Strategic Planning Skills: Why Strategic Planning Matters in Sports

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A smiling athletic director standing on a basketball court.Strategic planning plays an integral role in the development of an effective interscholastic sports program.  Schools of all sizes need professionals who possess the strategic planning skills to effectively create and expand programs to meet both professional expectations and students’ needs.

Athletic directors with an advanced degree, such as a Master of Athletic Administration (MAA), are professionally well equipped. They are prepared to use strategic planning in sports organizations as an effective tool in developing policies and procedures to shape an interscholastic sports program. Doing so can improve a school’s athletic performance and make a positive impact in the lives of student-athletes.

What Is Strategic Planning?

Strategic planning establishes the foundation for an organization to chart its direction. It’s based on elements such as resource allocation, goal setting, establishing core values, and setting deadlines.

In scholastic sports, the purpose of strategic planning is to build a multifaceted scheme for a school’s athletic department. This planning can help an athletic program remain competitive in a financially efficient manner. However, it can also help a school build a foundation of fair play and athletic equity. This could make the athletic program an effective teaching tool in dispensing important lessons that can help students make the transition from education to the real world.

Why Strategic Planning Matters

Strategic planning in sports organizations requires athletic directors to develop a systematic plan. The objective is to meet a sports program’s various goals, as well as roadmap the different phases leading up to them. Athletic directors and program leaders should also chart and note milestones that are reached during the four stages of a program’s development: formulation, implementation, evaluation, and modification.

Formulating a plan requires athletic directors to set objectives and deadlines for the department. Examples of such objectives may include hiring coaches; obtaining access to practice fields; and fundraising for transportation, equipment, and uniforms.

The next step of strategic planning is to implement strategies to execute the objectives. For example, an athletic director can lay out a financial strategy to acquire funding for new sports programs by holding fundraisers or applying for grants. When hiring coaches, the director should work closely with school administrators to seek qualified candidates who embody the athletic program’s goals and ensure the hiring process is fair.

The third step of strategic planning involves evaluating results. This step allows athletic directors to analyze a program’s progress versus the areas that need to be reevaluated.

Effective directors implement gap analysis to acquire these results. Essentially, gap analysis evaluates the differences between desired and actual performance. Moreover, this last step requires directors to modify their strategies to manage any weaknesses. The completion of all four stages of strategic planning provides athletic directors with the foundation to build and administer effective interscholastic sports programs that take into account the development of student-athletes.

Key Policies and Procedures in Strategic Planning

Strategic planning in sports organizations allows athletic directors to institute policies and procedures that achieve a balance between athletic and academic performance.

Promote Academics

Professionals in strategic sports planning roles must develop effective programs that meet academic guidelines. It is important that athletic directors provide students with a program that builds on what they learn in the classroom and promotes mental and physical development.

An effective athletic program produces student-athletes who excel both in the classroom and on the field. As such, it’s important that athletic directors work closely with a school’s faculty and administration to ensure athletic activities don’t interfere with students’ academic performance.

Promote Regulatory Standards

Certain athletic programs require students to maintain a particular GPA and have impeccable classroom attendance. For example, the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF), a sports governing body, requires California students participating in CIF-sanctioned sports to maintain a 2.0 GPA.

Athletic directors can use the policies of organizations such as CIF to monitor student participation in athletics. Moreover, they can work with school boards to institute stricter policies requiring a higher threshold of academic performance prior to allowing a student to participate in sports.

Maintaining Athletic Department Integrity

In addition to promoting academic excellence, athletic directors need to address issues pertaining to the athletic department as a whole. Such issues may include a lack of equipment, run-down facilities, a lack of practice space, and staffing shortages. They can address these obstacles in a strategic plan that involves the school board, faculty, parents, and students.

For example, if a program does not have enough money to hire coaches, the director can make a plan to recruit faculty members to coach or parents to volunteer. To deal with equipment issues, an athletic director can establish fundraising events that actively engage parents and the community to support struggling sports programs.

The Skills of Strategic Planning

Running a successful athletic program requires a specific skill set. Effective athletic directors exhibit advanced leadership, analytical, problem-solving, and communication competencies.

Advanced Leadership

Athletic directors must be able to effectively run all facets of an athletic department, as well as oversee the hiring of coaches who embody the program’s values. Furthermore, they must have the capacity to encourage others to believe in the program’s vision, leading to the achievement of short- and long-term goals.


Athletic directors should be able to analyze performance and develop strategies to help the organization evolve and overcome challenges. This analysis can involve organizational or administrative tasks such as budgeting; or tracking various trends, behaviors, and attitudes among current and potential student-athletes.

Problem Solving

Challenges will inevitably arise within strategic planning, and these challenges could carry the potential for short-term and long-term issues. When problems arise, athletic directors need to have the ability to find efficient solutions that maintain the course of the plan.


It is also important for athletic directors to be able to communicate policies and regulations clearly, leaving no room for ambiguity or misinterpretation. They must also have the capacity to adjust their communication strategies to effectively exchange ideas and information with various groups, such as faculty, parents, students, and coaches.

Explore an Advanced Degree in Athletic Administration

To hone the skills required for strategic planning in a sports organization, professionals may want to consider a degree program that prepares them to be effective leaders in their field, such as Ohio University’s Online Master of Athletic Administration.

Having established the first academic sports program in the nation in 1966, Ohio University has helped prepare countless students for careers in interscholastic athletic administration. Discover how Ohio University’s online MAA can set you on a path toward a career in athletic leadership.

Recommended Readings

Challenges of Adding New Sports to Athletic Programs

Legal Protection for Athletic Trainers

Thinking Outside the Box: Revenue Sources for Athletic Departments


California Interscholastic Federation, A Message to Student-Athletes

Houston Chronicle, “Four Phases of Strategic Management”

National Association of County and City Health Officials, Strategic Planning

National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association, Developing & Implementing a

Interscholastic Athletic Strategic Plan

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “The National Youth Sports Strategy”