The COVID-19 pandemic put a major pause on 2020’s athletic competitions. The Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference postponed the fall sports season. In January the league announced plans for a modified winter season for basketball, hockey, indoor track and field, and swimming and diving (though it’s not officially part of the MIAC, wrestling will follow the same guidelines). Auggies can’t wait to get back in the game.
Many student-athletes have been practicing their sports since elementary school. During the past year, the pandemic disrupted participation in activities that have been important to their lives. But Augsburg’s Athletics staff and student-athletes have met this challenge with a commitment to the health and safety of the community. This willingness to put safety first means that student-athletes are now able to compete.
In order for student-athletes to participate in sports this year, the NCAA created rules designed to promote safety. Augsburg Athletics also made sure that strong safety measures were in place, which has helped students feel a bit more at ease during an anxious time.
Devon Hannah ’21, a guard on the men’s basketball team, said, “We have the freedom to decide whether or not we feel comfortable with an activity. The Athletics Department is handling this well, keeping us safe physically and mentally, too.”
Coaches play an important role in student-athletes’ lives, which means they are often among the first people to learn when a student receives a positive COVID-19 test result. This means that they are not only helping students develop skills in their sport; they are also watching out for the safety of their team.
Corrina Evans ’21, a middle blocker on the women’s volleyball team, said, “The coaches and trainers are sharing campus resources like the Center for Wellness and Counseling. They have check-in times when we can talk about anything, and they will call or text us: doing contact tracing, helping us understand how to quarantine correctly if we have to do that, and making sure we have everything we need.”
Changes to practice and competition
Even with precautionary measures in place, there are times when teams have to pause their practice, whether a teammate tested positive for COVID-19 or a rising number of cases in Minnesota required universities to temporarily close workout and sports facilities, which occurred in the fall and early winter.
When they’re able to practice, Augsburg’s student-athletes gather in pods that have gradually increased in size as they were safely able to do so. While the smallest pods have allowed students to practice their sports safely and to control the spread of the virus, they’ve also presented a challenge. “It’s difficult to get to know each other and to gel as a team,” Hannah said.
“Practices are very different,” said Evans. “You can’t see people’s faces because of the masks. But we’ve been able to move up into bigger pods, which gives us a more normal team chemistry and allows us to have a full team practice and do some scrimmaging. The challenges are more mental than physical.”
In early January, the MIAC gave teams the go-ahead to compete again, although competitions are limited and spectators are not allowed. (Augsburg has offered free livestream viewing for all home events and some road events.) Students in sports that present a higher risk for COVID-19 transmission must get tested three times each week in order to practice and compete—measures well worth it for eager players and coaches. “It’s exciting to be able to get back to playing and feel in the groove again,” said Colleen Enrico ’14, assistant athletic director, volleyball assistant coach, and Student-Athlete Advisory Committee advisor.
Prioritizing mental health
Augsburg Athletics had already begun addressing the mental health of student-athletes before the pandemic. In the summer of 2019, all coaches and staff took an eight-hour course in mental health first aid, which can provide support for student-athletes and coaches until they can speak with mental health professionals.
Mark Wick, men’s hockey assistant coach, has recently taken on new, temporary duties at Augsburg as he sets up a mental health advocacy program for Augsburg Athletics. “We need to know how to deal with what is happening now, but in five to 10 years, people still will be dealing with losing jobs or loved ones,” Wick said. “Hopefully it won’t be as bad as it is now, but how we use this time can help prepare us for growth.”
September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month and @AugsburgU Assistant Hockey Coach @coachwick23 will hold a golf tournament to raise awareness, as this subject is very personal to him. “It’s OK to reach out and ask for help,” Wick told @WCCO. https://t.co/ITIJdS9Fyx
— Augsburg University (@AugsburgU) September 29, 2020
Fostering the Auggie Experience
Enrico reported that in past years, student-athletes met with the entire team staff on a weekly basis, but this year they are meeting with a different coach each week. This allows them to be more open and build better relationships with their coaches. As in past years, coaches touch base with students about their lives outside of their sport so that, for instance, if they are struggling with classes, the coach can suggest resources for help. This year coaches are also making a point of paying attention to upcoming events so that they can suggest activities that might help student-athletes better connect with their fellow students.
It’s been a tough year for everyone, and that has been particularly true for first-year students who were unable to participate in many traditional activities at the end of their senior year in high school and now have begun their college experience under difficult conditions. For that reason, Enrico said, coaches have made a point of connecting third- and fourth-year students with first-year and other new students.
Check out some photos from a recent Augsburg women’s basketball practice!https://t.co/szJkxI05lN#d3hoops #AuggiePride pic.twitter.com/au3oBa2ikM
— Augsburg Athletics (@AugsburgAuggies) January 14, 2021
Different teams have different approaches to these connections. In volleyball, coaches have suggested podcasts that each student can discuss with a different teammate each week. “We want them to get outside of volleyball, so the podcasts might be on topics such as banking or racial diversity,” Enrico said.
Fostering these connections—between teammates, between each student-athlete and coach, and between student-athletes and the wider Augsburg community—is, perhaps, one of the most important things coaches can do for their student-athletes this year. All of them help these students feel a sense of community. In Enrico’s words, “the Auggie experience is community.”
Top image: The COVID-19 pandemic has required temporary closures and reopenings of workout spaces, including Augsburg’s weight room, with students’ health in mind. (Photo by Courtney Perry)