Coaching during COVID-19

Virginia Union University's football coach shares how his team has stayed connected and how they are moving forward, despite the uncertainties of the pandemic and its impact on the fall season.

Imagine 4th and goal with one second remaining in the game and you’re down by six. It’s a situation where you expect everyone on the team to do their assignment to guarantee the victory. Facing the challenges of COVID-19 is a similar situation. The year 2020 will definitely go down as one of the most historic ever, as we have faced an opponent that none of us had a scouting report on.

When the pandemic made a full breakthrough in late February early March, we all thought it was something that would simply pass. Most thought we as Americans were immune to the virus, but as the number of cases began to rise and states began to go on lockdown, we all knew we had something serious on our hands.

My team left campus for spring break on March 6th and after a nine-day break the students received notification that they will be receiving an extended week of spring vacation. This additional week gave the campus leaders a small time to quickly develop a plan to ensure the safety of the students, faculty and staff. Looking at it from a coach’s standpoint it was similar to trying to make an adjustment at halftime using tactics in which you have never practiced. Like almost every other college and university in the country learning began to be remote and virtual.

Alvin Parker, head football coach, Virginia Union University
Alvin Parker, head football coach, Virginia Union University

As for football, this put a halt on scheduled team activities. With campus being closed and the city being placed on quarantine, football was the last thing on the minds of everyone. With professional sports being postponed, it left plenty of uncertainties for college sports. The NCAA canceled all remaining spring sports and many college student-athletes were left feeling empty.

We still have little knowledge of COVID-19. Most understand how the virus is circulated, but many lack the forethought and resources to attack the virus head-on. Most went in the mode of social distancing, extensive hand washing and the wearing of a mask. While this helps, it was similar to playing prevent defense on first down, you were not going to give up the big play, but you were definitely going to allow the offense to move the ball.

Remote contact

Our team became very familiar with programs like Zoom, Microsoft Teams and Free Conference call. These services allowed us to stay connected and to move in a similar direction as we would’ve moved as if we were still on campus. Although nothing is similar to in-person contact, it does create an environment where we as a staff could still properly coach and teach football. Coaching your team through technology is similar to using an entire practice to do 7 on 7. While it helps, it definitely doesn’t prepare you to fully compete.

Our staff had a rough time adjusting also. We are a staff that feeds off of the comradery of one another and having to work from your living room or home office just took all of the energy that would normally fill the room. It forced everyone to be extremely accountable and make sure they completed office tasks at home. Recruiting became a daunting task because at this juncture you had to rely on the word of your fellow high school and JUCO coaches. Spring recruiting is a time where you are able to give all prospects an equal evaluation. This became almost impossible, but having a great staff who was willing to go over and beyond leveled the playing field. Most staff members find themselves doing more work at home then they would on a normal day in the office.

Game plans for fall

We made a Plan A, Plan B, Plan C and Plan D. Not knowing what the future holds we are ready to implement any one of those plans. Plan A calls for if we were to return to campus early. Plan B entails details for a late return to campus. Plan C has a workup for if the season were to be shortened, and Plan D has details for if the season were to be moved to the spring semester. All of these were outside of the normal yearly schedule that our staff made in January.

Plans are also put in place for a new normal upon returning to campus in August. Most schools on our level do not have the luxuries of returning our full teams to campus for involuntary workouts like the Power-5 schools, but our student-athletes deserve just as much care and planning as athletes on the higher level. Putting every safety precaution in place is similar to practicing hard every day; it doesn’t guarantee victory, but it gives you the best chance to win.

I haven’t seen my team since March 6th and I miss them. I have always understood that the student-athletes need us, but during this time I have realized we need them just as much. I have been in this business of college athletics for twenty-one years and there hasn’t been a four-month span of this magnitude ever.

I had a chance to speak with an older alumnus of the University who was part of the 1951 football team who was drafted into the US Army. His story really touched me, he instructed me not to take it too seriously if we had to miss games or even the season because of COVID=19. He said he and most of his teammates missed two full seasons of football and two years of school because they were ordered to fight in the war. We are being asked to do something a little simple—STAY HOME and protect yourself and others from the virus.

As we come to a point where many experts think we have a good idea on ways around COVID-19, strategies are being put in place for return to play. Although much doesn’t beat testing, social distancing and quarantining seem to be some of the new normal that we are having trouble adapting to. Will practices be the same? Will games be the same? Will traveling be the same? Will every sneeze and cough bring an alarm? Will budgets hold up to the requirements of COVID-19? These questions are now part of every round table discussion.

Coaching in COVID has been a challenge, but as coaches we thrive on challenges. It’s the nature of our competitive spirit. We find ourselves paying attention to different statistics. Not necessarily the ones that guide our decision making on which play to call, but the ones that assure the safety of our campus community and student-athletes.

Make a game plan, follow it. If adjustments have to made…make them. For once we are all on the same team playing against the same opponent and looking for one outcome, victory over COVID-19.

Alvin Parker is the head football coach at Virginia Union University.

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