Leadership and Athletics - An Insider's View from Division 1 College Athletics

Julie Jones

It is a good time of the year to connect leadership and athletics since March Madness is here – one of the events that defines college athletics. The principles of leadership are the same whether you are leading a sports team or work team.

I'd like to thank Janine Oman, Senior Deputy Director of Athletics, for The Ohio State University for sharing her leadership learning from her 35 years of Division I collegiate sports experience.

Note that you might recognize a resemblance in our photos – Janine and I are identical twins.

Senior Deputy director of athletics
the ohio state university  columbus, Ohio
Tenure at Ohio state - 25 years

Janine Oman

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Janine oversees sport administration, compliance, and sport performance for Ohio State's 36 sports teams and serves as the Senior Woman Administrator (SWA) for OSU Athletics. On campus, she is the athletics liaison to student athlete support services, student conduct, and the Office of Institutional Equity. She serves as the Deputy Title 9 coordinator for gender equity in athletics. In addition, Janine provides direct sport administration functions for 7 OSU teams – Women's soccer, volleyball, ice hockey, rowing and lacrosse and Men's volleyball and lacrosse.  

A special shout out to the Ohio State Women's Hockey team who won the 2022 NCAA Championship on March 20th -- a first in program history. 

Her undergraduate degree is in Physical Therapy (PT) from The Ohio State University. After graduation, she worked as a physical therapist in a small community hospital for two years before attending the University of North Carolina for graduate school in Physical Therapy. She completed her athletic training (AT) certification as part of her graduate work. She spent nine years as a PT/AT for the University of North Carolina Athletics.  

Janine returned to Ohio State in 1996 as an AT and worked for 11 years providing PT/AT healthcare services for teams. In 2007, she had the opportunity to take on a sport performance leadership role which involved developing a new collaborative healthcare model with OSU's athletic trainers, strengths coaches, sports nutrition dietitians, sports psychologists, and physicians for both employed and contracted providers. In 2013, Janine added sport administration functions and moved into her current role in 2018.  

When I asked her what prompted her switch to athletics leadership from athletics healthcare, she said she was ready for a new challenge. While she had new athletes every year, their injuries were similar. So she wanted to use her skills in new ways.

Julie: Challenge and change are the stimuli for many to shift and grow their careers.

Julie: Describe what you believe constitutes a winning team.

Janine: Winning teams are peer-driven teams aligned on the mission, accountable to themselves and the team, and coaching is part of their culture. Athletes and coaches are also willing to take feedback peer to peer, coach to athlete, and athlete to coach. They have a WE, not I mindset and sacrifice individual awards for the team. It is not uncommon for players to shift to a new position if that is what the team needs.  

Julie: I'm sure that many people, including yourself and your team members, took on new roles during the pandemic for a variety of reasons. As leaders, you probably also identified those team members who demonstrated the WE versus I mindset. They made a difference for the organization and for those they worked with. People like to work with those with a WE or team mindset.

Julie:  What are some common characteristics you see in teams that experience tremendous success in the win column?

Janine: These teams are process-oriented and not as outcome-driven. Outcomes will flow from their process. They are persistent but go back to the steps they need to take to get there. These teams do the extra work required, and the behaviors they bring every day to practice and games align with their goals. They also communicate well with each other for clarity.

These teams also are willing to take risks. On one of our volleyball teams, the coach wanted the players to be aggressive in the serve but learn through the risk and failure process. This means coaches and players need to switch the thought process from right or wrong or good or bad, a short-term view, to the long-term view of learning and adapting to the game.

Julie: I think of execution in two steps – the processes and practices you put in place to enable execution in addition to the day-to-day actions of delivering services. Enabling execution is similar to the process orientation Janine describes for teams. Leaders enable execution by establishing policies, procedures, technology systems, and practices such as employee training that support successful day to day performance. The Studer Group, a healthcare consultancy firm, calls this hardwiring excellence. The key for work teams is to also be prepared via process but be able to adapt in the game as well.

Julie: How do coaches enable success? What is their role in player and coach development?

Janine: Coaches set the vision, develop the plan, identify gaps, and amplify the team's strengths. Scouting the opponent is key to establishing game day strategy to minimize gaps. Successful coaches also build a culture of trust and connection and focus on the player as a person and not just an athlete. Great coaches also inspire and establish belief in the goal. 

Julie: Nick Myers, the men's lacrosse coach, evaluates players using this scale – exist, compliant, committed, or compelled. The strength and difference in the word choice is evident. How does this translate for players? How do these statements help athletes develop?

Janine: First, these words describe the behaviors and then the aspirational expectations for players. It helps players better understand where their performance stands against the benchmark.  

Compliant players do what is asked of them; committed players do everything to the best of their ability; but compelled players not only do everything to the best of their ability but they also bring others along. Compelled players do what is best for the team and are positive examples of the culture and desired behaviors.    
Blueprint reprinted with Permission, Nick Myers OSU Men's lacrosse

Ohio State Men's Lacrosse Blueprint for Success

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Julie: You have shared this Blueprint for Success from your men's lacrosse team in some of our Ohio State Dietetics classes. The blueprint clarifies behaviors and actions in a simple framework, and you have described it as a foundation for success on and off the field. This discussion has resonated with students as a great way to visually communicate and achieve alignment.

Julie: What do some of the best coaches do?

Janine: These coaches demonstrate consistency in their day-to-day behaviors. Kids know how these coaches are going to show up. There is also alignment between their words and actions. Great coaches create connection -- they build trust and treat people equitably. They are transparent in their communication and create the narrative for their teams. They are accountable to themselves, the team, and individual players. 

Julie:  How has video feedback for athletes changed performance? What parts of this process has elevated athlete performance? How can leaders apply this feedback learning in the workplace?  

Janine: It's much easier today to easily incorporate video into player development because of the technology. Many teams use live video for instantaneous feedback. This helps players observe and change behaviors quickly. Video also breaks the skill into component parts and focuses on the process and not just the outcome. Once again, this evaluation process feeds the mindset that how you do the "work" matters. Also, players are graded every practice and game versus an annual evaluation most employees receive.

Video has been a game-changer in performance. Video level sets everybody and allows coaches to tailor development to individual athletes' needs. 

Video is also a vital tool in scouting opponents. The absence of video on opposing teams is one of the reasons why first and early games in a season can be tough. You don't have enough video to identify a team's or individual athlete's tendencies.
Julie: Younger employees have consistently noted that they want feedback. Perhaps this is an outgrowth of the many sports or group activities they have participated in and received feedback. Real time feedback at work has not been as readily embraced as a key development tool yet. 

Julie:  In one of his press conferences, Ohio State football coach Ryan Day said, "The best team doesn't always win… rather the team that plays the best wins." Describe how you have seen this play out and what does this mean for leaders developing teams?

Janine: Having the most talent does not always equal victory. Teams that play together and execute their game plan have the advantage. Team members put aside individual goals for the betterment of the team and proceed as a unit instead of individuals. I think this quote describes the essence of leadership – whether from the coach or the team members themselves.  

Julie: Obviously, college athletics was significantly impacted by the pandemic. What did you learn about leadership during this time?

Janine: Much like other industries, we had to become more flexible because protocols were changing so rapidly. We began to work within frameworks as opposed to hard and fast rules, and it was also important to distribute decision-making to create nimble and agile teams. I think we got pretty good at scenario planning and learned that people are more flexible than they think they are.

We also prioritized what was important; people are our critical foundation. What did we need to do to support them during the pandemic? Our athletes and teams also faced so much uncertainty. We tried to understand and empathize with the challenges they were facing. 

The financial model for college athletics was exposed. When your revenue is built on a few major sports and this revenue doesn't come in because games are canceled, where does the money come from? The pandemic has forced departments to evaluate their business model going forward.  

The good news -- the pandemic helped us make changes that would take us significantly longer pre-pandemic. But we learned we can operate differently now and are finding new ways to deliver services and create engagement with our athletes, teams, and fans. Think about the changes that have happened with mobile app ticketing which more people have now readily embraced because it was a necessity.

Julie: What career and leadership advice do you provide to those you work with or to the student athletes you interact with?

  • Chase skills not titles.
  • Your best job is your current job. How you show up each day tells us if we should hire you for a different job. Every day is a job interview.
  • Everyone feels like they can do the job that is posted for hire. But can the person hiring or interviewing you believe you can do the job? What do you need to do to close that gap? And don't forget to ask yourself the question, "How do others experience you? "
  • Don't wait to have a conversation about a future job. Seek out ongoing career advice and mentorship. Understand your strengths and close (skill) gaps to prepare for new roles.


Julie: In the conversation with Janine, some common leadership themes emerged – trust, people centric, alignment, accountability, peer-driven, and process focused. These are the same themes and principles operations leaders use to build successful teams and programs. While operations departments’ outcomes are not typically measured in wins and losses, they are evaluated using metrics such as customer or employee engagement, employee retention, regulatory compliance, or financial performance as examples. Strong teams and teamwork positively impact these outcomes.

Remember sportscaster Jim McKay’s quote, “The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat”? The successes (positive service experiences) and, at times, defeat (service failures) are felt by the different customers served.  What is the impression your team provides for the customers served? Those customer feelings and engagement describe operation’s departments win and loss column.