PCA January Partner of the Month: Hillsborough County Public Schools

PCA January Partner of the Month: Hillsborough County Public Schools

PCA recently interviewed Lanness Robinson, Director of Athletics for Hillsborough County Public Schools:

What’s it like to lead athletics for Hillsborough County Public Schools (HCPS) the 7th largest school district in the country?

It’s like drinking from a fire hose! There are a lot of moving parts for a small staff of four serving 28 high schools and 52 middle schools with over 20,000 athletes and 2,000 paid and volunteer coaches. Fortunately, we’re able to leverage partnerships with groups like PCA to have a much greater impact than we could without those partners. The two priorities for the athletics department are to provide a safe environment for student-athletes and to promote good sportsmanship and fair play. PCA helps us with both of those things.

Why are school athletic programs an important part of public education?

First of all, sports are the best dropout prevention program we have – and at the lowest cost.

Second, school athletic programs are an extension of the classroom and play a significant role in enhancing the overall education and development of students.

Team sports teach students valuable social skills that aren’t taught in the classroom. Skills such as teamwork, communication, and collaboration. Sports provide opportunities for students to learn about leadership, discipline, time management, perseverance, and responsibility. There’s also research showing a positive correlation between participating in extracurricular activities, including sports, and academic achievement. Finally, 95% of Fortune 500 CEOs played sports, which tells you something about the importance of offering education-based athletics.

HCPS is entering its 15th year of partnership with PCA – and it all started with coach workshops which are mandated for all paid and volunteer coaches. Why did you feel it was important for your coaches to receive this kind of training?

PCA programming reminds coaches that they have a responsibility to more than the scoreboard. In a world that’s so driven by winning and athletes building a resume that draws attention from scouts, it’s easy for coaches to lose sight of the important life skills that need to be taught through sports. It’s not that they don’t care about the role they play in developing those soft skills, it’s just that time is limited, parents put pressure on them and, let’s face it, it’s human nature to want to win. PCA programming offers an annual reset.

How are you able to mandate the training?

Our structure allows us to do some things that other school districts might find a little more challenging – although not impossible. In our district, athletics is centralized from a leadership and budget perspective which allows me to set expectations for the coaching staff. Coaches are required to attend the annual workshop before they interact with kids in any context including conditioning or practices.  Additionally, we remind our paid coaches that they will not receive their coaching stipend without the required PCA training. In addition, support for PCA programming is top-down, from the school board to district leadership. In fact, the founder of PCA, Jim Thompson, came to Tampa and met with our Superintendent to advocate for the program, that made a big difference.

What feedback have you received from coaches?

Initially, coaches resisted the training, and some still do. We have a few old-school coaches who just didn’t want to change the way they interacted with their athletes – especially the ones who were consistently winning. However, over time coaches have learned that the PCA “way” can be even more effective. Creating a more positive environment helps to increase athlete’s confidence and improve performance. Since COVID, more of our coaches have found that the old ways of coaching don’t work as well and they’ve turned to PCA tools and techniques to build stronger teams. Coaches are learning that being positive doesn’t mean not holding players accountable. They can be respectful towards athletes and treat them as individuals while still setting expectations and holding the athletes accountable.

In 2015 you worked with the Tampa Bay Chapter to develop the Character & Leadership Development Program for high school student-athletes. Why was that important to you?

The student-athlete program was the natural evolution of PCA programming in our school district. We were working with coaches in an effort to develop a more positive sports culture across the district, but several years in it became clear that in order to advance that objective, we’d need to involve the student-athletes, we needed their buy-in.  The program has continued to evolve since we first launched, most significantly post-COVID when it became clear that the students returning to sports were facing a new set of mental health challenges and had different expectations of their coaches and each other. With our local PCA team, we modified the Character & Leadership Development Program so the PCA trainers work directly with specific teams and their coaches – which has resulted in increased team camaraderie, and increased focus on teamwork and sportsmanship.

The content of workshops also evolved. We still include the core PCA principles of emotional tanks, respect for ROOTS (rules, opponents, officials, teammates and self), and a focus on mastery, but we’ve added other topics like goal setting, creating an inclusive and positive team culture and developing empathy. PCA has been exceptionally supportive in helping to keep the workshop material fresh.

You insisted on rolling out the Character & Leadership Development Program to all 28 high schools, no pilot program first. Why?

We’d already determined that the program would advance us toward our objective of creating a more positive sports culture across the district. If it would be valuable at one school, it would be valuable at all schools. No one school is more important than another and we were committed to offering the program across the district. Just rip off the band-aid and make it happen. By the time we’d created the content I had confidence that the PCA team would make sure the program was a success – and it has been.

Just last year you branched out to specific sports in each of your 52 middle schools, introducing them to some of the PCA principles like emotional tanks and honoring the game, how was that received?

Very well. From school administrators to coaches, athletes, and even a few parents, we received some great feedback. The middle school programming will help us get kids off on the right foot with regard to supporting their teammates and understanding what sportsmanship is.

Fifteen years is a long time to maintain a partnership, what makes this one stand the test of time?

PCA listens and responds to requests and we, in turn, do the same. There’s mutual respect and a desire to do the right thing, we’re working together towards a shared goal of transforming the culture of sports across our district.

We collaborate on the content being delivered to our coaches and athletes, we’ve created reports that allow me to easily track progress, and we’ve put incentives in place to get our Athletic Directors to schedule their workshops.  The trainers we work with are outstanding; many have been with us since we started the athlete program. They go well beyond what you’d expect, texting with coaches who need specific guidance, showing up when we have a specific challenge with a coach or team, and keeping up with how the teams they’re working with are performing – even showing up at games. We work together to deliver nearly 300 workshops each year, so a strong relationship is critical.

Coach workshops as well as the program you helped create, Leadership and Character Development, have been adopted by the surrounding school districts in Tampa Bay. County and city parks and recreation departments have followed your lead and offer PCA programming. Local youth sports leagues train their coaches and many offer programming to their young athletes. What’s the benefit of all these organizations being on the same page when it comes to training coaches and athletes?

Continuity of concept. Whether a kid is playing sports in a youth league, in an after-school program at a parks & recreation center, playing in middle school, or at the high school level, even if they change schools from district to district, the messaging and expectation is the same. And coaches can’t hear this messaging enough, they need to hear PCA messaging in a variety of settings until it becomes THE WAY to coach. That continuity of training and messaging helps to create a much stronger sports community.

If you were on a panel discussion about the importance of this kind of training for coaches and athletes, what advice would you give to athletic directors of all types and sizes of schools, school districts, etc?

Make sure you have the commitment of your board and the full leadership team. Be prepared for resistance and find ways to incentivize school administrators to implement the program. Be consistent and committed. This kind of programming can be transformational – but don’t expect change overnight, it will take time and effort.

Creating a more positive and supportive athletic culture across a district takes time and attention from leadership, it doesn’t happen overnight. You have a lot on your plate, yet you’ve continued to put effort behind this program year after year. Is it worth the effort to drive this from the top down rather than leaving it up to individual schools to implement programming?

What PCA stands for are the things that form the foundation of what a positive athletics program can be, so it’s the right thing to do.  Is it work, yes. Does it ultimately benefit our coaches and kids, also yes. I could come up with a hundred excuses to not offer PCA programming but I’m not one to get lost in excuses. I always strive to be better and to do the things that will ultimately yield the results we want.  At the end of the day, PCA programming offers one of the best opportunities to smooth out the rough edges around sports today, and that benefits every school athletics program. As a leader, it’s my job to give the APAs for Athletics an extra push to see the benefits.

Quick Round:

Favorite part of the job: When I get the opportunity to give well-earned awards to kids.

Personal mantra: Be Better!

Advice for athletic directors: Have fun in the job. Reflect on the positives because the negatives will drown you if you let them.

What motivates you: My motivation comes from being a role model to others.  I do not want to let my mentors down and I want to encourage others to achieve all that they can.

Biggest challenge of your role: Managing the expectations from so many different stakeholder groups.

Favorite sport: Basketball.

Lanness Robinson is the Director of Athletics for Hillsborough County Public Schools, the 7th largest school district in the United States, a position he’s held for over seventeen years. Lanness is a graduate of Florida State University, earned his master’s in educational leadership from St Leo College, has been a teacher, coach, APA, and serves in leadership roles for many local and national non-profit boards including FIAAA and NIAAA.