Q&A with Sara Lopez, Ph.D., Teaching Professor and Program Director, University of Washington, Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership (IAL) M.Ed.

Mim Haigh
Sports Writer – Athlete Assessments

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We recently interviewed Sara Lopez, Ph.D., Teaching Professor of the University of Washington’s unique Intercollegiate Athletic Leadership Master of Education for our article, Building the Bridge Between Coaching and Administration. We couldn’t squeeze all the valuable insights she shared into one article, so we’ve placed them here in an extended Q&A.

What do you consider is the most important element to get right in the coach-administrator relationship?

A shared focus on enhancing the student-athletes experience. With this element in common, I believe there is a greater opportunity for developing an effective working relationship and identifying strategies for success within the athletics department at any campus.


What do you tell your students that they need to bring to this relationship?

Students need to learn how they are able to enhance this experience from whatever role they take on within the athletics department. As they learn to identify priorities and understand what is key in supporting student-athletes, they are better able to communicate and advocate for these needs from their position. The balance is an understanding of the perspective of the coach or administrator they are working with in the department. Listening and appreciating that perspective is helpful in identifying complementary or collaborative strategies. It also is key is recognizing constraints or limitations that  need to be considered. 

How does running both your master’s programs concurrently assist coaches and administrators to perform to the highest standard possible once they graduate?

We realized that students quickly developed a perspective as an administrator or coach, even as they started in our programs. By learning together they were able to share their different views and ideas about college athletics – often coming to a realization that they shared an appreciation for the sport experience and valued the transformative experience that could be created for student-athletes. By sharing the classroom, they were also able to explore their own leadership and understanding of the athletics business with each other, learning to understand and appreciate the goals and focus that grounded the other role. Perhaps most important, It was valuable for them to see each other as peers and colleagues rather than adversaries. I believe those relationships developed an openness and generosity in working with individuals they would meet later in their future departments. One coach expressed her appreciation for, “learning to speak administrativ-eese”. It was empowering for her to have confidence in discussing issues and topics administrators were considering and she was able to engage with them in a meaningful way during meetings. Finally, the career potential can be expanded if students are comfortable in positions within both coaching and administration. We realized we were doing a disservice in making students think they had to choose one path as they entered the program. This not only is a challenge given the students experience or understanding about the wide range of opportunities, but it also ignores the reality of many transferable skills within a number of athletic department positions. Our curriculum is designed to give a broad foundation so students have at least some exposure across the athletic department’s functional areas. We are working to develop leadership skills that can be applied in a variety of positions as career interests and opportunities arise.

How do students in both your master’s programs like learning about themselves? Have there been any surprises in this process?

Students appear to appreciate the focus on developing their self-awareness and learning about their leadership style, especially through the DISC profiles. I believe it gives them confidence and the practical tools to develop effective leadership skills quickly. As they participate in class discussions and activities they begin to recognize their ability to provide leadership – manage collaboration within a group, facilitate the exchange of differing perspectives, and engage in sharing stories of their own experiences. I appreciate hearing them express their own excitement as they experience success and effectiveness in their leadership skills that are unfolding. The one surprise is how they are also able to quickly become cheerleaders and encourage each other’s leadership activity, especially when the other person has a very different profile. I think they are both intrigued and excited to watch how leadership can take on different looks and still be successful.

How do you use Athlete Assessments profiles within your course?

Most importantly, we use the profiles to give a vocabulary and clear description of the different ways one can be a leader. Not only is the description insightful in terms of recognizing themselves, but the guidance about effective ways to work with their style, avoid pitfalls, and maximize impact give them specific actions to focus on. We have also been able to use the various profiles to encourage students to shift or consider other perspectives. For example, “what might a S-profile person be focused on in this situation?” or “how might an I-profile colleague respond to this challenge?”.

What are the most valuable take-aways you aim for your students when they take your class?

A belief that the challenging efforts to create a transformative experience for our student-athletes is worth working to achieve AND an understanding of the challenges and difficult environment we are working in today’s athletic business. I hope they embrace a commitment to do the difficult work and take on that challenge with a growing confidence in their own leadership potential.


What gets you excited / what do you look forward to most about your role within coach development and administration?

Many individuals go into administration or coaching because their own sport experience was powerful and meaningful in their lives. However, we sometimes embark on this work without a solid knowledge about the key elements that create the transformative experience (or the factors that can easily derail the experience). I believe within our graduate programs and through the work of the Center for Leadership in Athletics, we are articulating the intentional practices and dimensions of the experience that can result in both peak athletic performance and healthy, holistic development of young people. Dr. Julie McCleery and Dr. Hannah Olson are developing trainings to share these findings with coaches at a variety of levels and settings. It’s exciting to watch coaches and administrators be re-inspired as they gain a clearer understanding of what is effective and gain the confidence to expand these practices in their own program.

What you are most proud of? What has been your career highlight so far?

We began this graduate program to “change the face of college athletics”. The thought was that we needed new leaders to tackle the big challenges facing athletics. I am proud of our graduates and the way many have progressed in their careers. We have also continued to recruit and provide opportunities to support women and BIPOC candidates for roles that have traditionally not been viewed as accessible. Our cohort structure allows us to model an environment that we tell our students we expect them to build on when they are developing a team or eventually a department. A setting that values and honors diversity and equity in a meaningful manner.  It’s also been rewarding to have our graduates returning as guest speakers, course instructors and internship supervisors. When we recently called for alums to be mentors, the response was more than expected and showed participation from professionals in multiple positions across many different types of campuses and organizations.

What are you aiming for in the future?

Although our program uses intercollegiate in its title, we have often had students and trainings focused on the K-12 or scholastic level. Under the guidance of Dr. Hannah Olson we are expanding our work on the state level to address training for school-based coaches in the K-12 system. This project is even more satisfying because a graduate of our M.Ed. program is in a leadership role in the state organization we are partnering with. What a tremendous example of seeing impact from our program! We must push to be more involved in this work on behalf of younger student-athletes due to the continued challenges in youth sports. Finding these potential strategies and avenues to reach more youth sport coaches and administrators is seen with this new training project, the expansion of our UW undergraduate course offerings about youth sports, and our continued leadership role with the King County Play Equity Coalition.

Where to from here?

If reading about Sara Lopez and the University of Washington’s Masters Program threw up any questions for you, or highlighted how critical it is to bring valuable and tested tools to your people, we encourage you to read through our extensive and free online resource library, and reach out if we can help you or fill in any missing pieces of the puzzle, contact us.

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