The Coaching Conundrum

Summer is no break for high school coaches, many of whom are working nearly year-round to keep up with the competition and approaching their breaking point

By Andy Viano
Former Bigfork head coach Sam Tudor watches the action from the sideline in 2015. Beacon file photo

A funny thing has been happening to Sam Tudor in the last few weeks.

It’s been two months since the 43-year-old boys basketball coach, who led Bigfork High School to back-to-back Class B state championships in 2018 and 2019, announced his surprising resignation after five years on the job. When reached by phone last week, Tudor was in the middle of cleaning out his garage, a mundane June chore that would have been impossible just one year earlier.

In Montana, high school coaches are allowed to work with their student-athletes beginning June 1, and for any coach who wants to field a winning team that means the start of the rigorous summer season, filled with camps, tournaments and travel, all unimpeded by class schedules. Tudor’s Vikings had more games during the summer than they did during the actual Montana High School Association season in recent years, playing dozens of contests around the state and beyond, squaring off against larger schools in an effort to sharpen their skills and build camaraderie. And players cited those busy summers as one of the keys to their success.

Getting the team together after the school year ends, however, is not without its challenges. For one, the schools themselves are not permitted to assist with the summer grind, so the infrastructure (including activities directors) normally in place to help coordinate travel, equipment and meals, and to communicate with players and parents, is gone. Then there’s the matter of pay, or the lack thereof. No coach is required to get their team together in the summer, so no coach is compensated for the time, and many spend money out of their own pockets to subsidize the team. But no program with even a modicum of on-court or on-field success takes the month of June off, and no successful coach — all hypercompetitive by nature — would dare to skip the summer and forfeit a competitive edge.

Then, of course, there’s the actual school year. Many coaches, Tudor included, work as full-time teachers, an asset in the prep sports world because they are never far from the building and the student-athletes they work with. Coaches pay near-constant attention to their sport, with workouts before and after school, practice planning and preparation during school, and coordination with assistant coaches, parents, boosters, administrators, equipment suppliers, middle school coaches, feeder club programs and more. There are so-called open gyms several days a week in the offseason, and teams are together six days a week during their sport’s season, a week that typically includes at least one multi-hour bus trip across the Montana expanse.

Coaching has long required a major time commitment, but what used to be a break when a team was not in season has basically vanished. The very day after his Vikings won the 2018 state title, Tudor got an email from a rival coach announcing their summer program and immediately went to work on his for fear of being left behind. Coaching has always been a stressful job, too, something Tudor knew from an early age as the son of a coach, and there is a larger web factors that wears on coaches, starting but not ending with the long hours.

Knowing about the job, however, does little to douse the competitive fire of prospective coaches or satisfy their desire to impact the lives of young women and men the way extracurricular activities can. Tudor’s 100th win at Bigfork earlier this year led to an outpouring of gratitude and appreciation from current and former players, team managers and fellow coaches whose lives were touched by him. Even though Tudor walked away in April he says his coaching career is not over “because of those relationships.”

But that thing that’s been happening to Sam Tudor in the last few weeks? Five or six times, he says, someone has told him this is the most they’ve seen him smile in years.

Coach Sam Tudor talks to his players on Jan. 18 during a game between Bigfork and St. Ignatius. The Vikings won, giving Tudor 100 wins in his coaching career. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

There is this vague sense in the prep sports world that this is a problem, but the problem with the problem is that it’s a really hard problem to pin down and correct. Coaches are working too many hours and too many days. The expectations on them — in terms of wins and instruction time — are too high. And the problem compounds with other problems, like low pay, intra-school political squabbling and parental disputes, that leads to the kind of burnout that coaches like Tudor experience, even in the wake of unprecedented success.

There’s no clear fix for any of that, though, nor is there any kind of effort to change the current reality, in part because competitiveness, when unregulated, always seems to get the better of a coach’s own self-interest.

“I think most coaches, a lot of our complaints are self-inflicted, no doubt about it.” Tudor said. “My contract doesn’t say anywhere I have to do summer ball, but in my mind, if I want to be competitive and I’m going to keep coaching, I want to give kids the best possible chance to win so here we go.”

Matt Porrovecchio is the activities director at Bigfork, and he’s experienced a wave of coaching departures this year, including football, volleyball, boys and girls basketball, and boys and girls soccer. Each situation is unique, but Porrovecchio is also well aware that the burden placed on his coaches is extreme. He and Tudor have a good relationship, and the pair talked several times about the problems the coach was working through last season, albeit to no avail.

“I tell (coaches) to find balance; do what you’re comfortable doing,” Porrovecchio said. “I have no expectation for summer but it’s this internalized pressure that people put on themselves.”

Coaches and administrators know, however, that without the extra work, seasons would not end the same way. And whether or not it’s a good thing, sports are judged on wins and losses, even in high school, and everyone including the players, parents and the community itself wants to win. Asked what would have happened to his title-winning teams had he not offered summer programs, Tudor said frankly “we would not have been at that level.”

Christy Harkins has been a highly successful volleyball coach for 27 years, and is entering her 13th season at Glacier High School this fall. She has experienced the grind of her profession from a number of angles as the mother of three former high school athletes and the wife of Glacier’s boys basketball coach, Mark. She was in the middle of a summer camp when reached last week.

“I don’t have downtime,” she said. “I just don’t. There’s always something to do.”

Harkins, also an English teacher, outlined in detail a checklist of year-round duties that includes everything from watching film to calling ahead to restaurants that keeps her busy. She and her husband, she said, try to preserve two weeks in late July and early August open to spend together and “to keep my sanity.” Six years ago, she tried to put an end to open gyms for her team and “got lambasted by parents.”

Despite all of that, the good of the job outweighs the bad for Harkins. Paradoxically, Harkins’ reason for coaching is to prove to her players that the nearly impossible list of things she’s been asked to do is, in fact, possible.

“I always wanted to be a role model,” she said. “I want girls especially to understand you can do a lot of things. It’s hard and it’s busy, but you can be a coach and a mom and a wife and a teacher.”

Jeff Thompson speaks to his team at a Flathead High School wrestling practice. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

Jeff Thompson is one of the most decorated wrestling coaches in Montana, and has led the Flathead High program to six state championships and a number of appearances in the national rankings. He too is a teacher during the day, and in addition to the Braves he helps oversee the Flathead Valley Wrestling Club that grooms future Flathead wrestlers and works with members of the current Braves throughout the offseason. He’s seen the hours asked of both he and his wrestlers skyrocket in just the last 15 years.

“Our first state title at Flathead was in 2004. For us to achieve that goal, our kids wrestled half as much as they do now,” he said. “The 2008 team (also a state champion) did not put as much time in as our middle school kids now. The bar has just been raised so high.”

The time commitment wears on student-athletes, too, but even that is a complex issue. While high school athletes burning out like coaches is undoubtedly a bad thing, the opportunities kids are given through sports allow them to stay in touch with their coaches, involved with their schools and away from trouble, especially in the summer months. Parents also push their children to excel in sports, and like Harkins’ experience when she tried to cut back on open gyms, they will resist the notion that their kids need more time away from sports or other school-sponsored activities.

“I think it’s American philosophy, we push, push, push,” Thompson, whose own daughters are competitive in multiple sports, said. “That’s why we’re seeing a higher burnout rate. It’s tough on coaches, it’s tough on parents, it’s tough on kids.”

At the end of the day, though, none of this is likely to change, and despite acknowledging the problem no coaches seem inclined to do things differently. No matter how many hours they put in, the coaches interviewed for this story all said the time they spend is worth it, and only Tudor has walked away from the job.

For the coaches who have survived, and continue to put in the work, there is an acceptance that this is what their profession has become. O’Brien Byrd, who has been coaching boys soccer in the Flathead Valley for nearly 20 years and is currently the head boys coach at Columbia Falls when not running his own feeder program, is blunt when discussing coaching’s current reality.

“It’s an evolution, and you either evolve or get left behind,” he said. “You look around at the other programs and they’re sending their kids to a college mini-camp, they’re doing these summer and offseason workouts, they are watching game film at lunchtime at school … The other programs in the state are doing it so you either evolve or die if you want to build a successful program.”

So how do you stop a self-perpetuating machine? Other programs aren’t going to work less because they want to beat you. Players won’t work less because they want to make the team better, and maybe earn more playing time, and maybe play in college. Coaches can’t help but continue to work themselves to the point of exhaustion. And the last 20 years of momentum says the problem will only get worse, not better.

“We’ve created this monster,” Porrovecchio said. “Did we get out of it what we wanted? In the end, kids just want to have fun, spend time with their peers, compete and work hard.”

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