For educational leaders in athletics, the phrase “Put me in, coach!” carries the same joy and weight of accomplishment teachers feel when they hear “Oh, I get it!” or “When you explain it that way, it all makes sense!”
Coaches, and the athletic directors they report to, are educational leaders of a different stripe. Parents may not send their kids to school just to learn how to run a jet sweep. Yet sports bring valuable life lessons to millions of kids nationwide every year. Responsibility, self-reliance, teamwork, discipline, and leadership are all important skills learned on the gridiron, the courts, and in the pools of both public and private schools each season.
It’s the responsibility of coaches to impart those lessons, even more than it is to lead teams to victory. And like any other kind of educational leadership role, coaching benefits from getting the right blend of skills to get your lessons across.
Coaches and Athletic Administrators Put the Organization Into Organized School Sports
School sports wouldn’t be called organized if they didn’t have the leaders and administrators to organize them. Just about every American school has one or more jobs, either full or part-time, that are dedicated to making sports happen for students.
Athletic administrators nationwide open locker rooms each fall and stare at scheduling decisions as if they were a great military campaign.
Big schools or districts may have an athletic director who supervises the coaches, budgets, and programs for all organized sports available. In most smaller schools and districts, this level of oversight falls on the principal or superintendent among their many other tasks, however. Coaches will take on part of the burden of these tasks in most cases.
Another difference between large and small is that while many smaller school sports coaches are teachers who are moonlighting from their classroom work, larger schools with more intensive competition in some sports and the budgets to support them can hire professional full or part-time coaches.
How Sports and Education Got Together in the First Place
The importance of sports in education goes back to the mid-1800s. Long before that, school children would, as children do, play their own games for their own entertainment and by their own rules.
But a recognition of the importance of physical activity and teamwork to proper development was beginning to emerge in educational circles in the 1850s. English public schools were some of the first to offer organized, and even compulsory, sporting as part of the educational program.
By the early 1900s, the concept had spread to the United States. Community interest, particularly in urban areas, in getting kids off the streets and into supervised, healthy activities played a role alongside the leadership and skill development.
Today, according to CDC (Centers for Disease Control) data spanning 1991 to 2019, slightly more than half of all high school students participate in at least one school or community sport each year. Although the number of participants necessarily plummeted in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, they remain at some of the highest levels on record as schools and their sporting programs have started to re-open.
Coaches take on even more importance at the collegiate level. They are more likely to be full-time professionals, and less likely to have an educational background. Yet they are leaders all the same, as are post-secondary athletic administrators, who manage budgets in the millions and make high-stakes decisions with big impacts on both players and the community.
Developing the Skillset Needed to Fulfill Athletic Administration and Coaching Duties
While coaches and athletic directors all exercise leadership skills and need familiarity with both instructional technique and the nature of the sports they oversee, they have different day-to-day duties. Of course, where the jobs are combined, a single individual is often responsible for the entire range.
Coaches are primarily about the tactical aspects of training and events. They must have excellent motivational skills and vision to get student athletes to pay attention and give their all.
They also need a strong familiarity with the details of important aspects of the game like:
They also are frequently a point of contact for parents, who can range from being the coach’s best friend to their biggest critic. It’s another area where communication skills are key.
Athletic directors need a more general level of familiarity with sport, and often several different sports. Their contribution comes more through organizational and management skills. They are often the point of contact for the league, other school systems, or national and regional associations. They develop and allocate budgets, take care of maintenance and equipment requests, and serve as oversight for other senior administrators.
It takes communication skills just as strong as what’s expected of coaches, without requiring the on-the-ground student management or intensive training and game strategy knowledge. But it does need an extra helping of vision and project management skills to bring all the elements of a successful sporting program together.
Meeting the Requirements to Get a Job as a School Sports Coach or Athletic Director
Certification requirements for coaches and athletic directors are quite a bit more complex than for most educational leaders.
First, some states don’t require a specific educational license for coaches if the sport program does not offer credit to student participants. Instead, it’s handled like any other extracurricular activity, with outside chaperones or guides managed under whatever the district policy may be.
You also may not need a coaching license or endorsement at the elementary level.
Because coaching various sports isn’t always in the skillset of existing faculty members, some states make provisions for licensing non-faculty coaches.
These alternative licenses for non-teachers do still require some college education, although not always a completed degree. They may involve getting a substitute teaching license, with all the attendant requirements for that credential. In some cases, people holding these licenses are restricted to assistant coaching positions.
In a shout-out to beloved small-town sports coaches everywhere, retired faculty may be allowed to continue coaching without otherwise maintaining their teaching credentials.
Athletic directors, on the other hand, almost always need a teaching license at a minimum, and sometimes a program administration or other relevant state credential.
Some states that have a specific coaching certification for teachers but also allow non-educators as coaches may use the same set of required coursework for both—for a licensed teacher, the classes serve as an official Educator Preparation Program (EPP) that leads to endorsement, while for non-teachers they are a full certification program to become only a coach.
The State Isn’t the Only Overseer You’ll Have to Satisfy in Athletic Coaching Jobs
Finally, coaches are often subject to various requirements that are not set by state regulators but are instead part of regional athletic conferences or federations. These can come with a whole separate set of required classes and certifications.
In all cases, like others who work with school kids regularly, coaches are subject to state rules about undergoing background checks.
Many states and sporting governance organizations have higher standards for coaches than just meeting licensing requirements, however. Getting a coaching endorsement doesn’t speak to your knowledge or skill in the sport itself, or in important safety skills like CPR, heat acclimatization, first aid, and concussion observation. Coaches are commonly required to undergo training beyond the basics required of teachers in these areas.
Of course, while all these things are true for public elementary and secondary school coaching and athletics, the gloves come off for private and post-secondary programs. While individuals need to be highly qualified to land roles at such prestigious institutions, they don’t usually need any kind of state licensure.
What Degrees Best Prepare You for Roles in Coaching and Athletic Leadership?
Coaching is a niche in educational leadership, so there isn’t a single degree type that coaches pursue for athletic program leadership roles. Because so many are teachers who are filling in as a coach or athletic leader on top of their day job, most often they will have the standard professional or educational degrees for their field, whether it’s chemistry or social studies.
For full-time, dedicated athletic directors, however, it’s more likely they’ll get a college education that is specific to sports and education. But even here, there’s not a lot of consistency. Coming in with a PE focus, they may have a Bachelor in Physical Education or Bachelor in Health Education behind them. Or they may have pursued a Bachelor in Education with a Physical Education focus.
It’s rarely necessary to earn a master’s degree to become a coach or athletic director, but it can be a benefit to your leadership and administration skills. You’ll find Master of Education (MEd) in Physical Education, or Master of Science in Education in Health and Physical Education specializations widely available. These graduate programs are, however, going to be required for many athletic administration jobs at the school and district levels.
Options even more focused on the kinds of challenges athletic directors and senior coaches face are degrees like the MEd in Leadership in Physical Education and Sport, or a MEd in Physical Education and Athletic Administration.
And if you really want to go to the highest levels, you can pursue something like a PhD in Educational Leadership and Organization Development in Sport Administration. It may be the only time there is a doctor on the field that doesn’t constitute an emergency!
Even if the degree itself isn’t a requirement for the job, the kind of training it offers can make all the difference to your performance as an athletic and educational leader.
What You Will Study to Prepare for Careers in Coaching and Athletic Administration
These programs bring together the instructional and leadership qualities that coaches need for victory on and off the field.
Coursework offers much of the same overall leadership training as any educational leadership program, but often with an athletics focus. Classes can include:
Equally important, they offer practicum and internship opportunities that give you a rare glimpse into the background of what successful coaches and athletic program managers are doing in the field. While all coaches learn on the job to some extent, pursuing a master’s program allows you to do it under the careful supervision and instruction of pros who have seen it all. That’s a lot more comfortable than getting your lessons in front of a big crowd on Friday night.
Looking at Salaries for Sport Coaching and Athletic Administration
While coaching plays a key role in schools everywhere, salaries can differ dramatically. School athletics are often the first department to feel the sharp blade of budget cuts. And in many small schools, coaching isn’t a full-time job and therefore doesn’t offer a full-time salary.
On the other end of the scale, when you get to college level athletics, coaches and athletic directors at big state universities are sometimes the highest paid public employees in the entire state!
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which keeps salary and employment data on all categories of American jobs, lists the average annual wage for coaches and scouts as of 2021 at $38,970. Those in the top ten percent, reflecting more senior roles, pulled in a much more respectable $80,720.
However, that covers all kinds of coaching and scouts, including those in leagues well outside of schools. But BLS also tracks the industry of employment, so it’s possible to get more specific data for coaches at schools specifically:
It’s worth repeating, of course, that many of these are part-time positions—teachers who are moonlighting as coaches still get their teaching salaries, plus additional pay for the coaching work they do.
Athletic directors and other senior administrators working in sports don’t get lumped into those roles, however. Instead, they are in the more general category of educational administration. BLS splits those out between kindergarten through secondary and postsecondary roles, however:
Coaches at the elementary and secondary level who work as teachers typically get the full benefit of teacher compensation packages—summers off, excellent pension benefits, strong health care. Those who are directly hired as contract staff by the school district may have to negotiate their own packages.
But there’s another benefit to coaching, one that’s hard to find in other parts of any school system: playing games for a living is fun. Although winning is serious business building school spirit for the entire school community, it’s all the preparation for those games that brings real benefits to players.
2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary and employment figures for Coaches and Scouts, Postsecondary Education Administrators, and Education Administrators, Kindergarten through Secondary reflect national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed April 2023.