As sport starts to return to training coaches will need to monitor social distancing, sterilization of equipment and the wearing of protective clothing. This is in addition to all their usual planning, booking, managing, communicating, reflecting and, somewhere along the line, coaching. Whereas team building and social identity could previously be built through normal sports training and extra-curricular activities, the new rules of social distancing means that players may well feel emotionally as well as physically detached from their team mates.
In this article I shall outline some ideas of how to reintegrate your players and make them feel welcome back and also how to help them bond with each other.
Together but separate
The player that stands separately from the rest, who stands with arms folded looking at the floor, or scrolling down their phone screen or leans against the wall would usually be ‘red-flagged’ as either being a loner, in need of help or, worst of all, ‘a non-team player.’
Now every player is standing two meters apart (in the UK) and is isolated. I started coaching small groups of five athletes last week and found it very difficult. I am no hugger, don’t give high-fives, and definitely am not a butt-slapping, whooping and yelling type of coach. The only physical contact I give to athletes is a congratulatory, hygienic, fist bump. But I do like to gather the athletes in and talk quietly with them. We stand, sit or kneel shoulder to shoulder as we share information. Not any more.
I had to shout a lot more as we were outside and apart. The ritual of coming in to the huddle and going out was gone. The quiet, soft word alone to the athlete who is struggling was gone. The physical bonding of athletes doing joint tasks was gone. I always felt that trying to complete a task in pairs together was a great way of breaking the ice. Partner squats or medicine ball exercises, supports and balances, these are gone.
Another consideration is that some of the athletes felt anxiety about coming outside and meeting other people. Many people will have seen only their immediate family for three months. The anxiety of mingling with others, as well as being in a public space, is real and should not be underestimated.
Bonding without contact
Here is what I have done to help our club athletes (and myself) reintegrate.
1. Set out clear areas for differentiating the separate groups or individuals.
I have used cones to help people remember which grids they can operate in. They can move up or down, like the rook in chess, but must keep a box between other people. You can how this is done in this video. It helps that there are two pairs of people who live in the same household.
I also have hand sanitizer and antiseptic wipes laid out and visible. The cones and the hygiene procedures send a clear signal that the athlete is entering a safe and distanced environment. This is designed to reassure them (and parents) that we put their well-being first.
2. Follow-the-leader warm up
Once the athletes have settled and feel safe in their area, I get them to set up a ‘follow-the -leader’ warm up. They can create any pathway they want as long as it allows them to stay two meters apart from their peers. My purpose with this exercise is to get the athletes to lead and create and also for me to observe how they are thinking and moving after our absence.
The first athlete almost always just runs. They might swerve or zig zag, but it is usually running. I praise them for changing the pathway but suggest to the next athlete that they can add different movements. I might then see some skipping or jumping jacks by the next athlete, but still pretty inhibited and limited. I praise them for adding a different exercise and suggest to the next athlete that they can change direction too. So the pathway may be a zig zag and you can move along it facing forwards, backwards sideways.
By the time we get to the fourth athlete we have:
- Different pathways
- Different exercises
- Different directions
- Different combinations.
So far, all I have done is suggest, I can now see what they have forgotten about and how they are moving. I can then add in 3- 4 other movements that I suggest and demonstrate. I do not want to overwhelm them in the first session and want them to be in control.
3. Match and mirror
I use this next, once the athletes are warm. In the grids they face a partner 2 meters away. Partner A can then do any movement in their grid and Partner B has to mirror it. So A’s left leg raise is mirrored by B’s right leg raise and so on. If A moves backward, B moves backwards. Each partner leads for 30-60 seconds before swapping.
Again, this is athlete led: they are getting used to observing and reacting to another athlete and interacting with another human being. They are still in a small grid- up to 5 meters width- so that top speed can’t be reached. I could swap twice more so that we have partnered up with different people (In the UK we are allowed 1 coach +5 athletes, so I join in to make even numbers in this part).
4. Normal session
By this time I can see if the athletes have remembered who their team mates are, the names of the exercises and also how they move. I do not expect to return at the level we finished at in our last group session on March 23rd. The 12 week lay off, much of it inside, is the longest period of non-coaching I have had in 27 years. A 12-week lay off for a 10 year old is 2.3% of his lifetime. This effect should not be underestimated or forgotten in an attempt to return to ‘Peak Performance.’
I include more regular breaks to allow them to recover and to talk too. Although the conversations have been limited: it is awkward to talk to a friend who is 2 meters away and everyone else can hear.
Once I have coached 5- 6 drills, I then incorporate some ‘race’ type activity such as funny starts. Athlete A chooses a move (jump, roll, crawl, hop, skips, prancing- anything we have done in the session- and then sprints straight out of that move. Athlete B has to copy and race. They then swap.
Again, the idea is to get them working together and to introduce an element of competitiveness and reaction to an opponent. The intent of racing and reaching a finish line adds a layer of complexity, but fun too.
One of the best ways to build group cohesion is to identify a shared experience: we’re all in it together. I have avoided mentioning the lockdown experience when coaching because it is so different for every person and family.
As we emerge from our isolation I am sensitive to the emotional, physical and psychological stress that many people have endured. I think that my job as a coach over the next few weeks is to aid and support our athletes and their families rather than worry too much about the technical/ tactical points.
We haven’t been able to return to normal, so I don’t fret about that, I just try and understand and support. It is definitely far from perfect and for those athletes looking to regain some form of normality I have used the ideas above to help them.