As we all know, the unprecedented Covid-19 pandemic has disrupted the normalcy of our athletic operations across the college, high school, club, and youth sport settings. While the widespread cancellations of sport offerings have caused disappointment and frustration, many athletic administrators, coaches, and sports organizers have redirected their energies to implement creative programming through remote conferencing platforms, applications, and software tools.
With stay-at-home orders in place across the country, Zoom and other virtual conference tools have become the new normal for work meetings, conferences, and remote/online learning. Replacing the traditional face-to-face sports environment is not ideal, for now replicating that environment through alternate methods of engaging athletes is in full force with the help of technology and ingenuity.
Athletic administrators across all settings are ‘humanizing’ the remote experience for their athletes by the implementation of engaging programming to accentuate the positive connections developed through sport. At the start of the pandemic, one concern was the loss of team practices, games, and gatherings. Even with virtual platforms, many critics anticipated that the remote experience would become ‘impersonal’ or ‘transactional’. When in fact, the silver lining stemming from being off the fields/courts has been the incorporation of remote conferencing and online tools.
The implementation of remote sessions has filled a much-needed gap in the accustomed social interactions cultivated through sport participation. Determined to check on the emotional and social needs of participants, athletic programs rapidly changed their course of action under these mixed conditions with the end result of creating a transformational experience for their teams.
As we continue to practice social distancing, embedding highlighted activities in sports programming serves to aid coaches and athletic administration in the remote landscape. Even more important, these ideas can elevate the mental and emotional health of individual athletes.
Athletes crave social interactions with teammates and coaches. Creating a routine of regularly scheduled practices for athletes to work on skills with their team or in some cases multiple age groups at the same time keeps athletes engaged and motivated while providing a sense of purpose and accountability for logging on to sessions through a variety of platforms including FaceTime, Zoom or Google Meet. Coaches run practices through these platforms while athletes can watch and perform the skills in real-time. These communication platforms are popular as the users (coach/athletic administrator/athlete) can see/hear/watch in real-time providing one of the best replacement simulations of the traditional sport setting during social distancing.
For the time being, the obstacle of not being able to hold traditional practices has been overcome by hosting remote practices. Aside from the physical practices and skill development sessions, coaches are also using a variety of teaching tools to assess athlete acquisition of knowledge in running on the field/court plays, team formation designs, or systems of play. Kahoot! is a game-based platform that coaches can use to ‘quiz’ players on terms, sport-specific trivia, or just fun questions that can be answered in multiple-choice quizzes crowning the winner at the end.
To give athletes more of a voice and presence in the remote athletic sessions to Flipgrid, a social learning platform, allows athletes to answer questions or show skill development through video responses. Coaches and athletes can use this platform to send videos back and forth for enhanced engagement.
Strength and conditioning coaches are incorporating the TeamBuildr application into programming. Coaches can build and share customizable workouts tailored by sport, athlete, and position. Coaches track the completion of workouts by individual athletes and even share the leaderboard with players. College and high school level teams can take advantage of workout planning through this easy-to-use software.
Book clubs may never have been on the radar for athletic programming and nevertheless are making an impact on teams. Coaches or the team can select a book to read and follow the same guidelines of chapter check-ins and content discussions similar to the traditional book clubs. Book clubs tap into a different aspect of team bonding off the playing field/court offering coaches the opportunity to learn much more about individual player interests.
The most revealing utilization of remote conferencing platforms is the ability for coaches to meet with individual players to address concerns, answer questions, or just as a check-in. There are immeasurable benefits of seeing the face of the coach and athlete on the screen elevating connections and relationships through platforms never before incorporated into our programs. Many athletes feel more comfortable behind the screen allowing them to communicate their thoughts and needs in a more ‘user beneficial’ platform versus face-to-face meetings whereby some athletes may not feel as expressive.
Social media challenges
Teams are utilizing social media to stay connected while being physically distanced from each other. The pandemic has sparked increased social media engagement. Athletic programs are hosting ‘virtual runs’ or ‘virtual competitions’ or ‘video challenges’.
Athletes perform the challenge and showcase results/times through photos and videos posted online. These social media challenges are on the rise as athletes can interact with their teammates and stay entertained while being at home. Challenges include 5K races, push-up challenges, photo contests, drawing contests, and countless others helping teams and athletes to stay connected. A highlight to social media challenges is when athletes tag teammates/friends in their posts asking them to complete the challenge fostering the competitive spirit.
Under our current conditions, there has not been a better time to tap the availability of our athletes and guest speakers. The value added to incorporating remote platforms into our athletic programming is the scheduling of guest speakers to address nutrition, sport psychology, college recruitment, or motivation. Remote meetings/conferences mirror traditional means however many programs are recognizing it may be easier to reach a greater number of athletes through remote platforms due to convenience versus attendance at a physical meeting place at the same time.
Athletic administrators and coaches can run ‘guest sessions’ similar to traditional methods with the introduction of the speaker, the speaker addressing the group, and then opening up to questions (either pre-selected or through the various chat room options). One benefit of remote conferences is the ability to invite guest speakers/coaches who normally may not have been able to travel to the area or join a program due to availability.
Turning adversity into connections
The takeaway from all model activities is that downtime does not have to be empty time. Rather, the time spent on these virtual platforms is equally enriching and transformative as the traditional methods of communication pre-pandemic. Utilization of remote tools may have been a quick fix to bridge the gap from the traditional setting to our stay-at-home environment, however, the engagement benefits are so far-reaching that perhaps these activities will, in fact, become permanent fixtures contained within the delivery of sports programming post-Covid-19.
About the Author
Dr. Dina Gentile is a Professor within the Sport Management Department at Endicott College and author ofAthletic Administration for College, High School, Youth, and Club Sport. Her experience in higher education includes a variety of positions including Academic Associate Dean, Athletic Administrator, Head Women’s Soccer Coach, Intramural Director, and NCAA Compliance Coordinator.