The challenge of coaching amid COVID-19
The challenges for prep sports coaches have never been greater.
As the state of Indiana moves closer to the return of high school athletics, coaches are adjusting their priorities with an even stronger emphasis on the health and safety of their students venturing back into the competitive arena amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"It's going to be a change for everybody," said Andrean's Demetrius Clark. "It's definitely a unique time. There's a lot more responsibility on coaches now. There are no shortcuts. The coaches and team will have to adapt. We have to all be in it together. We have to make sure it's a healthy environment that's safe for the kids."
Already the track coach at Andrean, Clark recently took over the cross country programs at the small Catholic school in Merrillville. Filling a vacancy in a short time was going to be problematic under normal circumstances, but finding a quality coach in these trying times made the task exponentially more difficult, so Clark decided to take it on the duties himself.
"It's a hard time to find a replacement," Clark said. "We were trying to get the word out, but we were't getting any applicants to take on the role so I talked to my girlfriend about it and I contacted the school to tell them I'd like to be the coach. The kids were waiting to see who it would be so they should be relieved. It's a lot different animal for me than coaching track and field, the sprints, but it's an exciting challenge and I'm looking forward to it."
Clark, who went to high school nine blocks south on Broadway at Merrillville, was a three-sport athlete with the Pirates, though cross country wasn't one of them. Still, his track expertise and his work as a personal performance trainer gives him a good background in developing talent. Now it's just a matter of translating it into distance running.
"I'm learning on the fly," Clark said. "There are times we may have to change things up, but we're using the training plan they already had. It'll just be a matter of assessing the athletes, seeing where they're at. A big thing for me is I want the kids to have consistency in coaching. I'm all about structure. If they run cross country, they'll know what they need to do to come track season workouts. They'll already have stuff down pat."
Andrean had some success in cross country under former coach Rick Torres, but it has failed to get a team beyond the sectional since he left to become c-c and track coach at Calumet College in 2015. One of the hurdles Clark has to overcome is the absence of a feeder system like the one he was a part of when he was a student at Merrillville.
"It's kind of surreal with my alma mater right down the street," Clark said.
Clark inherits young teams with thin numbers, just nine runners between the teams as practices are allowed to officially begin Monday. Andrean graduated three of its four regional participants, returning only Catherine Cespedes, who reached semistate.
"Leadership on the team will be a huge part with the junior and senior athletes who already have experience on the team," Clark said. "It's their time to shine. They'll help mold the new athletes as they learn how to get from point A to point B. We want the kids to be healthy as we get toward the post-season. The incoming freshmen didn't have a track season -- that's how you learn -- so we have to build them up until they find their sweet spot."
What that season is going to look like, assuming Indiana's progress with the coronavirus continues to trend well, is anybody's guess.
As the Indiana High School Athletic Association continues to evaluate the process of moving forward with the fall season, each sport is tasked with finding how it is going to function within the health and safety parameters. Nothing is firm yet, but there are already discussions for managing the numbers that come with large cross country invitationals. Schools could have to limit the size of some events, which often include several hundred runners at the various levels, and stagger the starts of races.
Coaches will also be tasked with monitoring themselves and their athletes on a daily basis with temperature checks.
"If anybody has something wrong, we'll send them home," Clark said. "Same for the coaches."
Issues such as having individual water bottles and not sharing them that were once given little thought now take on importance. Clark anticipates that masks will be required for coaches and runners when they're in close proximity, though runners won't have to wear them during a race.
"It's kind of gray," he said. "There'll be more details as we have our A.D,'s meeting."
In a June 5 article on letsrun.com, Dr. William Shaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, notes that while being outdoors 'very substantially' reduces the risk of catching the virus, it will not eliminate all of it, and the start line is where that potential would be the greatest.
"Of all the sports that the NCAA committee has concerned itself with, cross country running has caused the least problems,” Schaffner said. “They’re exerting themselves, yes. They’re breathing heavily. But in general, the risk to congregate activities outdoors is much less than indoors, and it’s thought to be less when it’s a non-contact sport. There’s no way we can make any sport, cross country included, ‘safe.’ What we’re talking about is reducing risk. The moment you leave your front door, you accept a certain amount of risk.”
That could make selling the sport an even tougher at a school where interest and tradition are not strong, but Clark aims to make it work.
"I want the program to be built the right way," he said. "I was hired to put the Andrean track program on the map and now I want to put the cross country program on the map, too."