Both schools can rightly boast of great coaching and many hard-won championships.
But as our two-part "Out of Bounds?" series has explored, there are also many stories of coaching behavior that some characterize as verbally "abusive" while others view as appropriately "motivational."
While parents may be of two minds about whether it is acceptable for coaches to express anger, swear, throw clipboards and go on emotional tirades with their players, official Central Coast Section (CCS) standards and virtually every sports psychology expert make clear that such behavior is not only detrimental to success on the field, court or in the pool but can inflict serious emotional harm on adolescents.
Unfortunately, while these modern standards are being widely adopted by policymakers, many popular and otherwise qualified coaches are either resisting or finding it hard to change their ways. And school administrators are struggling with how to hold them accountable, especially when teams are divided.
Palo Alto's high schools are not immune from this challenge.
Coaching controversies have torn apart teams and friendships — and driven some players from the sports they love. Instead of united action to improve the conduct of coaches and help them grow, this polarization has led some parents and players to turn against those who complain and to question their motives. The result is lose-lose, both on the scoreboard and in the happiness of players — and coaches.
It is encouraging that Palo Alto school officials, in response to the Weekly's investigation, have initiated the first steps toward addressing these problems by reactivating a long-dormant district committee to review athletic policies, coach-evaluation practices and other key issues.
Without clearly written policies explaining to coaches, players and parents standards of acceptable conduct, consequences for violating those standards, procedures for complaining about violations and procedures for conducting neutral investigations, coaching controversies will continue unabated and occupy inordinate amounts of senior administrators time dealing with distraught players and parents.
Reforms we believe are essential include:
* A standardized district coaching agreement signed by each coach that pledges adherence to the CCS standards.
* A district-wide process for the neutral investigation of complaints, preferably by an assistant superintendent or outside contractor who functions as a neutral ombudsman for athletic issues.
* Standardized, anonymous feedback forms and procedures for surveying all athletes and parents mid-way through the season and again at the end of the season, returned directly to administrators, not the coach.
* Participation by all teams in the Positive Coaching Alliance program and ongoing promotion of PCA values in all aspects of Paly and Gunn sports.
* Adoption of a mentoring program that actively supports first-year coaches and ensures they are meeting behavior and other standards.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the district should take immediate steps to redefine the role of high school athletic directors. The current scope of responsibilities of the athletic directors is unreasonable and almost guarantees frustration, conflict and high turnover of coaches.
It is unfair and counter-productive for athletic directors to coach a team, teach P.E. classes and administer a large sports program. Their sole focus, as is the case in most private high schools with strong athletic programs, should be recruiting and mentoring new coaches, evaluating current coaches, mediating conflicts, resolving complaints and tending to the many logistical challenges of a sports program.
The additional expense will be more than offset by the time currently spent by the ADs and other administrators addressing coaching controversies and dealing with upset parents.
Just as it is in so many other ways, the Palo Alto Unified School District should aspire to be a national leader in the administration of its athletic program, demonstrating to other districts how adopting modern positive-coaching strategies can lead to a higher level of coaching, player and parent satisfaction, and a system that is fair and transparent in addressing problems.