High School Football In A Pandemic

Preparing For High School Football During A Pandemic

For football coaches, the coronavirus pandemic adds a layer of complexity and uncertain variables into a team building process that’s dependent upon meticulous planning, daily routine and the efficient use of time management.

As of May 28, the NFL and NCAA established guidelines and protocols for the return of professional and collegiate athletes in as safe and responsible a manner as possible. In these circumstances, those athletes will have the luxury of both relative isolation and adequate facility space to help ease them into a suitable training regimen during the summer months of June, July and August.

NFL teams utilize private team facilities, while collegiate football athletes will return to campus facilities before college campuses are officially reopened to the main student population for the Fall semester. Strict adherence to distancing and sanitization guidelines will be enforced.

High school football presents a greater unknown, especially with regard to the 2020 Fall semester. What that high school landscape looks like in August and September will, more than likely, vary drastically by geographic region and from state to state, county to county, and perhaps even, from school district to school district.

High school football coaches will need to stay flexible and prepare to deal with policies and protocols that may leave them feeling handcuffed and frustrated as they try to provide a much needed sense of normalcy and routine for their players.

Practically speaking, for some areas of the United States, the prospects of having a 2020 high school football season may seem like a long shot. Other states, meanwhile, may see the return of fall sports with only minor modifications. As of the end of May, no one knows for certain.

Rey Hernandez, who coached football for more than 30 years before retiring in 2019, is a long-time AFCA member who currently lives in San Diego. Hernandez has long advocated that high school football coaches work in lock-step with school administrators to create policies that benefit student-athletes.

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“Ultimately, the big decisions on high school athletics this fall will be made by local and state authorities,” says Hernandez. “Coaches will not have control over these decisions. It will be up to health experts, government authorities and school officials to implement policies regarding participation for high school athletic teams.”

Hernandez says there are several things, however, that coaches should be considering now to develop proactive strategies.

1. Social Distancing, Space Requirements In Locker Rooms

Coaches must create locker room protocols to alleviate overcrowding. Many schools have varsity team rooms, and in such cases, coaches should post locker-room access schedules so they don’t have everyone in the team room at the same time. Coaches may want to consider assigning lockers in an ordinal number sequence, and then allow team access in number sequences that keep students five locker spaces apart. For example, allow players with lockers numbered, “1, 5, 10, 15, 20 and 25” to enter first, followed by additional groups of similar size and spacing. Coaches with large numbers in their program will have to develop additional physical-spacing protocols and locker-access guidelines during the pandemic.

2. Limit The Sharing Of Clothing, Equipment Among Players

Anyone who has coached high school football knows that teammates sometimes share clothing and equipment. During a pandemic, this is now unacceptable. Consider having a uniform check at the beginning of each practice. Have your staff take a quick roll call to ensure your players are wearing their own playing gear.

3. Sick Athletes Must Stay Home

This responsibility is no different than letting a player practice or play if they have suffered a concussion, or letting a sick child attend school. Districts will formulate COVID-19 return-to-practice-and play guidelines, and the health and safety of your staff and your student-athletes should never be compromised. Just as with concussions, a player might not want to miss a game and not self-report. Remind your players that family, health and safety is more important than any win or championship.

4. Be Careful About What You Say, Control Information

Student medical records are subject to certain protections under both federal and state laws, even during a pandemic. It is best to work with the family and school officials regarding the sharing of information with the team and others. COVID-19 infections will become a source of much discussion on campus, and perhaps even in the local media. In such cases, when teammates make inquiries, just say the athlete called in sick. Let the sick player’s family decide how much information to share.

5. Monitor Athlete Depression, Anxiety

Coaches will play a pivotal role in helping student-athletes deal with the disruptions that have changed their lives so abruptly. As this pandemic unfolds, mental health professionals are reporting an increase in symptoms of depression and anxiety. On average, we lose 130 young people (ages 10-24) to suicide each week, and more than 5,000 middle school and high school-aged youths attempt suicide every day. Work with your school psychologists and counselors to learn how these professionals can assist you.

Mike Podoll is the Associate Publisher of AFCA Magazine. Email: mpodoll@threecyclemedia.com. Follow on Twitter: @fcDaily_Podoll

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