Coaching Contracts - Do You Know What Yours Says?

Published June 1, 2004

It doesn’t matter whether you are a volunteer coach or a paid coach, or whether, as a paid coach, you are an employee of a sport organization or an independent contractor – there are always terms and conditions attached to your position. Sometimes these are written down and sometimes they are in the form of spoken, or assumed, expectations or understandings between the parties.

Problems can arise when your perceptions, expectations and understandings don’t match those of the organization or club (and vice versa). One way to minimize such disconnects is to have a written contract outlining the nature of the job and all the terms and conditions that are to be attached to it. This is good advice whether you are a paid coach or a volunteer coach, but sometimes even written contracts don’t do the job we need them to do.

We have written about coaches’ contracts before, but it is timely to revisit and reinforce some of the lessons learned over the years.

In the online Canadian Journal for Women in Coaching (January 2004, Vol. 4, No. 2), Sheilagh Croxon and Dru Marshall presented results of a survey they conducted that looked at the coaching contracts of 18 national level coaches. Nine coaches worked under employment contracts with their associations, eight had contracts as independent contractors, and one coach had no contract at all.

This survey provides a valuable snapshot of the state of contracts for coaching positions at the national level of elite amateur sport in Canada. In this column, we examine some of the clauses contained in these contracts and how these clauses interact with others. We add some insights we have gained over the years of helping coaches and sport associations with their employment issues.

Terms and Renewal Clauses

Let’s look at two particular clauses – the term (or length) of the contract and the provisions for renewal of the contract. Contracts are either of a specified term (fixed term contracts) or of an indefinite term (no specific ending date). Thirteen of the 17 contracts in the Marshall-Croxon study were fixed term contracts. One might expect to see terms for renewal in these contracts. There would not be a need for such a provision in contracts with no end date; in fact, such a provision is at odds with the very nature of the contract.

What did the researchers find? Once coach wasn’t sure if there were any renewal provisions in the contract. All of the remaining 16 contracts contained some renewal provisions: six were to be renegotiated on an annual basis and the other ten were to be automatically renewed at the end of the term.

One might also question whether those contracts that were to be renewed automatically would be renewed on the same terms and conditions as the originals. Without any further provisions stating otherwise, it seems likely that they would be. In other words, neither party would have an opportunity to make adjustments that might have become evident or necessary over the terms of the contract, unless there was a mutual agreement about the changes.

Performance Appraisal Clauses

Twelve of the 17 coaches thought the terms and conditions of their coaching services were clearly outlined in the contract. They felt comfortable that they knew what was expected of them. That means that five coaches were not fully clear of what was expected of them.

How do such understandings line up with the performance appraisal of the coaches? Eleven of the 17 coaching contracts required coaches to undergo an annual review. Only eight of the contracts set out what appraisal procedures and policies would be used. But what is most interesting is that 11 of the 17 coaches with contracts said that the performance standards were not clear. Thus, in a majority of cases, the performance standards upon which the coaches were to be judged were not clear to those very coaches, and, in almost half the cases, the way in which coaches were to be judged was also not clear, yet only five coaches stated that they were not fully sure what was expected of them.

This lack of clarity about expectations and about tools used to measure the fulfillment of expectations is consistent with what we have observed in our own work with sport organizations and coaches.

Termination and Severance Clauses

Only nine of the 17 contracts set out grounds for termination, only six contracts provided for a notice period upon termination, and none of the contracts spoke to severance provisions (note that severance does not apply to independent contractors, so in fact, only nine of the contracts could have included such a provision).

Not setting out the grounds for termination of the contract means that the parties may not see eye to eye on what incident or incidents might justify termination.

Not setting out a notice period means that when a party is entitled to terminate a contract, it need not give any notice to the other party before taking such a step.

No reference to severance means that parties must looks to the severance provisions set out in the applicable employment standards legislation or negotiate some sort of agreement between them at the time of termination. Statutory requirements for severance are minimal. In a short-term contract, the failure of the contract to refer to severance may not be significant. For coaches with longer-term contracts, this may be an important issue, as the coaches may be required to rely on statutory minimums, which can be very poor indeed.

Our purpose in looking at the results of this survey is not to criticize the contracts. Instead, it is intended to show the disparity between what coaches may think they have in their contracts and what the contracts actually say. As well, clauses in a contract might mean different things, depending on what other clauses are included. There may be a tendency to put every clause considered to be standard into a written agreement without a true understanding of what it means and how it interacts with other clauses.

We like to think of the contract as the wrapping paper around the coaching relationship between the parties. It is good when the paper fits neatly and seamlessly; wrinkles are what cause the problems. There are a couple of things that coaches need to do to ensure there are no wrinkles in their contracts. The coach needs to understand what each clause of the contract means and then ensure that all the clauses work together and accurately reflect the entire understanding of the coach’s position.

Specifically, coaches should pay particular attention to what their contracts say about term, renewal, performance expectations, performance review, termination, notice and severance. These are the clauses that are going to bite back if not well expressed. We also suggest, as we have before, that having a contract lawyer review the contract with you before you sign is always a good idea.

Originally published: Coaches Report (2004) Vol. 11(1)

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