Nobody’s routine has escaped the grasp of the Covid-19 pandemic. In hindsight, it seems inevitable, but the nature of sport is that you prepare for the unexpected. So, when that door finally slammed closed, the disappointment within our group was immense. Somewhat predictably, the malaise of a canceled 2019-20 season carried through the off-season and into what would usually be our “preparation period” ahead of the new season. Most of my athletes were confined to their living rooms or garages with a smattering of outdoor activities mixed in. As the pages of the calendar flipped closer to what would ordinarily be the start of training camps and exhibition play, it was impossible to ignore the fact that most ice rinks didn’t even have a date to re-open and going to a public gym felt like an immeasurable risk. Of course, everyone was dealing with a similar reality. What made my interactions that much more challenging was the fact that my group is spread out across the province: from Comox to Vancouver to Prince George to Castlegar and all points in between. Early in the summer, the leaders within our athlete group were great about organizing weekly check-ins and short Zoom calls that were more about personal well-being than anything sport-specific. However, as the summer dragged on and the worries compounded (sporting, educational, economic, etc.), enthusiasm for that waned as well. You can only ask someone “how was your week?” so many times when the answer is “I go to work and spend the rest of the time at home”.
Of course, hanging over all this was the spectre of Hockey Canada canceling the U18 National Championships in November (which they did in late August) and the International Ice Hockey Federation canceling their slate of 2020-21 World Championships. Meanwhile, we still had no firm date for a return-to-hockey and motivation was at an all-time low. In officiating, at the level we’re talking about, with female athletes, it’s all about performance at National tournaments as a springboard to the International level. That is compounded by the high level of uncertainty that accompanies every trip to the arena: will the game go ahead? Will we arrive to find that players are sitting out due to positive tests? How many fit players will each team have? This uncertainty continues after the game: every cough is overanalyzed, the public health warnings are watched carefully; however unlikely the possibility of exposure might be, the risk is still there.
So in these circumstances, my coaching staff and I set out to figure out how to engage our athletes in a meaningful way. For context, I’m usually on the road at least two weekends per month. So under normal circumstances, I see everyone in our group a couple of times a month; sometimes I go to them, other times they come to me. Now, not only is it logistically more difficult but also our program’s budget has been slashed as our PSO grapples with the financial uncertainty of COVID. So, like everyone else, we were going to be pushed into remote-delivery for the majority of our programming. While our athletes want to be engaged and want to keep training, they have asked us to provide them with a plan and a pathway through this pandemic that keeps them accountable without completely depleting their motivation.
With that in mind, I got together with our coaching staff to answer two key questions:
- What skills could be credibly trained (and monitored) in a remote-delivered environment?
- What activities or learning experiences do we “not have time for” under normal circumstances that we could prioritize now?
After some discussion, we decided to adopt three programming directives for the 2020-21 season:
- Treat the 2020-21 season as an “extended specific preparation phase” for the 2021-22 season, from a YTP perspective. Our rationale for this is that even though there will be games played, there is virtually no chance of having “meaningful” games at an elite level. Therefore, why restrict ourselves to the demands a normal season when we could think of this as a 10-month preparation phase for the 2021-22 season? Let’s use that flexibility to adopt a long-term mentality, do some experimentation, and see if we can learn something valuable.
- Increased focus on tactical development. Fortunately, every game in which our officials participate is available via third-party video. One of the biggest challenges for the athletes that enter our program is an underdeveloped tactical understanding of the game. In 2020-21, a lighter game schedule allows us to spend more time doing video breakdown with our athletes and because the games that are being played are at a lower level, it provides them with a more forgiving environment to practice implementing that tactical understanding.
- This also applies to things like communication strategies and mental control. We can introduce new concepts and allow the athletes time to practice and find what works for them without the looming spectre of a major competition, by which time we need to have them settled into a routine.
- De-prioritize physical training. For context, physical training is usually our number one priority. So we obviously aren’t tossing it out altogether but rather moving it down the list. With all the uncertainty, and the associated physical and mental health challenges, setting aggressive athletic targets for our group just doesn’t seem useful. Some of our group is continuing to set those goals for themselves and we are supporting them in doing so but we are “taking our foot off the gas” with others, particularly our NextGen athletes.
As we are currently in-progress with implementing these programming directives, I feel like a more detailed breakdown will be the subject of a future blog post. But I also put on my educational hat and thought about how best to deliver these concepts. After much discussion with both coaching and educational colleagues, we settled on the following structure:
- Weekly 45-minute webinars. Given how much time everyone is spending on Zoom or in front of screens, the consensus was that this is the longest we could reasonably expect anyone to focus their attention.
- A 6-week cycle that addresses physical training, tactical understanding, and mental skills.
- Week 1: Ask each athlete to commit to one physical training intervention that they could accomplish in the next six weeks. It could be goal-oriented but it could also be experimental (i.e. hypothesize-and-test). This is an opportunity to consult with our coaching team and plan out what that intervention will look like.
- Week 2: We provide a specific mental preparation strategy and task them with implementing this in their game environments. This allows everyone a couple of weeks to implement, tweak, and report back on whether this was a useful strategy or not.
- Weeks 3-4: We provide a specific tactical intervention that we have identified for the group as a whole and task them with working on this in their game environments. Each week will provide an opportunity to look at new video and discuss implementation.
- Week 5: This is an opportunity to debrief the success of the mental preparation strategy that we introduced in Week 2, as well as the tactical intervention from Weeks 3 & 4.
- Week 6: This is the conclusion of our cycle as well as Week 1 of the next cycle. This is where we check in on the physical intervention that they committed to in Week 1, assess the success of the intervention, and commit to a new intervention over the next six weeks.
Any suggestions on how to engage a group when your in-person hours have been cut to the bone (and then some) as well as keeping motivation up when there’s nothing to work towards?