Bloomsburg U’s 5 Keys to Handle the COVID Rebound
COVID-19 has impacted sports at every level and continues to linger into the future. However, it is time to rebound and return to a new normal in the post-COVID world. A few ways that Bloomsburg University athletics is addressing the return is with five core opportunities to rebound and return.
The following key suggestions are offered to help administrators, coaches, athletic trainers, and all associated with athletics to rebound and play.
- Planning, Adjusting, Re-planning, and Implementation
When COVID hit the athletic world, a pause was felt immediately across all venues. The Bloomsburg University swimming team was at the NCAA Championships and competition was halted, the NCAA Championship appearance for a pair of wrestlers who qualified for the event was canceled, the softball team was on the field warming up and I had to pull them off the field to pack up for a return home from a spring break trip, an afternoon baseball game that day was canceled, and I hosted a team meeting with the women’s lacrosse team that featured more tears than anyone should face. This adversity led to additional planning and adjusting. Was the pause to be short-lived or was it a longer-distressing and unwanted break? The latter proved true and the adjustment became re-planning, additional fundraising to provide those student-athletes who wanted to return for the NCAA-offered opportunity to compete an additional year with scholarship funding and garnering operational dollars in order to compete. The re-planning stage continued similar to the movie “Groundhog Day” where it felt as though we were repeating many of the same tasks but just pushing each back a week — which turned into a month, and longer. As the fall of 2020 approached there was a sense of “we can do this.” Yet, based on the everyday changes with the virus, the guidance to adapt to those changes, and adherence to state regulations, the fall became another lost semester of athletic activity. Practices occurred and provided coaches, administration, athletic training, and most importantly, student-athletes the opportunity to understand what was needed for practice and competition to take place. This re-planning stage taught all of us that flexibility and understanding were going to be the keys to success. Without everyone on board rowing in the same cadence, athletics would not have been positioned for success. Which brought us to the spring of 2021 and all of the planning, adjusting, and re-planning was in place to provide a complete implementation of “how” we can successfully return to play.
The spring proved successful with a winter PSAC championship in swimming in which the Bloomsburg men finished first and women finished second, a wrestler qualifying for the NCAA Championship, the men’s and women’s cross country team participating in a spring conference championship, the men’s and women’s tennis teams qualified for their respective championships, the women’s lacrosse team advanced to the conference tournament, and the baseball team won its second-straight conference title and an NCAA tournament berth.
The implementation stage taught us that even with the best planning there were still pauses, quarantines (including a coaching staff being isolated), and adjustments that needed to occur. The difference was, by understanding and accepting that flexibility was paramount to success, the athletic season was able to be completed. As planning for the 2021-22 athletic season is underway, a new mantra has been added – prepare to be unprepared, adjust, and implement.
- Use of New Technology
What have we learned from COVID? Technology has been embraced – to a fault – by allowing safe communication, meetings, academic sessions, and recruiting opportunities. When COVID fully hit, we inside the Bloomsburg athletic department created new content through All-Decade Teams, recruiting videos, thank you videos, and engagement-focused approaches to film rooms by using technology for film study, breakdown, and review. What typically occurred face-to-face at the end of practice or in meeting rooms became the commonplace activity to remain engaged. Whether using Zoom, Teams, Go-To-Meeting, or a host of other technology platforms, everyone inside and outside of athletics utilized technology to conduct everything from sales to academics to family gatherings.One of the unique elements of working in athletics is consistently reviewing best practices in order to maintain and grow. If you are not reviewing best practices, you are not able to remain present and current while looking for new opportunities to advance your program. Now that everyone has lived through the “electronic age of COVID” it is time to implement the best practices of new technology offerings and continue to improve your teaching, engagement, and team activity. Most importantly, by using these emergent technologies it can improve the work-life balance for staff and provide student-athletes an improved experience in a safe manner.
- Changing Dynamic of Cleanliness
The goal of any athletic department is to provide a welcoming, customer-friendly environment in which everyone feels satisfied upon exiting. In the post-COVID world, this will now include elements such as hand-sanitizing stations, temperature check locations upon arrival, social distancing, and security to support those uncomfortable in their spaces, along with the added need to ensure everything is up to an above reproach cleanliness level. When I enter our venues now at Bloomsburg, I not only notice if there is garbage in the surrounding areas, but what signage is available, where are the directional kiosks informing spectators of hand-sanitizing stations, and rules and regulations added garbage and recycling areas, and the overall welcoming sense that a spectator’s safety is principal to the success of the event.
This changing dynamic has led to added venue walk-throughs with campus safety leaders, campus police, and even with friends, parents, alumni, and fans to ensure the cleanliness level is now measured above the level of rubbish and recycling. It is important that all elements of the spectator experience are highlighted but in the post-COVID landscape, it is important that many of the “expected” enhancements are now as prevalent as the traditional trash and recycling areas.
- Three R’s of Self-Care – Recover, Recharge, and Rejoin
It does not matter which professional development webinar or educational seminar one participates in – and there is a host of them offered for all levels and abilities – self-care becomes a topic and is highlighted. When you read a bio on someone highlighting why they have been successful it comes down to self-care. This can mean a host of items – work-life balance, family support, exercise, and professional development. I know that personally, I try to find time to take a break from it all at the very end of the year prior to the new year beginning. It is important to do this prior to student-athletes reporting so one can recover from the long year that just passed while recharging the internal batteries to be able to start anew.
“… prepare to be unprepared, adjust, and implement.”
If you are able it makes the fall seem as though you are a new freshman beginning a journey with my new teammates and coaches. It cannot be stressed enough that until you take the personal time to recover from the highs, lows, and all that is in-between, you will never be able to recharge and rejoin with invigoration. The break is up to you but it cannot be one or two days with your electronics still attached (cell phone and computer). When taking that break, read a book unrelated to sport – self-help or professional development and growth books are still okay – spend time with family and friends, take a trip.
Everyone has a special place or comfort zone in which to recover and recharge. By visiting this place (or even staying away from the office untethered to the phone or the computer) you will be able to rejoin with a renewed enthusiasm that gives you the sense of a new recruit getting fitted for the uniform for the first time.
- Let’s Play
We have ordered the uniforms, the officials are well-rested, the fans are hungry for action … Let’s Play! There is not a person in athletics – at any level of competition – who is not ready to play. For that matter, I would even put a uniform on now and give it one last effort if that were truly a possibility. Our student-athletes need it, our coaches need it, our fans and parents need it, and it is time. Time to return to practices that prepare each student-athlete to engage in the battle, time for the coaches to draw up the winning play, and time for society to see that we are strong and able to carry on. Sure, there will still be COVID testing protocols and vaccination guidance, but the most important element is being able to return to what we all love and have trained to do – PLAY.We have all planned, adjusted, and re-planned now implementation allows us to play. All of the technological advancements have awarded the coaches and student-athletes the necessary tools to understand and return to the field, pool, court, or track better informed and able to implement the techniques. With the new level of awareness, everyone at Bloomsburg is ready to support in a safe and comfortable manner, while we have ample time to recover from injury, recharge, and train, and rejoin with championships in our sights.
During the spring of 2021, three things happened: the first was to let the student-athletes play, followed by letting me watch my son or daughter play at home, to end with we are the visiting team let us watch too. All too familiar to those who had to adapt and adjust while doing what was important – returning to competition. Now, we are all planning to play and return to that new normal.
To say the last two athletic and academic years have been trying would be nothing shy of an understatement. Everyone in athletics has been forced to adjust, adapt, stop, quarantine, test, and start again at some point. As society returns to the new normal, administrators must be willing to plan, adjust, re-plan, and implement; continue to use new technology for improved efficiencies and safety; understand and insert new cleanliness standards; use the three R’s of self-care (Recover, Recharge, and Rejoin); and, return to play. The five keys provided create a simple framework that can benefit any member of an athletic department to successfully return to competition in a safe, thoughtful, and outside of the box manner while providing coaches and student-athletes an opportunity to participate in what they love to do.
Dr. Michael McFarland is entering his 11th year as the director of athletics at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania leading a 23-team athletic department with sports offered at the NCAA Division II and Division I (wrestling) level.