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  • Kim Digilio

Coaching in Pandemic Life (written 9/4/2020)

When pre-pandemic life screeched to a halt six months ago, at every level of our lives we were forced to rethink everything - how to conduct business, how to work from home, how to teach, how to learn, and in the youth sports world, how to coach.

Prior to the shutdown, I was starting my second year as a club soccer coach after spending many seasons as a recreational coach, with a bright new year ahead for me and my team. Having played sports my whole life and having competed collegiately as a rower, I have always believed the lessons of sport transcend the field, court, arena. I loved coaching on the sidelines, giving the halftime speeches, and I relished the opportunity to support these young women’s growth as athletes and as people.

The transition to two-dimensional coaching removed that in-the-moment feedback on which we coaches rely during games and practices. When I sent at-home workouts or conducted a Zoom workout, I learned to trust that my players felt and absorbed my care for and connection to each of them, and to value that more than the workout completion percentage. I admit this was challenging at first. I learned to trust my ability to coach from a distance and through a computer screen, and to be a positive role model by acknowledging that we all have good days and bad in these wacky times.

In this current life, coaching is about everything but the game, because we might not see the game for a very long time. Youth leagues tease us with promises of season start dates, and while it’s nice to harbor hope for the normalcy of an Opening Day, realistically we are still far away from live competition as we have known it.

Every single person has experienced the highs and the lows of pandemic living. We elate over the triumphs of new recipes, DIY projects, and reorganized closets and plummet to the lows of endless, mind-numbing days that blend together. On some days, changing out of one pair of pajamas into another pair is a win (maybe that’s just me?).

As coaches and adults, we have to remember that our players are experiencing similar waves of emotions. Our job now is to lift them up and through this moment as best we can. Consider and champion the idea that for now but not forever, winning is about being together online or gradually stepping back onto the court, masked up and physically distanced. Sometimes winning is lifting their spirits when they’re frustrated, celebrating as they rediscover their touch on the ball or make a pass to a teammate again, or cheering them on when they’re working their butt off doing squats, planks, and sit ups. Remind your team they are still a team, and do everything you can to keep them connected.

Teach your athletes to compete and to win because of how they train and the way they attack an at-home workout or commit to a field practice where they are limited to simple skills and training inside a 10 x 10 box, and the way they have to push through boredom to find the joy of the game.

Being a coach, a teacher, or any adult who has a regular presence in a child’s socially and physically distanced world matters, now more than ever. In a world where we live more two dimensionally than three dimensionally, the humans we come into contact with have to bring resilience, energy, acceptance, and love to your child’s world.

Don’t rush your players back to the game and tell them that it’s the only thing that matters. Instead, coach them through this pandemic by modeling grace, compassion, and empathy. If they’re injured or unwell, remind them they matter most, that resting promotes healing, that forgiving yourself for not finishing a timed mile is fuel for the competitor inside them. That everything that they do can be an act of growth and love. That nothing is for nothing. And that this experience is part of their journey back to the field.

Teach them to accept the moment and to remember that the game will be there for them, even when it feels like it might never return. Teach them that sometimes getting to practice is its own victory. Trust me, when they do put on their uniform and hear the whistle blow, they are going to fall in love with the game and competition all over again.

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