High School Athletes, the Pandemic, and the Need for Activity
The pandemic has made a mess of high-school sports.
Most states canceled spring sports, and for good reason. At its peak the first wave saw 34,203 new infections on a single day - April 25. A rush to re-open led to a second wave in cases that makes the spring outbreak look tame by comparison. On July 24, 74,039 new cases were recorded. (Data from The Washington Post).
With no national policy, states have been forced to make decisions on fall sports individually. The result is a patchwork of solutions that MaxPreps has done an excellent job tracking. Coaches, parents, administrators, and fans are all frustrated. Talk to many, and the consensus feeling is, "Would someone please just make a decision?"
Making a decision, however, is tough.
Josh Shattuck, head coach at Elkhart High School in Indiana, captured this perfectly in a tweet this past week:
"I have a lot of respect for any decision maker during this time, but stripping a generation of their education and activities would be a problem that will have ripping effects far beyond September 28. Put the kids first. Always."
How Do We Do This?
What Coach Shattuck expresses so eloquently is the reality that there simply are no good choices here. We are in the teeth of a pandemic whose lethality is becoming well-known, and whose long-term effect on survivors, though less well-known, provide reason for us to worry. At the same time, stalling athletic activity and forcing kids into virtual schooling is also fraught with countless problems.
For athletes, the disruption in training feeds their concerns that they're losing their physical and athletic edge. Something that can negatively affect those with ambitions to play beyond high school. Not just next-level players are affected, however. All high school athletes are presenting increased evidence of depression and feelings of disconnection. (See this study in The Sport Journal). Other reports, like this one from the University of Wisconsin, show similar findings.
So what are coaches supposed to do?
When I asked Coach Shattuck that, he said what most of us already know: "I wish I had an answer for your question regarding keeping kids active if sports are shut down." He notes that it's especially difficult if coaches and players aren't allowed to be together. And for kids in impoverished neighborhoods, the difficulties are compounded.
While there are not perfect solutions, there are plenty of good ideas. Links to organizations that are compiling these thoughts for keeping high school athletes active will appear at the end of this post. They all share some common traits, however.
It's critical that coaches stay in touch with their athletes and communicate honestly with them about the status of return-to-play plans. That states can propose dates and pull back and then propose new dates makes it all the more important that we talk honestly with our athletes. (Important breaking news - at the Collegiate level, the MAC has cancelled Fall sports, and two of the Power Five Conference Commissioners say it's "inevitable" that Fall sports will not happen.)
We must do more than transmit information however. We must also communicate in ways that help athletes express their needs and fears. Shaina Ross is program director for the U.S. Soccer Foundation. In a meeting sponsored by the Aspen Institute, she stressed the importance of keeping conversations with athletes open-ended.
"Make sure ... all of your questions are open ended," she said. "Often we ask, ‘Do you feel great?’ You want to ask, ‘How are you feeling,’ so you can actually get that information out of young people and not guide them to a specific response. Be patient. Recognize that it may take time for them to open up with you."
Get Kids Moving ... Get Them Outside
High school coaches may rightly look at this and respond, "Duh!"
Fair enough. But how can you ensure your kids do this? First, you must be aware of your kids' situations. Recommending in-home YouTube workouts is great, unless your students don't have internet access at home. (6 percent of the US population does not have access to broadband. In rural areas, as much as 25 percent of the population may not have access. Source: Federal Communications Commission)
It also helps if coaches can get parents involved. Kids in general, and athletes in particular, need structure. Make sure your athletes have a routine. Be up at a certain hour. Have a set time for exercise. Don't just say, "Be sure you're doing your workouts." Chances are, many simply won't.
Be A Role Model
A common refrain among coaches is that you can't fool kids. If you're not genuine, they'll see right through you and move on. When together, athletes can see their coaches working. They're on the field with them. Coaches show up before kids arrive, and stay long after the kids are gone.
In the midst of a pandemic, the visual piece is missing.
Mike Pollzzie, a physical therapist in Michigan, says: "Kids don't have perspective. [Adults] need to drive home how good [kids] are going to feel once they're done with the exercise."
Don't just tell your athletes to work out. Do it yourself, send clips, chart your own progress and share it. Be a role model.
There is a shortage of resources focusing on high-school athletes in particular when it comes to COVID and staying active. UpToUs is the best resource page focusing on high school athletes. In addition to videos for physical training, mental health, inspiration, and specific sport training videos, there are also detailed guides for coaches on getting back together after being apart.
The National Federation of State High School Associations also has useful information. One of the best pages is focused on staying connected with your team.
Sanford Power Health is an excellent site for athletes to find home workouts, information on nutrition, advice for avoiding injuries, and much more.
There are more pages dedicated to youth sports. With a bit of adapting, they can be useful to high school coaches and athletes. The most comprehensive resource is the Aspen Institute's Project Play site focusing on fitness and the Coronavirus.
Another useful site is TeamSnap, which has many practical resources.