Sports have been changed in ways for the better and worse due to the COVID-19 pandemic on the national scale which includes school sports from elementary to college athletics, regular sport athletics, and even the Olympics that have been postponed from the summer of 2020 to now in-theory of the Summer 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. At the college level, coaches at SUNY Oswego have struggled to stay connected to their team players.
Oswego’s Men’s Soccer Team coached by Daniel Kane has had issues with the pandemic with the college and games as well. In the Fall of 2019, SUNY announced for the Division III colleges that there would not be a Fall Season. With the announcements of the Spring Sports coming back to light for SUNY Colleges, Oswego Coach Kane is excited to bring back soccer for the Fall of 2021 semester. From not being able to train and practice as much due to the closing of gyms and cancellations of games, there was a dramatic change for Coach Kane who believes that finding a new identity in over a year without sports and then transitioning in going back to being a soccer player was the hardest adjustment. “We had no games; we had no practices either. My parents are retired, and I hear retired people talk about you doing stuff for a long period of time and then it stops, and you sort of have to reform a new identity. I think that is true of myself, true of our players – that our identity of a soccer player kind of had to press the pause button then luckily, we are able to restart that. We can find different avenues that our guys can still work out, find new ways to stay engaged and be of service, and find a way to have meaning because soccer is so meaningful to each of our lives in each and every day. We devoted a lot of time into it, and we didn’t have that option [for Fall games/practice or Spring Practice].” Struggling to find positives among all the negatives and adversity, Kane believes that having adverse moments can result in “…Making sports overall important, and to see the opportunity that there are things greater than sports. And I think perspective is definitely a positive is in something I am hoping I can keep with me as sports return. The negative is just I miss my family, my real biological family, and I miss my team – those are people of 28 guys, assistant coaches, and athletic trainers, that you spend a lot of time with and that was a void that was a negative that I am looking forward in having back in my life.” In looking at how sports overall might never be fully “back to normal” even with vaccines, masks, and social distancing Kane believes after seeing the Spring sports that it can be pretty normal again. “Even with the testing that they are required to do, and all the safety protocols – especially with the guys who are vaccinated, it feels normal when you step on the diamond, the field, or in the pool, that it is still competition. Obviously if something changes in terms of strain [of COVID] or the inability to get vaccines or something like that then that would be major, as long as those stay the same, I think we’ll be back at it.”
Each team and sports have handled the difficulties differently. For the Men’s Wrestling coach, Mike Howard who coaches both the Men’s Wrestling and Golf at SUNY Oswego – the biggest adjustment he had faced during the cancellation of the 2020/2021 college wrestling season and the athletic programs were that people were unable to do face-to-face daily contact and engagement with the other student athletes. “It was extremely difficult to hold students accountable when we had limited interaction with them throughout the fall semester and into the first half of the spring semester,” Howard said. With the unavailability to be meeting face to face especially for the student athletes the students had problems with the previous two years with not being able to wrestle and train which lead to a struggle of weight gain. Students do not have access to gyms or the time outside of their academics to train other than when they are actively in a sport training day in and day out. Howard said that, “We have had many team members gain as much as 40 pounds of weight, which I am not sure they will be able to recover from for quite some time. You are talking about guys who have trained 6 days a week at a very intense level who had that taken away from them with no physical activities permitted on campus. It is a serious health issue for some.” The Fall/Winter teams at SUNY Oswego were not permitted to train and conduct trainings on campus up until mid-March and were only able to do strength and conditioning sessions. Though it was extremely beneficial to do basic conditioning over the last four weeks the wrestling team were not allowed to conduct any specific sport training activities on campus because the on-campus fitness centers were closed for the majority of the year. Student-athletes did not have anywhere to physically train and as per Oswego protocol it is highly discouraged for student-athletes to train off-campus. Motivating the students to train on their own is hard for both the students and the coaches because the apps they recommend for tracking the amount of miles of walking and/or running is hard to do all virtually. Finding the encouragement for students to go out and train is not always simple when there is no face-to-face opportunity for motivation. Health and mental problems have been straining many students in college since this pandemic had started back in 2020 and many students do find that training or regularly working out is a positive distraction and can help with mental health and studies for college. Though without sports competing with the student athletes’ time in the classroom and studies, Howard mentioned that, “…the team performed exceptionally well in the classroom this Fall.” During the Fall/Winter season, the wrestling team was not permitted to participate at the NCAA Division III SUNY programs. Due to COVID it was a significate change to the 2020-2021 wrestling season for all the NCAA Division I, II, and III levels along with the National Junior College and high school levels not just in New York but in the whole country. A majority of sports like wrestling do not require masks while competing during the competitions. Masks are only required for sideline people like coaches and supporters of the matches. The NCAA had significant protocols that were recommended, not mandatory, for competitions for teams. COVID-19 testing was required three-days prior to competitions, times of these were more frequent than others, temperature checks were required, the officials were required to be tested and also wear masks during the competition not just on the sidelines like previously mentioned. Match weigh-ins were separately conducted from the opponents. All this resulted in a distancing among athletes and coaches.
The Women’s Volleyball team coached by Jefferson O’Connell had a difficult year like other sports at SUNY Oswego between 2019 and 2021. The athletes only had access to player-only gyms through the end of January for the Spring Semester. For the Fall Season the conference level had canceled the entire season. The Spring of 2021 Season was canceled which was a disappointment but not a surprise as other sports were canceled as well. Seniors were disappointed for sure. Understanding the situation does not make it any less disappointing for Senior Athletes who missed out on their final year of collegiate sports. Just like the Men’s Wrestling Coach, the Women’s Volleyball Coach also had a difficult adjustment with COVID-19 and sports with not having in-person interactions and doing the majority of the work from home. O’Connell stated that, “I like most of my interactions to happen face-to-face, so remote coaching has not been as satisfying as being in the gym for the majority of the coach-student athlete interactions.” But sadly, with many colleges having the requirement of proof of vaccination, and COVID-19 testing before games it is hard for every college to go about the requirements. Due to many individuals in general not following CDC Mandates and College Mandates there were limits to what the college could do with student-athletes, coaches, referees, and audiences. In many situations there could be no audiences. O’Connell said that there will be precautions that have to be taken for COVID-19 to be minimized. O’Connell had personal experience with COVID-19 this past Fall of 2019 before the semester started. “So, in having an experience with it, I was able to talk others through what to expect as it circulated among athletes and other staff members. It’s definitely uprooted many lives and the mental health effects were one of the toughest challenges to overcome, without a doubt.”
While each sports team had some unique challenges in the past year, a common theme from coaches at SUNY Oswego was that it was a struggle to stay connected with their players. Coach Daniel Kane of the Men’s Soccer team, Coach Mike Howard of the Men’s Wrestling and Golf Teams, and coach Jefferson O’Connell of the Women’s Volleyball team each shared some of their personal struggles and experiences. All of these coaches are looking forward to resuming their sports seasons with some new insight into the value of face-to-face training and personal connections.
Oswego’s Men’s Soccer Team – Daniel Kane