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Coaching Through the Pandemic: Reframing Coach Leadership and Guidance

By Dr. Steve Amaro, CMAA on September 29, 2020 hst Print

Students, coaches and advisers face challenges throughout any season. In fact, one of the reasons people gravitate to athletics is to find out how they respond to challenges in a safe and supportive environment.

Periodically, high school sports and activities are involved in national and international events that impact their programs. Adult leaders oftentimes have to adapt to stressful and disorienting situations that affect every fabric of society. Today, COVID-19 presents itself as a new and unknown challenge, but we do have past events that show us that high school programs can overcome the greatest of obstacles.

Historically, high school athletics and activities have survived national and international crises since the NFHS began in 1920. For perspective, previous generations of coaches overcame the Great Depression, World War II and even more recently the 9/11 terrorist attacks. During these times, coaches and advisers provided direction by helping their students learn appropriate perspective and gain resilience to adapt to a changing world.

The COVID-19 pandemic is quickly becoming this generation’s challenge, and it continues to cause substantial disruption to the lives of our students and their communities. More than ever, students are looking to their teachers, coaches and advisers to help make meaning and find direction. For many, this is a new level of adversity that they have not faced in their lifetime, but coaches and advisers can be equipped to help their students succeed. By focusing on long-term participation benefits, being adaptable and embracing the growth mindset, coaches and advisers set their students up to overcome whatever they may face.

Focus on Long-Term Benefits

Most coaches are incredible planners and have an uncanny eye to observe and plan immediate ways to address needs and deficiencies. In games, coaches may call a time-out to change tactics to better set students up for success. Coaches today need to make a similar adjustment, but this pandemic requires a broader vision that encompasses a longer amount of time rather than a practice, game or season.

Just as coaches make adjustments to find clearer ways to meet team goals, they need to explore and share visions of what a successful program of the future looks like. Coaches and advisers traditionally see themselves handling season roles in operations, facility or even physical conditioning planning; however, having a sharp, clear vision of the future while facing a national crisis is challenging.

For starters, coaches can adjust their ideas from what is necessary to plan for successful postseason runs or final performances, to how they make the most memories for their current set of students and prepare for how the next season will celebrate and honor both past and present students.

Coaches and advisers usually see their work as defined by a limited amount of time or season, but during the pandemic adult leaders have been asked to visualize beyond the season. In essence, coaches and advisers are asked to focus on long-term stability; the understanding that although athletic seasons or performances may be postponed or canceled, students still want to experience the camaraderie and fun of being associated with team atmosphere.

When coaches and advisers acknowledge the disruption as real, that it is an obstacle they can overcome, and that participation in athletics and activities is not limited to one specific season, they help students develop a safe perspective that allows student ownership. It gives students a sense of belonging and helps them see their current situation as a temporary problem that they can collectively solve and overcome just as any team would work to overcome any challenge during the season.

Not only do coaches have to reframe how the pandemic affects their program, but they also can promote and remind their students of healthy habits, perhaps the most important goal of any cocurricular program. No coach or adviser would ever say students should only be healthy during a season. In this pandemic, coaches and advisers have an opportunity to show students that their lives span many years outside of high school, and the habits students develop now can help them win the long game of life.

Of course, a quarantine practice may not look the same depending on local restrictions, but practices can happen. For instance, teams can focus on individual goals such as a timed mile, pushup competition, or something more appropriate to a specific sport or activity. Students who engage in competitions against themselves and other teammates are taught healthy exercise and stress-relief habits that will help them build resilience and perspective. It is in this way, coaches and advisers can connect student activities participation to the long-term benefits they experience throughout life. When coaches and advisers embrace the challenge of focusing on long-term benefits, they also have the opportunity to be creative and adapt how they work with students.

Be Adaptable

The pandemic and its effects have been variable, with some states unable to engage in fall competitions where the infection is high while competition has continued in lower infection areas; however, conditions can quickly change. In order to help students develop an understanding in this environment, coaches and advisers need to be ready to adapt. This past spring, nearly all sporting seasons and performances were canceled, yet coaches and advisers found ways to communicate with students and even adapted their practices to fit current restrictions.

Practice, game and season plans should also be fluid and adaptable. Good planning in this type of environment may entail letting students know what will happen if a practice or game is canceled. Coaches and advisers should also have a prepared plan for what happens if a season stops and still be prepared to support students.

Whenever a practice, game or season is altered, initial reactions can be negative; however, safety of all stakeholders is paramount and sending a clear message as a coach or adviser can help create positive outcomes. The first successful step in any postponement is to recognize and validate the change and give healthy perspective. It is okay to validate frustration, but it is equally right to explain that the loss of a season does not mean the loss of all the benefits that come with being part of a team.

Once coaches and advisers address the postponement, they then free themselves to adapt and visualize what can be done – to re-imagine what students can do. For example, if the season stops mid-year, you may want to explore virtual competitions through esports or utilize video technology such as the NFHS Network to watch favorite games, highlights or film study. Coaches and advisers may also want to develop opportunities for past alumni to speak as mentors and virtually visit practices to share how their high school opportunities built their resilience.

Another sometimes overlooked strategy related to being more adaptable is fostering participant leadership. Coaches and advisers are not alone, and they usually have more experience with handling stressful situations; but students can learn in any situation when they are in a position to succeed. It is these situations where coaches and advisers have an opportunity to develop shared leadership. In other words, students can help design events such as practices, socially distant games and even exercises to help build team unity. Allowing students to experience the role of leadership builds self-esteem and gives them purpose in a positive way that can benefit everyone.

Embrace the Growth Mindset and Connect with Peers

Although there is no definite answer as to when the effects of the pandemic will end, it helps students when coaches and advisers remain optimistic. It is only natural for people to feel overwhelmed and hopeless when faced with long odds, and this pandemic has affected even the most experienced of educational leaders. It is important to realize that no coach or adviser is alone. Just as students have their teammates, each adult leader has a local, state and national network of adults who share the same desire to find a pathway through the pandemic.

One strategy that can promote growth and reframe the pandemic is to open lines of communication. Coaches and advisers have an opportunity to meet colleagues nationwide through technology they may never have imagined. Broadening professional networks allows adult leaders to see things from new perspectives and allows them to share outside their local area of influence. It also creates a sense of belonging as people realize they face the same challenges and are more similar than different.

There is no substitute for a canceled season, but coaches and advisers who focus on long-term benefits, adapt and embrace a growth mindset will be able to keep students connected, ready for the future and empowered to navigate their journey both within and beyond high school.