches in the same way.
It's important to cherish and nurture those one-on-one relationships with coaches every day. If a solid relationship is in place, when you do have to criticize a coach, there's a better chance that message will be received in a positive manner. Also, if you go about making rules and dictating change without talking to and involving your coaches, things can go sour in the long term.
What are your strategies for fostering personal relationships?
Everybody has his or her own style, but for me communication is a top priority. Even when you have 40 things to do--the phone is ringing off the hook and you have a meeting in an hour--you need to find the time to walk down the hall and check in with your coaches. I ask them, "Hey, how are you doing?" and really listen to what they have to say.
I make a conscious effort to keep that communication open. It's so easy to get stuck in your office and get caught up in the day-to-day duties. But then you lose touch with the people around you.
What did you learn from your tenure as president of the Virginia Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association?
It certainly helped enhance my legislative knowledge and my understanding of rules and policies. But more than that it allowed me to be more involved with a group of people who are traveling the same road as me and dealing with similar issues and problems.
You realize that when the smoke clears, the real joy comes from problem solving and building and nurturing those friendships. When things do get hard, the strength of those relationships determines how successfully you navigate the problem.
What is your biggest challenge right now?
Figuring out how to do the most with the least amount of money. That's the overriding cloud nearly everyone is dealing with. How are we going to get through a season when we're losing coaching positions and having budgets cut? How are we going to get through this and still provide a quality experience for our student-athletes?
I call it a haunting time because each of us has to make some really difficult decisions. Trying to stay positive, yet realistic, is the challenge of the day. Whether that means finding more corporate sponsorships, working more closely with booster clubs, or designing creative revenue streams at games, it comes down to figuring out how to run your business better--and it is a business--with less money from your school.
How important is it to involve parents and the surrounding community in these issues?
Within each community there are parental leaders. You have people who own businesses or are leaders within their job or field, and I rely on those folks to be a voice for me in the community.
Every athletic director needs to figure out who the leaders in their community are. You get to know them by talking with them on the sidelines, leaning over a fence while they watch their kids play. Then you have to be willing to call on those people and involve them in these difficult conversations.
How do you draw these leaders into the discussion?
A lot of times I'll have smaller meetings with them, or even just pick up the phone and call them individually. Part of the discussion is to get their advice, and another is to get them to advocate for athletics. I may call someone and say, "Hey, I need you to be at this meeting tonight. Can you do it? This is what I need you to talk about. How do you feel about it?"
How did you navigate the huge snowstorm that consumed your part of the country in February?
In our area and in adjacent districts we lost 15 days of school--and 15 days of scheduled games and practices. All of the athletic administrators in this area had to sit down and problem solve this together. We had to make compromises and do the best we could to preserve the integrity of the season. It's taken collective conversations and open minds to figure out how to maneuver through all of this rescheduling and come out of it successfully.
For most sports, we had to stop the regular season and go straight to our postseason tournaments. This meant our j.v. and freshman seasons ended without warning.
Many of our decisions were a last resort and not something we wanted to do, but what we had to do. Our area had a lot of homes without power, so most people kept the athletics side of things in perspective.
Your school dealt with four tragedies over a two-year period. Can you walk us through that difficult time?
The first death occurred in August of 2005 when a popular cross country athlete who had just graduated and earned a scholarship to William and Mary died of heat exhaustion while jogging. At the end of that year, one of our lacrosse players was killed in a car accident that was very controversial. The following winter our swimming coach collapsed and died on the pool deck during a meet. And the next spring, one of our girls' soccer players was killed in a car accident while driving to school.
How did you and your program react?
I have a sign on my desk that says, "There will always be a moment in your life that will change you forever." For the athletes who lost a teammate or a coach, that event had the potential to change them forever.
That's why the first thing I did was stop everything else and put my energy toward helping the kids through the grieving process. We gathered counselors and crisis managers to speak to the students, and as the athletic director, I sat down with kids. I talked with them, cried with them, and just was there for them. You also do small things, like make arrangements to bus them to the service and for them to sit together. It's not a structured process or anything you can plan for--you just do what you have to do.
Then you spend time helping them figure out what do to afterward. People want to do something when you have a tragedy and fortunately there are some good things that can arise from bad times. We've come up with memorial scholarships, concerts, and tournaments to commemorate those individuals who passed away.
When you're in the middle of it, you forget about win-loss records and you forget about the budget. Those events put you back in your place and make you remember how short life is and how quickly things can change. You're reminded to celebrate every moment--to walk down the hallway and say hello to people and to make sure you touch base and let them know how you feel.
How would you describe your own emotional response during those times?
I'm a pretty emotional person, but initially I didn't feel anything except an urgency to get to the kids and help them through it. Then, when I was alone at night and away from the people I was leading, I mourned. I certainly did my fair share of eulogies, and it was difficult, but I realized the people around me were in need of leadership and answers. I wasn't sure I could give them either one, but I hoped I could at least help them live with their questions. In some ways, helping others get through crisis helped me deal with my own emotions--it was therapeutic.
When it's all said and done, what do you want to be remembered for in your career?
The thing that makes me feel restful at night is knowing that I always try to be genuine, whether it's during tough budget times, grieving periods, or celebrating a championship. I want to be known as an individual who can be relied upon and who keeps her sense of humor through the ups and downs.
I'm not one to hide my emotions. I cry and I jump up and down and scream for a good play. If you're not true to who you are as a person, I think the people around you are missing out--and you are, too.
To read more from our interview with Deb Tyson, click here.