Coaching during COVID-19: A game plan for growing through adversity and uncertainty

Almost overnight, sport, school, and broader society have come to a screeching stop. The Coronavirus pandemic has brought about uncertainty and chaos like we’ve never experienced before. In the context of high school athletics, it’s put a halt on sport seasons and the school year. As a girls’ soccer coach who walked with an extra spring in my step as the first week of our high school season got underway, I am with you— I felt, and still feel, the sting. I was eager for a full season to build skill, compete, connect, and grow together with my group of young women.

What we are going through now is much bigger than sports. The COVID-19 pandemic is impacting our society on a local, national, and global scale—and will for a period of time that we cannot yet entirely predict. An adverse situation of this magnitude may seem daunting for us as coaches to address and be far outside our expertise. I’ve asked myself and those in my coaching circle lots of questions—some of which maybe be similar to questions you’ve been asking yourself:

As sport leaders, how do we respond? What do we say to our student-athletes?

What, if anything, do we do?

            We hear the popular adage about athletics often: sport teaches us how to deal with adversity; it prepares athletes to be more resilient and persist in life. That sport develops our capacity to cope with stress and handle adversity, however, is not automatic. Yes, sport is made of pressure-filled moments, uncertainty, and challenge. Difficult moments in sport—like the those we may be experiencing in life right now —canbe opportunities for us to GROW. For us to move from going to growing through adversity requires that we be intentional about what we focus on and how we choose we respond.

For example, in sports like in life, it’s easy to focus on the things that do not help us. It’s hard to ignore these distractions and even harder to zero in on where we need to direct our attention. If you fear failure and are worried about messing up, it’s likely that you’ll be playing not to lose. And, if you focus on failure, it’s likely that is what you’ll get. You miss the penalty kick or free throw when the game is on the line because you are thinking about missing the kick or shot. Conversely, we can approach adversity by focusing on what has worked in the past and/or what you can do to make the best out of the situation. In the example of the penalty kick, you focus on your process, an external cue such as “punch through the ball”, to successfully execute the kick. The same can be true for the current situation: identify what matters to you, what works, embrace the opportunity, and choose to act.

This is where we as coaches—as team and community leaders—can play a crucial role. In challenging situations, our players need leadership. They need coaches to help support them and guide their learning through these difficult circumstances—even if we are also learning along the way. As coaches, we don’t need to be public health experts. We don’t need to have all the answers.

Let me repeat that: Coaches don’t need to have all the answers.

We can, however, be brave and put our white boards with our carefully drawn play schemes on pause and strive to create space for our student-athletes to connect. “Social distancing” requires that we are physically distant from one another, but we can still stay socially connected and support our teams. And, through these bonds we can choose to use this adversity as a coachable moment to empower one another.

The COVID-19 pandemic has systematically disrupted all facets of society including sport organizations, events, and seasons.This compulsory pause presents us with a developmental moment that calls on us to draw on lessons that are possible to learn through sports. It also affords us a critical opportunity to reflect on what we want out of sport. For me, the COVID-19 jolt to our social systems—sport among those— has given me pause to think about how we, sport leaders, might reimagine sport to be better. Right now, many of us are spending more time with people we love, working together as a community; we’ve stepped away from the win-at-all-cost competitive chase. Perhaps, our yearning for connection now might help us not lose sight of—and better prioritize—our cooperative essence later. I hope this disruption allows us to recalibrate: to center collective striving rather than zero sum competition as the purpose of sport no matter the level of play.

To offer coaches a helpful guide for connecting and leverage this coachable moment, I’d like to offer a practical tool that you might consider using to connect with and engage your student-athletes in whatever form of communication or platform might work for you and your players. Gauge what is best for your athletes, team, and you as a coach.

This exercise is only one strategy. And, I hope this GROW tool can serve as a springboard for you (and your team) to be brave: to create space to reflect and engage with/support one another—to whatever degree and in whatever ways feel best for individuals and the team right now. For some teams, that might mean organizing more online events to connect. For other teams, it might mean organizing fewer opportunities. For some players, that might mean designing and doing workouts to stay fit and have sport be an escape. For other players, that might mean spending time away from sport and more time with family. Figure out what’s going to serve each of your players and team best.

GROW Tool and Activity

G-R-O-W1is a framework to help us navigate adversity and uncertainty. GROW stands for goals, reality, opportunity, and will. Applied to our current situation, this tool can help us create a roadmap for how we want to GROW through these challenging circumstances—recognizing that that pandemic is impacting (and constraining) individuals in different ways given their social/personal identities and positioning.Screen Shot 2020-03-27 at 11.48.09 AMWith your athletes, go through each component, key questions, and an example. Encourage student-athletes to take a minute and reflect on each component. Then invite them to be brave and honest about where they are at. If you are engaging with your team over video conference or an online platform, you can have teammates share out. Otherwise, feel free to provide this reflective exercise as an opportunity for players to check in with themselves and/or with you individually.

 

Goals – What do you want to experience?

  • What do you want to happen during this time (e.g., personally, athletically, academically etc.)?
  • What will this bring to you personally? Why is it important to you?

Example: I want to stay connected with my teammates because I miss them and value their friendship

Reality – What’s happening now?

  • How are you viewing the situation (what lens are you looking through) and what’s actually happening? *Note: Be sure to validate their perspective and feelings even though we can not ever completely ‘understand’ what other individuals are going through
  • What actions have you taken thus far that have worked, now or in the past, when you’ve faced adversity? And, what’s not worked for you, and why?

Example: My lens – My dream senior season is over. There’s no chance we are starting back. And, if we can’t play together what’s the point. I’m moving on and focusing on other things. What’s actually happening – this season is going to look different from the one I had envisioned but maybe—it could still be meaningful.

Opportunity – What are the opportunities?

  • What would you like to do that you can continue doing? What are you often not able to do but can now do during this situation?
  • How could you improve the situation? Which solutions seem most appealing to you?

 Example: That dream season I’d hoped for is not going to be exactly how I envisioned it andI can still stay connected with my teammates. Even though we are physically a part we can still connect and support one another through group chats, videos, share/watch movies and shows virtually, and be there for one another.

Will – What will you choose to do?

  • What’s the next step? When and how will you do it?
  • How can you support yourself?
  • Whose support do you need? What can we, as coaches, do to support you?

Example: Plan a movie/show watching video chat each week to stay connected. Get ideas from other teammates about how they want to stay connected by co-creating a list to give others voice, feel heard, and also be supported.

Conclusion

Our situation right now is bigger than sports. But, it’s a critical moment that calls on us to draw on lessons that are possible to learn through athletics.We—coaches—like our players may feel frustrated, worried, scared, and a host of other emotions. These are valid and understandable to have. We can have these and (not but) still decide what to focus on and choose for this moment. As coaches, we can decide to be leaders,some of our athletes’ biggest champions of support, and use the adversity we are facing as a coachable moment. To move from going to growing through adversity requires that we be intentional about what we focus on and how we choose we respond. GROW is a helpful tool that athletes and teams can use to create a roadmap for where they are and what will serve them best right now.

1GROW model content adapted from Whitmore, J. (2009). Coaching for performance. Boston, MA: Nicholas Brealey Publishing.

 

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