HOW TO KEEP YOUR ATHLETES ENGAGED WHEN CORONAVIRUS KEEPS THEM HOME

Sports are taking an unprecedented hit from the spread of coronavirus, as teams are hitting the pause button on playing altogether. Student-athletes are being sent home as colleges shut down temporarily, pro leagues are on hiatus and major events have been canceled around the world.

The news is overflowing with articles about how disappointed sports fans are. But we’re not hearing as much about another crucial issue: the impact on athletes. How are professional athletes and student-athletes staying engaged when they are not practicing and playing together as a team?

After all, athletes are used to being in near-constant communication with one another and their coaches. When they’re suddenly deprived of all this connection, their skills may backslide, their team’s cohesiveness may be impacted—and worst of all, the athletes’ mental health can be negatively affected.

“I can imagine that there might be social anxiety when you’re not around the people you’re normally used to being around this time of year, or if you’re wondering how long we’re going to be in quarantine,” says Steven Bumbry, a former player for the Baltimore Orioles and founding partner at the workplace wellness company Bee Balanced Therapies.

Even in the face of uncertainty, there are ways to keep athletes engaged even when they’re not able to be together in person. We spoke with athletic directors and other experts in the trenches—and also took tips from the business world, where employers are taking actions to keep their employees in the loop even as they’re forced to work from home.


IMPROVE THEIR GAME

We all know that sports aren’t just physical. “Being a student of the game is an important part of the athlete’s career,” says Ernest T. Jones, Director of Athletics at Florida Memorial University. “But during the season it’s difficult with classwork, your personal life, and competitions to truly do that. Now they can invest hours and hours on becoming a better athlete and an expert in their sport.”

That’s why Jones’s coaches are putting together manuals that teach their athletes step-by-step what they can do, depending on their position, to become a better player. The manuals will be in PDF format, and will include video clips for the athletes to study. Now, athletes have an opportunity to mentally improve at their sport in a way they didn’t have when they were in the thick of training.

An article by Brunswick Group recommends putting together short podcasts featuring various people across the organization to keep people connected. The advice is meant for employers whose employees are working remotely during the coronavirus outbreak, but it’s just as relevant for sports teams.


SUPPORT THE WHOLE ATHLETE

Athletes can be thrown for a loop when their season ends abruptly. Coaches and staff can help by reaching out to athletes to offer support and to encourage calming practices like meditation and yoga.

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Cancellation of the sports season especially affects student-athletes in their senior year, says Kristina M. Navarro, Senior Associate AD for Leadership Development & Strategic Partnerships at Rutgers University. They may be in the middle of their final season, and have to say goodbye sooner than they expected—and they may also be left in limbo, wondering if they’ll be reinstated with some of their eligibility once the coronavirus crisis is over.

This means these athletes need not only mental health support, but also career support. “Student-athlete development professionals can come in and talk about transition programming,” says Navarro. “And not necessarily from a clinical perspective, but more of a ‘life after sport’ planning. That’s where the whole field of student-athlete development can offer support.” Sessions can take place using videoconferencing tools or online meeting spaces.


STAY IN TRAINING

For professional athletes in isolation at home and student-athletes whose universities have closed, their social separation can be compounded when they miss out on the training they’re used to.

Coaches and trainers can help by suggesting alternative exercises to do at home and identifying locations where athletes can train away from the public, says Paul Artale, Chair of the Student-Athlete Knowledge Community and Manager of Graduate Student Engagement at the University of Michigan. While working out at public gyms isn’t recommended during the coronavirus outbreak, experts do give the OK to exercise outdoors as long as social distancing practices are maintained.

Jones points out that the coronavirus situation also presents an opportunity for injured athletes to take care of their injuries and recuperate. Adds Bumbry, “I became sedentary after my injuries, and there’s a lot of improvement that can be made while you’re sitting on the couch—or even better, sitting on the floor—to stay healthy and prepared and pliable.”

Don’t limit this kind of engagement to your athletes; keeping your teams’ medical, training, and support staff in the loop is a good way to ensure that athletes stay in training while staying safe. When athletes are on their own, says Bumbry, they may not report minor injuries or mild pain, which makes frequent contact with these professionals even more important.

Bumbry was playing at Virginia Tech at a time when the university was shut down for several days, and recalls that “The biggest thing for us was that every single day, we were in constant communication with our trainers—whether that was the athletic training staff or the strength and conditioning staff. Those guys watched us like hawks.”


ENCOURAGE FACE TIME

For athletes battling social isolation, even more important than staying in touch with their coaches may be staying in touch with other team members. “The difference between winning and losing is the camaraderie of the team, the development of the team, the trust of the team,” says Jones.

Encourage athletes to reach out to one another through technology. With all the social media and video chat tools that are available now, athletes can connect digitally even if they can’t connect in person. “I highly encourage group chats and hangouts for those who really miss the big-group dynamic,” says Artale.

If you want to encourage your athletes, athletic directors, and coaches to connect digitally, it’s key to select a platform everyone can easily access and use. Not sure about your options? Your organization’s or university’s IT department likely knows about different technologies that can help keep athletes in communication and involved. “IT people are waiting for you to come over so they can teach you how to use some of their bells and whistles,” says Jones. “Then you can introduce those to your team.”

If you don’t have good options for connecting your athletes, consider an app like Teamworks, that’s tailor-made for athletic teams, which can make it easier to send messages to custom groups, share files, and access important information.

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Instead of leaving it to your athletes to connect with one another, schedule regular virtual meetings. According to an article in Harvard Business Review on keeping employees engaged when they’re forced to work at home due to coronavirus, “It is easier to cancel if the meeting isn’t needed than it is to pull together last-minute conversations without creating additional disruption. If you only meet on an ad hoc basis, you risk excluding some people who are either too busy to join or are out of sight, out of mind.”

Get your athletes engaged using training, tech tools and teaching. Coronavirus might keep athletes out of the game for now, but it won’t keep them down.