Being in NCAA college coaching for more than a decade, I am passionate about being a leader in not only Women's NCAA Rugby, but am concerned about the health and welfare of our coaching population. As a public speaker, equality advocate, and coach, I have grown tired of the abundance of resources for sport-specific technical skill building and sitting at endless seminars only to be left with no solutions on how to survive in this profession with this generation.
Our athletes are losing their ability to communicate with each other and therefore, with us. I am interested in connecting and assisting other coaches who are challenged daily through this profession with today's generation. Athletics remains a staple in a long line of vehicles used to create social change. I am a firm believer that if we have truthful conversations with the next generation, both male and
female about equity and treatment, we can solve unfair hiring and ethical practices in athletics. Ultimately this will lead us to a healthier society with both women and men having equal representation in law-making, policy development, and in the workforce. If you are having trouble as a coach finding your voice and asking for more, please connect with me. We can all learn from one another.
COVID Coach Exhaustion
By Becky Carlson
My phone rang a few nights ago and went to voicemail. A DI coach for more than two decades in the NCAA left me a message. Like most of the calls I get these days, the voice sounded urgent so I rang her back for what would be a re-run of every other conversation I had that week with another struggling coach only this time, it was someone who had mentored me out these kinds of jams and it made it all the more unsettling.
Veteran Coach: "Nothing feels normal anymore. I've always said if I was ever going to leave it would be when I chose to. The athletes have been relentless with dissatisfaction and I just don't know if I want to do this anymore."
Fearless Coach: "Coach, you are not alone."
I have had to offer this response to countless coaches across all sports and divisions more times than I can count since the spring semester of 2021 began. The relentlessness of late-night texts, phone calls and inquiries searching for ways to make sense of this anxious time period has prompted me to craft some words of relief if any of this sounds familiar.
Nearly six weeks ago I walked out onto our field for the first time since March of 2020. The feeling of excitement was instant as I imagined all of my athletes warming up in a grid. I envisioned what it would look like when we were finally all together again as one group. When that image came to life two weeks later, I was not only able to return back to the field but also, my office. Returning should have been an event of excitement and a feeling that there was some path to normalcy. However, in all that time away my athletes, their families, friends, teammates, and their coaches had been suffering in different ways. We returned to our spaces with restrictions, confusion, and no reprieve from the nagging expectation that we should be doing more than we were able. After almost 365 days of absence, my in-season muscles felt atrophied, the struggle of the routine I once knew had me unable to unpack what was really happening.
As coaches, we are built to adapt to change as we are handed tough decisions daily and are expected to juggle and contort our way through it so we end up with an articulate, salient message for our athletes to learn from. But that's exactly what most of us are doing and too soon. Almost immediately we have been thrust back into finding ways to motivate, energize and inspire our athletes when we ourselves, are challenged with finding motivation, energy, and inspiration.
I had this naive idea that I could go right back into autopilot and somehow stumble upon a way to make this transition more seamless. I've found quickly that this may be the one goal I've ever had that feels firmly out of reach.
I recall that month a year ago with a raw shock as athletics and education all over the nation shut down in preparation for COVID to claim lives in the millions, domestically and globally.
Like so many across the country, (except for college football of course) our team spent this past fall semester with no competition bouncing back and forth from on-again to off-again practice status. During all of these unpredictable and exhausting chains of events, I would experience brief moments of clarity that would almost immediately turn into unprecedented waves of uncertainty. I had to start thinking and planning in terms of minutes or hours instead of days or weeks ahead all to avoid perpetual disappointment not just for me, but for my staff and team.
Managing our own expectations is nothing compared to the task of managing the expectations of our student-athletes. Returning players who are longing for the past that we cannot re-create for them as they feel stuck in permanent phases of regret and circular conversations full of what-ifs. All the while, new players are longing for concrete evidence to help convince themselves that every year at college isn't going to be as awful as this first one. In almost every conversation I have where coach pleas for support are present, someone is mentioning players wanting to leave or transfer. Again, if you are hearing this or fearing this, I am here to remind you that it is going to be ok.
Prior to the start of this semester, I penned a blog piece that painted a picture of what kind of situation us as coaches would be walking into.
Now that we are here and living out this scenario, allow me to support you by sharing that if this return was harder than you imagined it to be - you are not alone. Your struggle as a coach on this pitch-black guideless tour through your condensed seasons does not mean you have lost your edge or drive. This initial return-excitement which has gradually been subbed in by a sneaky expanding feeling of exhaustion, simply means you are human.
The stress you are going through with your team is normally based on the chaos you are and will continue to endure whether you are sticking the Q-tip up your nose three times a week just to play that back-to-back conference rival or your athletes are currently on pause needing you every minute of their anxious day. At the moment, there appears to be no scientific or psychological name for this in the athletic profession as coaches. However, since many of us have not been able to specifically identify the way we are feeling about our coaching careers right now, allow me to introduce to you, your current condition.
Covid Coach Exhaustion (CCE)
While CCE is complex, let me break it down for you.
All that time away from each other, in pods, quarantine, isolation, and abrupt starts and stops to our trainings in the fall has its repercussions. Personally, I had pumped myself up for our debut back into normal sports life even though sometimes I felt like I didn't want to go back.
Perhaps you told yourself once we were all back and playing, things would feel good again. This may have been followed by an internal vow that you would never again lose sight of the gratitude you have for being able to coach and compete. While return has been gradual for all of us, so many of us are experiencing CCE without even realizing it or acknowledging some tough facts.
As coaches, the majority of us were former college athletes in our sport. This means between then and now, our bodies have run dependently on clocks that have been defined and classified by our own traditional calendars of semesters, pre-season, practices, spring break, in-season, out-of-season, recruiting season, contact period, dead period, evaluation period, conference, non-conference, postseason, off days and of course, game days.
This universal inner clock and coach glossary is the language of our coaching species that has conditioned us to organize, develop and shape our lives around it. The magnitude of such a powerful clock is one we all felt so heavily (unless you are a college football coach) when it came to a screeching halt last year. From there, many of us have been left alone on how to reconcile the stoppage of that clock. At some point, we may have even realized how much our clock has dictated and controlled our lives, families, relationships, and decisions. This is a trauma all in itself and a realization for many of us right now that the mental inventory we were stocking prior to the pandemic was absolutely insane and jumping right back into this without recognition of the mental health repercussions is good for approximately no one.
The reality is that even if you are only a handful of games into your season debuts and you feel exhausted, it's not without good reasons, and here are a few.
Our self-care pre-pandemic was not healthy
The mental load we are bearing for our teams after being dormant is throwing a massive magnifying glass over what we were shouldering pre-pandemic. While that load was never normal, it was our normal but, the difference now is the level of strength and conditioning our minds have not been exposed to over this stretched-out period of time. The idea that we can just return to the ups and downs of competing and expect the stress level tolerance to be as it once way pre-pandemic, is foolish.
Your team culture and athlete drama muscles are atrophied
Perhaps your athlete's needs feel insatiable now more than ever? Admin answers are low, limited, or non-existent. Support staff typically in place may be working from home. All of it leaves you alone in so many of your tough decisions. Going back cold-turkey to hearing about who isn't getting along with who and which teammate drank the last chocolate milk that was clearly labeled for someone else, feels even more ridiculous. Try to remember, that their needs have always been insatiable, only now you are not as conditioned to the chaos as you were pre-pandemic.
Game may feel heavier, regardless of outcome
The adrenaline of the high moments of competition, as well as the low moments in loss and failure, has most in my network reporting that post-game feels more exhausting than ever before. Energy feels as though it's drained faster after only a few games rather than at the close of regular-season competition. With the condensed schedules, many formats have been forced into playing baseball/softball style consecutive game days. While your program and conferences will do what they need to do to complete seasons, these competitions in bulk that are not part of your most familiar inner coach clock are small but significant changes which serve as invisible weights on your energy.
Competing against a team one day and handily beating them by several points, goals, or seconds only to fall to them with the opposite result the very next day can be frustrating, but also comes with the territory in these foreign scheduling concepts.
If we as mature adults are struggling to process this, the brains of our 18-22-year-olds are feeling this times 1000
The number of adaptations you are making probably seems infinite on top of meeting the expectations of your athletes who are likely perpetually dissatisfied with the conditions and limitations. The factors are endless when considering unpredictable weather, no or limited fans, restricted travel, Covid testing deadlines, admin expectations, daily changes in protocols, short or limited staffing, poor or non-existent communication between departments, athlete mental health, lack of mental health resources, triaging team culture, dealing with team drama, behavioral standard issues and the list goes on. While a few of these team factors were certainly familiar to all of us pre-pandemic, even the normal aspects feel abnormal and accelerated.
Building trust with your new players is no easy feat
Getting to know your newest team members under these circumstances is brutal. Team meetings on zoom and limited contact have put distance between our athletes and between you and them, both figuratively and literally. Attempting to build trust with young people as half your face is hidden behind a mask, simply adds insult to injury. We must remind our new players that there will be more quality opportunities to feel that stronger sense of connection soon, just not right now. Let them know you see them doing their best with the limitations, but share that you are working to do the same. Vulnerability will be reassuring and invaluable.
COVID time off from coaching was not time off
This was not an extended summer vacation. Recruiting over the computer and working from home every day while juggling families, virus fears, virtual learning, and political unrest was taxing on all of us. While this impromptu time away from the office may have offered you more time at home that does not mean it was restful or quality. Being tasked with trying to figure out how to keep our programs, athletes and recruits connected, engaged, and relevant from behind a computer screen was a daunting task that not even the most experienced coaches could successfully manage. Chill out when you suddenly think you could have "done more" with your time off because no, no you could not.
Team chemistry or culture feels off or is extra tumultuous in nature to maintain
Again, chill. The traditional ways your team used to build relationships have been either limited or eliminated altogether for the time being. Spring break trips, team meals, eating together in the cafeteria, outside social team activities, and even studying with teammates in small groups are all the usual congregational behaviors of athletic teams that help to build relationships, trust, and communication off the field. If your team has not had any of these opportunities or has been severely limited, steer clear of questioning yourself on whether the culture issues are solely a result of your leadership.
These tips are only as helpful as your willingness to be kind to yourself
Acknowledge the disruption to your own clock and accept that the level your team is used to performing at, at this time of year in non-pandemic, is impossible to match during the pandemic. CCE is real, but it's not forever.
If we are kind to ourselves through this process, we may very well be able to craft newer, healthier approaches to our programs in the future and realize that maybe what was normal before doesn't have to be any kind of normal we should have to return to.
Please share with a coach who needs to be kind to themselves. Tweet @TFCoachCarlson #BEFEARLESS #CCE
Do you want to get in touch with Coach Carlson? Go to her website and then Contact.
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