Pat Crater remembers being a teenage student-athlete in the late 1990s and experiencing great anxiety in the aftermath of the Columbine High School massacre.
During scary times, Crater took solace in the soothing words of his high school football coach, John Yocum, the legendary Muhlenberg High School coach and member of the Pennsylvania Football Coaches Hall of Fame.
“Things are frightening during times like that, especially for a teenager,” said Crater, now the athletic director at Unionville High School. “What I remember is that everybody was there to support us. I reflect back that it was my football coach that pulled the team together. I don’t remember exactly what he said, but he was present and there to support us.”
More than two decades later, the coronavirus pandemic is causing significant student unease on a global basis. School buildings have been shuttered, spring sports have been suspended indefinitely, and no one knows when, or if, things will get back normal.
Crater knows first-hand how important it is for guidance during troubling times, and that’s a major reason that Unionville has been at the forefront of maintaining the connection with its student-athletes even though the PIAA has forbidden organized, or even informal, practices.
“This was on our radar for several weeks before buildings started to be closed and sports were canceled,” Crater said. “That gave us a little bit of an advantage in terms of how we wanted to run our program in a virtual world.”
All across Chester County, coaches and athletes are still huddling up, but now it is remotely, with the help of technological web-based services like Zoom, which specializes in video conferencing and online meetings. At Bishop Shanahan, the Eagles have come up with catchy nickname for one of their programs: The Quarantine Challenge.
At Kennett, girls’ lacrosse coach Lisa Daugherty is sending her team daily workouts that range from 5K runs, to wall-ball drills, high-intensity interval training. Recently, the squad tackled a vigorous week-long team challenge that included 500 miles of running, 30,000 core exercises and 5,000 wall-ball passes. The Blue Demons’ seniors kept track of the progress of their teammates.
“Like all coaches, I am mourning the loss of the untapped talent that I was looking forward to seeing during this season,” Daugherty said. “This challenge is keeping my players connected as best as we can with some lacrosse as a diversion to clear the mind.”
Senior Maddie Fowler is a team leader and a member of the accountability group that sends encouraging messages to other members of the team.
“When you are not playing every day, you are going to lose some of your touch,” Fowler explained. “But all we can do right now is stick-work and conditioning, to try to stay at the top of our games.”
The two-week Quarantine Challenge is the brainchild of Shanahan girls’ lacrosse coach Kacy Small, who owns Shake School Lacrosse, an outside business. It’s an online training program where subscribers have access to drills and workouts that are focused on injury prevention and ‘the art of lacrosse movement.’
“(Small) puts together these drills for speed, agility and shooting,” said Eagles’ senior Monica Manley. “He expects us to do these drills on our own and we’ll send him a little video.
“It’s 100 percent helpful. If I wasn’t doing it, my stick-work would suffer. The hard part right now is that if we do have (an abbreviated) season and we aren’t ready, it would be like starting over.”
A new workout is posted every four days and participants replay to Small with videos for feedback and mobile coaching. In addition to his team at Shanahan, Small has hundreds of athletes participating nationwide.
“This is something we started due to the current situation,” Small said. “We are only five days into the challenge and we are seeing major improvement in boys and girls athletes across the U.S.
“All of my Bishop Shanahan players get a free membership to Shake School so I have all of them participating in the challenge so we can continue to improve our skills, stay ready and stay together during these crazy times.”
PROVIDING SUPPORT BEYOND WORKOUTS
At Unionville, the online workouts are voluntary. Boys’ lacrosse coach Steve Holmes put out a video series for his squad. The girls’ lacrosse team recently did a Zoom workout together. And boys tennis coach Jimmy O’Rourke recently completed a Powerpoint presentation.
“These are opportunities to see each other, stay fit and be well,” Crater said. “Our coaches have been very creative and these ideas come in all shapes and sizes.”
But Unionville is taking it all to another level in an attempt to address the student-athlete needs that go beyond just staying in shape. For instance, the school has unveiled a virtual athletic training room.
“When school first shut down, no one fully grasped how serious it was going to be,” said Unionville Head Athletic Trainer Joe Vogler. “It was something to get us through a few weeks. But now that we are in week three and we don’t know how many more weeks are left, some of our athletes are uncomfortable going to physical therapy or the clinics are closed.
“So we have daily office hours on Zoom and athletes can also schedule an appointment. One of us is available and we can give them either a home exercise program or just kind of check in on their progress.”
According to Vogler, he’s seen a shift in perspective. An athlete with an ankle sprain wouldn’t think twice about going to urgent care or the hospital in the pre-coronavirus era. But now, if it isn’t a life or death situation, people are questioning whether they should be going to a facility and adding to an already over-burdened health care system.
“And there are a ton of resources now available,” Vogler pointed out. “So it’s very easy to email a student a treatment video and walk them through it.”
Vogler and his staff members, including trainers Kathy Walsh Shell and Sydney Schnarrs, are meeting with Crater several times a week to make sure the virtual training room is running smoothly. And the Unionville coaches are meeting weekly for a professional development series, which is focusing on supporting student-athletes emotionally and mentally.
“When I reflect on what is going on now, it reminds me of the important role the coach has at a time that is frightening for kids,” Crater explained. “Columbine was frightening, and this is too. This isn’t the same type of violence, but people are sick and people are dying. Just like I had a coach to support me, I’m urging our coaches to do the same thing now — to let them know that they care.
“Even though we are not meeting our athletes on the field, our department is open for business. We are here to continue supporting our athletes and coaches. Our program is so much more than just the game itself. The higher purpose of sports applies. We are focusing on all of those things off the field like leadership development, life lessons and the social station that exists in sports.”
COACHES MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER
According to Crater, all students are likely missing the daily social connection they normally have with each other. In sports, it’s not just during competitions but time in the locker room, or on the sidelines or on the bus headed to a contest.
“When I was in high school, I loved to play and compete, but some of my favorite memories were goofing around with my buddies on the sidelines,” Crater said.
When asked about the current situation, where all sports are suspended indefinitely, Kennett’s Maddie Fowler voiced a common concern among student-athletes.
“It’s been tough,” she said. “It is taking a mental toll on me because I’m not surrounded by my teammates and my peer groups everyday like it used to be.”
Part of the Unionville agenda is to remind coaches that the home situations for their players are not all the same. Some may be dealing with unemployment or illness now associated with the pandemic.
“Our message to the coaches is that even though they aren’t seeing kids on the field, your job is more important than ever off the field, like recreating that social space and connecting with the athletes,” Crater said.
“The physical health aspect is important too, but we’ve been emphasizing the opportunity to simply support one another.”
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