The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenging time for everyone. Fear, civic unrest, and professional uncertainty have made this a year to remember (or forget?) - and one of the most tried-and-true ways to destress, sports, have been significantly interrupted.
It has been a trying time for athletes, coaches, and parents. It seems that the symbolic goal post keeps shifting. At first, masks were advised, and then they were. Infection rates went down in the summer, only to rise again. Regulations have evolved with an increased understanding of COVID-19 and so have guidelines for participation in athletics.
Though it has undoubtedly been unsettling, a touch of reflection will reveal that we might all come out of this situation empowered with new skills. First and foremost, coaches, athletes, and parents have been forced to be adaptable. Adaptability and improvisation have always been prized capacities in athletics.
If you did anything this year – practice, training sessions, or Zoom meetings – you had to adapt. There was no template for this, no script to follow. "Status quo" went out the window. There were new regulations everywhere, and if you accomplished anything, you must have adapted. That's a good thing. Growth, evolution, and adaptation are nearly synonymous. The moment has also demanded an increased level of intentionality.
Coaches have had to be more intentional than ever before. We have had to become more thoughtful, more mindful of every decision. Where sports are allowed, each step of a team gathering must be considered. Practice plans have been amended, training programs cropped, and expectations changed to meet the evolving standards.
Where we used to "wing it," we now realize that improvisation degrades control over health and safety guidelines. In standard practice, athletes will cross paths, huddle up, share water bottles and otherwise interrupt current safety protocol. Without answering the questions above and providing a solid anchor, we create unsafe situations and ultimately lose the opportunity to compete. We have to adapt and improvise, of course, but we do so around firm anchors.
Three Questions We Ask Ourselves
What are our intended outcomes/goals?
We have to identify the skill sets, techniques, and physical training outcomes we want our athletes to obtain.
How will we best accomplish these goals?
We have to identify the drills, necessary equipment, and space it will take to achieve our outcome goals.
What adjustments have to be made to abide by COVID guidelines?
We have to be meticulous in our consideration of spacing, air quality (masks, outdoor/indoor ventilation), limiting shared equipment, and regular cleaning routines.
Coaches and Trainers answered the What and How questions by referencing the NSCA and CSCCa guidelines for returning to training after inactivity. Across the pandemic, there have been moments of high activity followed by long bouts of inactivity. Our work continually refers back to this important resource.
The NSCA took this one step further, putting together a COVID-19 taskforce and publishing a set of guidelines along with a convenient safety checklist, which we regularly reference.
With these in mind, we built a return-to-training protocol that was fun, competitive, and successful. Our program ran at two primary high schools and three different youth camps. The approach we took (answering the questions above to anchor our process) will be the same approach we use to meet whatever the evolving COVID-19 guidelines happen to be.
Anchored by Safety
Our practices' intended outcomes were to get young people together to experience
the positive psychological benefits that come with sports participation and return them to training in a safe, thoughtful way, based on NSCA and CSCCa guidelines.
We took the NSCA guidelines through output measures from current NCAA athletes, then identified what movements and capacities we wanted to build, and created a comprehensive two-week training program to prepare athletes for safe return to training.
What adjustments were made?
Spacing was our most significant adjustment. We kept athletes in groups of no more than 10 and spread them across our available space. As it turns out, a lined football field made the perfect space for this sort of training. We put cones on the sideline in 5 yards (15 foot) intervals and separated groups by 15 yards (45 feet), to be safe. The programming mentioned in the "how" section was designed so that whatever drills were performed, the athletes stayed in one lane and ultimately returned to their cone. There was no overlapping space during the entire session.
As coaches, we were thoughtful about adhering to the COVID-19 guidelines. Adaptability and intentionality were necessary factors in that process. If coaches have been working thoughtfully through the pandemic, there is a good chance they will come out well-prepared on the other side.
In consultation with coaches, we have heard countless stories of athletes carpooling to and from these well-considered practices. While they are on the field, they are masked up and spaced out, but they grab Jimmy John's and eat together in someone's basement when they leave. While we can advise against that sort of behavior, we cannot ultimately control it.
That lack of control brings to light the third main capacity needed to exist amid COVID and post-COVID guidelines: we need humility. The new guidelines will be created by governing bodies working in Public Health. We will not always have a voice in that discussion.
While 2021 can serve as a fresh start, it's clear that it still won't be "normal." We'll need to keep adapting and understand that there is a lot out of our control at the moment.
If we accept that and move mindfully forward, we can control how we prepare and respond. If we can do that, then the future - though it may be difficult to imagine - will most certainly be bright.