Research Study Explores NCAA Division I Swim Coaches Leaving The Profession

Courtesy: Dr. Kelsie Saxe, Dr. Lauren Beasley, Dr. Elizabeth Taylor, and Dr. Robin Hardin

A research study conducted by a team of researchers from the University of Tennessee, Georgia State University, and Temple University interviewed 12 former Division I swimming coaches to understand their decision-making process for leaving the coaching profession. The coaches were all former Division I swimming coaches (assistant or associate head level positions) who voluntarily exited the profession to pursue a new profession within the past five years (at the time of interviews). The participants had an average coaching tenure of 13 years with a range of 7.5 to 25 years. The interviews covered the entirety of their coaching career, with topics ranging from why they began coaching, when they began contemplating leaving coaching (and why!) to their ultimate departure from the profession and experiences working in a new profession.

The participants described five main reasons why they contemplated and ultimately left coaching. The primary reasons (or themes) were financial strain, coach role dominance, siloed experiences, unethical and abusive leadership, and the COVID-19 pandemic. It should be noted not all participants were coaching during the COVID-19 pandemic as some exited the profession prior to the pandemic.

Financial Strain

Former coaches described significant financial strain, stemming from low salaries, that ultimately impacted their departure from coaching. Participants described working multiple jobs and struggling to support their families which caused significant stress personally and professionally.

Coach Role Dominance

It was evident through the interviews that participants perceived the coaching profession did not adapt to account for the evolution of their personal lives. Rather, as coaches got married, had children, undertook caretaking responsibilities for parents, and experienced health issues, the coaching profession remained demanding and any other responsibilities or roles acquired were in addition to being all-in as a coach, with coaching remaining the top priority.

Siloed Experiences

Former coaches described siloed experiences both literally and figuratively within their athletic departments. Figuratively, as coaches of an Olympic sport, many participants perceived that there was little care for their sport and administrators spent little time (if any) developing relationships with them. In a literal sense, the offices for the swimming staff were generally at the pool rather than in the main athletic department buildings, therefore creating a disconnection between the swimming staff and other athletic department coaches and staff members.

Unethical and Abusive Leadership

The participants were all within roles of assistant or associate head coaches prior to their departure and a main contributor to contemplating leaving the profession was unethical and abusive leadership, namely from the head coach of the program. Participants described experiences where other coaches on staff belittled them in front of athletes, called them demeaning or derogatory names, ignored their presence, made sexist remarks and/or engaged in sexual harassing behaviors, and spread rumors about their personal relationships.

COVID-19 Pandemic

Finally, of the participants who were still coaching during the COVID-19 pandemic, this served as a catalyst for contemplating leaving coaching. One participant referred to the pandemic as “the best time” of their adult life while another participant said “thank God for COVID.” In this way, COVID-19 served as a mechanism for participants to see life outside of coaching and experience the health benefits of more balance and time for themselves.

Not all participants described all of the aforementioned themes for themselves; however, each participant had a unique combination of experiences that led them to contemplate leaving coaching ending with a departure from the profession.

The research team concluded their study with recommendations to retain competent coaches within the sport. Their recommendations are rooted in both decreasing stressors and increasing resources to meet the stressors.

Increasing Resources

Coaches (particularly Olympic sport coaches) need additional resources to sustain their various roles and responsibilities (i.e., parenting, childcare, etc.) with the demands of coaching. Therefore, increased wages for assistant and associate head coaches within Olympic sports are necessary to retain competent coaches. One of the participants shared that their final salary (as an associate head coach) was approximately $30,000 prior to their departure. However, the salary in their first role outside of coaching was $60,000 with the opportunity to earn a $10,000 bonus within the first year. Further, the average salary of coaches in their first role outside of coaching was higher than their final salary as a coach (after an average of 13 years of coaching experience). Therefore, it is evident that swimming coaches can earn more in outside professions and unfortunately may choose to leave coaching unless they are compensated more competitively. Coaches have demanding schedules, generally working outside of normal business hours, however, if they do not have the financial resources or financial rewards to offset the demands of this lifestyle, their departure may be inevitable.

Decreasing Stressors

One of the primary stressors for the participants was the constant demand of recruiting. However, when comparing the swimming recruiting calendar with that of other sports within the NCAA, this could be an area of opportunity for decreasing the constant stressor of recruiting without losing a competitive advantage. The current recruiting calendar for swimming and diving has one dead period totaling four days. In comparison, women’s basketball has three dead periods totaling 30 days. Further, women’s basketball has a complete recruiting shutdown (four days) prior to the beginning of each academic year which does not allow recruiting activity of any kind (electronic or otherwise) across all NCAA Division I women’s basketball programs. Therefore, an audit of the NCAA swimming and diving recruiting calendar could establish systematic change that would impact coaches and their well-being and thus sustainability within the profession.

The collegiate athletic department workforce is at a crossroads, and it is clear that athletic departments and governing bodies need to respond in order to retain coaches and employees.

Full study citation: 

  • Saxe, K., Beasley, L., Taylor, E., & Hardin, R. (2023). An investigation into voluntary occupational turnover of sport employees using the transtheoretical model of change. Journal of Sport Management, 1-16. Advanced online publication.

Author Bios:

Dr. Kelsie Saxe

Kelsie has a PhD in Sport Studies with a specialization in Organizational Behavior and a graduate certificate in Evaluation, Statistics, and Methodology. Her research focuses on the intersection of wellness and high performance within teams. She has publications addressing the cultivation of psychological safety in sport teams. Prior to her academic pursuits, she spent five years serving as an assistant swimming and diving coach at three Division I institutions.

Dr. Lauren Beasley

Dr. Lauren Beasley is an assistant professor of Sport Administration in the Department of Kinesiology and Health at Georgia State University. Dr. Beasley is also a licensed social worker, and has clinical experience in inpatient and outpatient behavioral healthcare. Her research focuses on the intersection of social work and sport with a specific focus on mental health of athletes and mental health literacy in sport spaces.

Dr. Elizabeth Taylor

Dr. Elizabeth Taylor is an assistant professor in the Department of Sport and Recreation Management at Temple University. Dr. Taylor’s research examines the workplace behaviors and organizational cultures of intercollegiate athletic department employees including the work-family interface, work engagement/addiction, burnout, and employee well-being. Additionally, she’s worked on projects related to sexual harassment and sexual assault education and diversity, equity, and inclusion in sport. Dr. Taylor is also a volunteer volleyball coach at Swarthmore College.

Dr. Robin Hardin

Dr. Robin Hardin is a professor in the Sport Management program within the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies at the University of Tennessee. His research interests lie within the governance of collegiate athletics focusing on administrator career mobility and the holistic care of athletes. Dr. Hardin also is a member of the official statistics staff for Tennessee football and the Tennessee men’s and women’s basketball teams.

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The Original Tim
15 days ago

I look at this from the perspective of club and masters coaching, which I’ve done for about 15 years, but have had no experience with NCAA coaching.

The two things that really stand out as being similar in the club side are compensation and time commitment.

I’ve coached small teams and very large teams and the commonality is that comp is bad across the board. At my previous very large team (in a top 5 HCOL area), I was hourly for 4 years and was in discussions with the head coach and owners about going full time going into my 5th year there. The offer was for $42k, if memory serves, which was a very substantial cut from my… Read more »

Coach Tom
15 days ago

The “coach role dominance” one is the biggest one I’ve noticed and, unfortunately, most coaches don’t notice it until it’s too late. Imagine working 12 hours on deck at a swim meet to come home and find your wife in bed with the AAA guy because you’re never around.

I’m fortunate in that I had some mentors who really messed this particular balancing act up and warned me against it.

Retired Coach
16 days ago

Yes, glad that this is getting out there! I was Head Coach D3 for 3 years, Head club coach for 2 years and Associate Head Coach for 10 years at a very successful NCAA D1 program with multiple NCAA titles and Olympic Swimmers. I took a pay cut of 10K to coach at the The big School and had to coach Masters, Teach PE classes
and work long hours at Swim Camps with 175 swimmers for 5 weeks in addition to coaching our Summer club swimmers. It was a great experience, but ultimately you can’t eat prestige, and you can’t sustain a schedule like that, and remain physically and mentally healthy. I left that job to take a Community… Read more »

Fun While It Lasted
16 days ago

Yup. Sounds about right. 11 years coaching with about half in the NCAA. This past season was likely my last. Made more coaching club and would make even more leaving coaching. Unless colleges start raising assistant pay coaching as a career will die for most.

Swim Fan
16 days ago

I’m surprised at the sample size (12), would think a study would have a larger number to really get a good result.

Reply to  Swim Fan
16 days ago

This is qualitative research, which is different from quantitative research. In qualitative research, you’re trying to get a cross-section of experiences from your interviews.

There’s actually a downside to doing more interviews, in that you reach what’s called “saturation”, where each additional interview becomes less valuable since you’re mostly hearing the same thing you’ve already heard.

In qualitative research, sample sizes are normally in the range of 10-20, so this is a pretty normal-sized study.

Swim fan
16 days ago

Pay is a huge issue and some barely making poverty level pay – ridiculous given how much other coaches are being paid

16 days ago

When Club HC make just as much, if not more than college associate HC’s, but with much less headache (still have similar issues), the shine of striving for a collegiate position is just a little dimmer.

Reply to  wowo
16 days ago

i think just different headaches. Parents are much more involved at club level and that is a whole different beast.

Winter Apple
Reply to  wowo
16 days ago

You think a club HC has less headaches than a college associate HC?

Reply to  Winter Apple
16 days ago


Reply to  Winter Apple
16 days ago

We still crazy age group parents, but we don’t have to deal with all the recruiting

Reply to  Winter Apple
16 days ago

Yes, both have headaches surrounding them, but the headaches of club coaches involve parents, boards, and dogma surrounding coaching… honestly, I also think that most Club HC’s would thrive if thrown into an upper level collegiate coaching role if given the chance.

probably truth
Reply to  wowo
16 days ago

Why are we all so terrible to each other in this sport? And for what?

Reply to  wowo
16 days ago

Uhhhhhhh what?

16 days ago

So challenging, low paying jobs are hard with few financial rewards? Stunner!