Sports

Karl Lindholm: Resilience: Pandemic perspectives from area coaches

“BEING TOGETHER WITH the team was the absolute best part of the school day (during the first fall of the pandemic). The soccer field was an escape to normalcy after the long, draining school day … trying to engage a sparsely filled room of students scattered at least six feet apart.”
— MUHS soccer coach Reeves Livesay

Athletes spend a long time, years, in preparation for their moment in the sun, in packed gyms perhaps or on playing fields ringed with cheering fans. These moments occur at that point when their physical growth and acquisition of skills coincide with opportunity.

Then, poof, it’s over. Some will continue to play their sports, largely in informal settings, pick-up or in adult leagues. Most athletes, in team sports, are involuntarily retired at 18 or 22, well before their physical or competitive peak.

The two years, more or less, of the pandemic (and I do realize we are not entirely out of the woods) introduced unprecedented challenges to these athletes, and lost opportunities. In 2020-21, Middlebury College players lost whole competitive seasons, no games at all. Area high schools played truncated schedules under very trying circumstances.

And what about their coaches, those men and women who teach the broad strategy and precise skills of their sports? Every year they greet a largely new cohort of players. The pandemic certainly upended their world as well. How did they adjust and adapt to these same unprecedented challenges? Enormous flexibility and forbearance were demanded.

Recently I wrote to a number of area coaches, both in the high schools and at the college, asking them to reflect on their experience coaching during the pandemic — “just a few sentences, off the top of your head.” I received a number of very thoughtful responses.

Connie LaRose, longtime girls’ basketball coach at Mount Abraham, wrote, “It has been a great life lesson in not taking things for granted. Learning to deal with physical activity while wearing a mask, no fans, many disappointments. The athletes were resilient throughout.”

“Resilient” was a word that many coaches employed in discussing the adversity the pandemic imposed. Middlebury College women’s basketball coach KJ Krasco wrote “our student athletes are resilient, and I am so grateful for the time I can spend with them. . . (The pandemic) challenged us all — patience and optimism kept me going.

“I truly believe that being on a team is one of the best decisions a person can make — to help with growth and have a constant support group.”

Reeves Livesay (girls soccer coach at MUHS) echoed KJ’s sentiment. “I’m not sure my coaching or my guiding philosophy has changed, but this pandemic has left me with an even greater appreciation and love of being a part of a team.”

Reeves discussed his apprehension in the fall of 2020: “I wasn’t convinced that returning to the playing fields made sense and I didn’t know what to make of protocols requiring us to wipe down balls after every practice and to screen students with ‘no touch’ thermometers that had the accuracy of a random number generator.

“It didn’t take me long to realize being together with the team was the absolute best part of the school day. The soccer field was an escape to normalcy after the long, draining school day zooming in remote learners while also trying to engage a sparsely filled room of students scattered at least six feet apart.”

Dave Campbell, men’s lacrosse coach at Middlebury College, wrote that “the pandemic crystallized what being part of a team meant to me as a coach.” Before the Plattsburgh game on March 10, 2020, “just as the school and the world was shutting down,” Dave urged his players in his pregame talk “to show each other how much you care about your teammates, your seniors, by how hard you play and by how much you celebrate for them on the field.

“I also asked the team to play with as much joy as they were capable of in the face of what was coming our way.”

Kevin Hayes, Vergennes boys’ soccer coach, wrote that he felt “a deeper appreciation for the importance of team sports in the lives of our athletes during the first season in 2020. No one really knew what might happen. So when the athletes came each day and followed the mask guidelines, endured temperature checks and hand sanitizing, along with space specific drills for most of our practices, I really got the sense that they needed to be there to feel that sense of team spirit.

“OUR TEAM AND I are incredibly more resilient and I have learned to be more patient, which is something that I was not quite known for.”
— Middlebury College cross-country coach Nicole Wilkerson

“For me,” Kevin wrote about the next season, 2021, “the attentiveness I received from them regarding the specific concepts I was teaching was great. I think they knew how lucky they were to be able to have a season. Since I have been coaching, I have never used the ‘mentor’ part of ‘coach/mentor’ more than I did over the last two years.”

“My initial response to your questions,” MUHS girls’ basketball coach Chris Altemose wrote, “was deeply and physically emotional. I recall many experiences, feelings, emotions, moments, and contradictions: the sadness of losing half of our basketball season, but the joy of getting to have some season; the challenge of structuring masked and distanced practices, but the appreciation that we were able to get together for practice; the sadness of playing games in empty gyms, but the joy that we were still able to play.

“I’d like to think that the pandemic experience enhanced my perspective and helped me to refocus on what is really important to me. I truly enjoy teaching a game that I love and trying to help a group of young people become the best they can be as they work toward a common goal.”

“While I would not want to experience the pandemic again,” wrote Nicole Wilkerson (Middlebury College cross-country coach), “our team and I are incredibly more resilient and I have learned to be more patient, which is something that I was not quite known for.

“For me as a coach, I like to go-go-go, always looking and planning ahead, preparing the team and myself for everything. Not knowing what lay ahead made me slow down and take things day by day. It was a lesson that I didn’t have a choice to learn but is proving to be very helpful now. Never would a track coach want to say, ‘slow down,’ but I have learned, am learning, that slowing down is OK.

“The pandemic was/is awful, but we were able to thread together some silver linings.”

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Contact Karl Lindholm at [email protected].

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