Coaching Under COVID: What To Expect

Some aspects of coaching will be little changed from previous years, but at other points coaching will be like none of us has ever before known.

For those of you who don't know, I coach cross country a few miles up I-25 into Colorado. Here in Colorado, we are nearly a month into our season now. It's been a whirlwind of changes. In the hopes that sharing some of those changes with the crowd in New Mexico helps to make the transitions that will be necessary easier, I write this article.

But, before I get to those changes, it's also worth noting that coaching isn't by any means unrecognizable. There's still the business of looking straight into the eyes of young men and women, taking on some of their hopes and dreams as your own, and forging ahead into a season where you know only bits and pieces of what it will bring. 

Surely one of the most important things we do as coaches is to dive in and share the triumphs, disappointments, and the wild roller coaster of challenges that each season will bring. We teach, or at least we hope to teach, athletes to ride out the highs and lows, and stay the course in pursuit of our dreams. We teach them not to relinquish hope in bitter disappointment nor to succumb to overbearing pride in moments of triumph.

That's all very important stuff, and nothing about that has changed with COVID-19. Except that maybe the part about riding out disappointments is now more important than ever. There has been an extraordinary number of disappointments in the last six months.

But, there are also parts of coaching that have changed dramatically in the last six months. I don't know that I'll ever experience coaching the way it was again, but we can hope that things will gradually return to something like the normal we once knew.

The one thing I was least prepared for as our new season formally began on August 12 was the sheer amount of time coaching would take this year. I've made some adjustments, but I'm also still reeling--just not as much as I was two or three weeks ago.

When the Colorado state association announced the new rules this year for meet size and meet management, we lost all but one meet on our schedule. And I didn't know for sure that that one would still be on our schedule until about two weeks ago. Less than two weeks out from our first meets, every coach in the state had to completely rebuild his or her schedule. Several offloaded that task to their ADs, but I have a sense many of those who did have mostly come to regret that.

In New Mexico, there's been more lead time to rebuild the schedule. The nice, neat meet matrix that was posted on early in the summer no longer exists--meaning many, if not most, of those meets no longer exist, or at least not as they once did. But, it's also true that formal practice hasn't started. New Mexico coaches have had some space to do the scramble of totally rebuilding their schedules. Not that that makes it a whole lot less stressful.

The only advantage New Mexico has here is that they don't have to get it done while trying to break in a new roster of athletes to the routine of practices with no knowledge of when or where their meets will be. But, it's still stressful.

The daily routine of starting practice is a mountain to be conquered in itself. We're supposed to take the temperatures of each athlete coming to practice with a scanning thermometer. We've learned that, if there is such a thing as a scanning thermometer that works consistently and accurately, it's beyond the affordable price range for our schools. So, that part of our daily routine is at least partially an exercise in futility, but nonetheless required for that.

There's the daily drill of questions. Several of my athletes have lost patience with the process. "No, no, no, no, and no."

"I'm sorry, I don't get to skip asking the questions. Cough? Sore throat? Loss of taste...?"

You get the picture. We're weary of it on both ends.

I try very hard to smile. A lot. But I'm not sure the kids can tell behind my ever-present bandanna. So, I work even harder than usual on voice inflection. I'm a dry sense of humor kind of guy--working on voice inflection is pretty darn important these days. None of this is a bad discipline to exercise. It just wears on you to have to be so intentional about everything.

The state of Colorado requires our practice groups to be not larger than 25. I'm fairly sure something similar will apply in New Mexico. This year, our team happens to be 38 people, so that means two groups. And the two groups need to be kept separate (even, at least to a degree, at meets where members of both groups might be present).

Separate groups mean separate workouts. I am blessed enough to have separate places we can go for hill reps. I can stagger starts on recovery and threshold runs. Some days, however, we have to have the different groups doing different things. That means I spend a lot more time communicating with assistant coaches. I'm trying to run what amounts to two distinct practices. It's not twice the work of running a single practice, but it's definitely more work than running a single practice.

Communication with parents has also been taken up a notch. Different groups are (often) going to different meets as well as doing different practices. There's common information that goes to both sets of parents and information that's tailored to the separate groups. Altogether, it's an enormous amount of information going out--way more than it's ever been before.

For summer group runs, I split up boys and girls and used mostly staggered starts. It became clear that, while there were some advantages of splitting up along lines of gender, that wasn't going to work nearly as well for the season. So, now, we're largely split up by runners who are well along in their development and runners who aren't as far along in their development. I recommend that split--if anyone is asking--but it's not without a few issues of its own.

I long for the day when we can practice as one group again. We'll get there for regionals and state, but I also long for spending a whole season that way again.

I find that wearing a mask (or a bandanna, in my case) all the time wears on something else as well--the psyche. There's something about breathing through multiple layers of cloth that will never feel natural. And, let's not even get started with the impediment to speaking. Fortunately, for our kids, the masks can come off during actual training work in practices and in races. 

I do sincerely hope for all of you in New Mexico that the masks will be able to come off now and then for you, as well, once your season starts. 

I find also that both kids and coaches have begun asking the question, "How and when will this all end?" It's a natural question to ask, but one without a definite answer at this point. And that adds a little anxiety to the mix as well.

Speaking of anxiety, there's the ever-present threat of shutdown. If cases come up in our school, we could be shut down tomorrow. I don't have to tell you that "tomorrow" could come at a very inopportune time for a cross country team. Interestingly, four weeks in, I don't yet know of a single Colorado high school cross country team that has had to shut down. Make of that what you will--I've certainly spent some time pondering what it means.

So, what do you do? You do your best (What else is there to do that's worthy of being called human?), and you remember that part at the beginning of the article about riding out the highs and the lows. The lows are part of our existence and we can't do much to control when they come. We're learning not to despise the difficult times; we're learning that those are the times that will shape us into who we will become.

We don't have to go out in search of adversity. Typically, it has a way of finding us. It's just that this fall, it's found us more frequently and in more meaningful ways than it likely has for the entirety of our lives. As uncomfortable as that is, it also brings more meaningful opportunity than most of the rest of our lives have held as well.

Hopefully, at the end of the season we'll all have learned well some worthwhile life lessons. In that will be the reward for all this extra effort. Historically we've talked a lot about cross country building character. The time to walk the talk has arrived.