‘Adapt and grow’: Athletes, coaches navigate life during coronavirus
On a warm May afternoon, Westhill High junior basketball player Ben Pennella moved through his workout routine in his Stamford garage.
Nearby or sometimes at a distance, performance coach Ali Knott instructed Pennella.
Both wore masks.
“It was so hot under that mask,” Pennella said.
In the COVD-19 world of 2020, nothing is normal for high school and college athletes. Tethered to their homes, athletes train independently or connect virtually with coaches and teammates. And if an athlete like Penella does receive in-person training, there’s distancing and masks acting as a reminder that this workout routine is, well, not routine.
And hanging over the entire process? The loss of competition, camaraderie, structure. Kids whose lives are often defined by the daily pattern of team sports — the group training and practice, the bus rides and the games — are isolated at home, detached from their sports life.
There’s a physical, emotional and mental toll as high school and college athletes search for ways to stay sharp. For coaches and their support staffs, the challenge is obvious.
“You’re talking teenagers here,” said Knott, who is also an assistant football coach at Westhill. “Now, you have to get the motivation to get up and do this by yourself. It’s not easy … The accountability aspect is a challenge.”
How are high school and college athletes coping while remaining home day after day? Creatively, and with a lot of help.
Teammates and coaches connect virtually. Strength and fitness coordinators deliver workout options digitally. Mental health providers connect through Zoom or FaceTime.
It takes a village stitched together by a WiFi connection.
“It's been an interesting situation and it's been a different situation,” said Brijesh Patel, Quinnipiac’s strength and conditioning coach. “We're so used to operating with our kids on a group basis and we see them one-on-one and we see him train all the time.”
Patel and his staff have connected to Quinnipiac athletes through various platforms. They have taken stock of what each athlete can do at home — Is there home equipment or access to the outside? — before creating a unique workout.
That’s been the routine of many high school and college programs. Knott is a personal sports performance coach at Stamford-based BlueStreak Sports Training, working with athletes throughout Fairfield County. In his role as football coach, he touches base with players and guides them to film study or playbook preparation along with workout options. As a performance coach, he works with clients virtually or visits homes for a masked workout while reaching out regularly with text or calls.
For some athletes, he creates videos of workouts. Others receive a workout fashioned for their home environment.
“You’ve just got to be creative,” Knott said. “Whatever it takes. We’re all adapting.”
Knott leaves a notebook stocked with workouts for Pennella, who is also searching the internet for training ideas.
“I think if you really want to get better and want to stay on top of the game, you’ve got to work out,” Pennella said. “So kids are going to have to take responsibility.”
Beyond the physical concerns, though, is the emotional well-being. Knott said he senses kids are “anxious” as they wonder when school and sports will resume. There have also been waves of emotion, from the jarring end of the sports calendar in March, to resignation and sadness to uncertainty.
Dr. Sheryl Smith, a Cheshire psychologist who works with teams and individual athletes, has been talking to her clients about living with the uncertainty and “capitalizing on the adversity.”
“A lot of athletes have been approaching this as a challenge to grow and they’re branching out with their communication skills so that they are staying connected with teammates in ways that they never have before, which is a real bonus,” Smith said. “Adapt and grow is basically the mantra that we’re using here.”
Said Patel: “You're putting the onus on the kid, and I think that develops accountability and that's what we're in the business of doing — we're trying to prepare them for the rest of their lives so we've got to hold them accountable and and give them some responsibility so that they can actually learn.”
Patel, who began his career at UConn in the 1990s, compares the current climate to those early days in the business. Athletes would leave for the summer and the conditioning staff would have little contact.
Now, Patel and his staff work with athletes continuously. And the athletes work out together — “Interconnectedness approach that we have to training … we always preach is that you're never on an island, you're never doing this by yourself,” Patel said.
High school athletes are adjusting to the lack of social connection at school and the kinship of sports.
“School for some kids, that was there escape,” Knott said. “That’s like home. So now we just try to check on them to just see how things are going, see if they may or may not need assistance with anything. Just kind of making sure they’re doing well.”
Pennella said his friends and teammates have a group text and remain connected on Xbox. But it’s not the same. “It’s been a little hard,” he said.
There’s also a loss of identity for athletes who devote a significant portion of their life to sports.
“The abrupt loss of their place in a group, their identity as a group member,” Smith said.
Eventually, athletics will return. Patel said the national governing body for strength and conditioning coaches has provided guidelines for athletes returning from lockdown, focusing on a slow ramp-up to avoid injuries.
“We have to make assumptions that they’ve done nothing,” Patel said. “When you start preparing your team, you’ve got to train them and prepare them from the lowest common denominator because if you're trying to prepare everybody like your best, then you're going to get people injured.”
The inability to hone specific skills is also a concern for coaches. Basketball players can shoot in the driveway, but that doesn’t compare to competition (“You can’t really see if you’re improving or not because you’re all by yourself,” said Pennella, who is missing his AAU season.).
A what’s the emotional and mental landscape for athletes, post-COVID-19? There could be a renewed appreciation for being part of a team or the freedom of simply participating in an activity.
“Right now we’re staying strong,” Smith said. “We’re working on finding ways and staying strong. It probably will lead to better things in the future because they’ve learned something new. They’ve grown.”