Just Women’s Sports: The challenge of coaching during a pandemic

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Nicole Van Dyke is the head coach of the women’s soccer team at the University of Washington. Previously, she was a head coach at the University of Pennsylvania and as an Associate Head Coach at Stanford. Below, she spoke to Just Women’s Sports about the challenges and opportunities of long-distance coaching during the coronavirus pandemic.

What is it like to coach remotely?

It is an unprecedented situation, because we, as coaches, are hardwired to stand in front of our players – to communicate with them on a daily basis. Now we have resorted to strict phone calls, texting and zooming. It totally changes the dynamics. You’re asking kids now, “Hey, can you stop for a few minutes?”

Now that we have just taken over the program, we are trying to see this as an incredible opportunity to interact with our student athletes in a variety of ways. Some of the things we derived from it were great. That is not to say there have been no challenges or obstacles, but we are facing them and trying to find unique ways to move forward. Ultimately, this will not last forever. We want to be in a position where health and safety are the top priorities, but we also want to stay connected to our team so that we are ready to compete when allowed.

How much of your daily life is spent on Zoom?

With all the rules on how long you can keep in touch with players, we don’t want to spend their time on meetings alone. We want to make sure that they still have time to do the voluntary training, despite the fact that they are not required. Zoom calls allow them to monopolize your day and players can be zoomed out. Then it is difficult for them to get out of the house and out.

Given that personal practice as a team is now limited, what were your coaching priorities?

We spent some time on culture and leadership. We also reviewed film. We tried doing some fun things, be it Kahoot or some other interactive game to keep the atmosphere light.

We also focused a lot on the mental side, which we split into two parts. There is the mental health side with coping skills and resilience skills. We, as employees, believe that these are skills you can acquire and work on. Then there’s the mental side of sports performance where we focus on how players can be their best in difficult moments and how they can endure in high pressure situations.

We tried to balance all this information with the time for small groups. That’s an opportunity for those who may not have the personality to stand out and get in touch with everyone, or who don’t want to show as much vulnerability in the large group to connect with different coaches in smaller groups.

How did you keep motivating your players?

I recently received an email saying, “Win the wait.” It really stayed with me. We don’t compete with anyone else. We don’t think about the other teams we are going to play. We try to put ourselves in the best position for when we get out of this. We just focus on getting 1% better every day.

This situation presents challenges because players cannot train in groups. They cannot do what they want. So we decided to focus on mental training, because in normal times it tends to be put on the back burner because physical training takes precedence. Ultimately, we want to stay connected as a team and work on our goals.

What needs to change in the current situation for sports to return? Who will make that decision for you?

I am proud to be part of this community at the University of Washington. In the medical field, they are at the forefront of everything that happens worldwide. We trust them. We follow their example in the field of health and safety. We know that everyone here values ​​sports and what athletics can do for the student athletes and for the whole community.

There are so many moving pieces that uncertainty remains the biggest challenge. Can we come back in the summer? Are we going to have a summer school? We are only trying to control what we can control. The idea is to have a season and we want to be ready. But ‘done’ is relative, because people have different circumstances.

Some of our players have home gymnastics. Some are allowed to go on the beach and run. We don’t want players to feel pressured to go out and train now if there is a risk they could get sick or endanger someone at home. So there will be a transition process where everyone returns and we have to take into account the situation of each player. It won’t be, “Come on in and let’s go fast right away.”

College athletics are usually team-oriented, but you’re talking about breaking this model and focusing on the individual. Is that a fair summary?

Yes, because the circumstances are so different. The players are currently doing voluntary training. We cannot make obligatory what they do, and rightly so, because everyone limits themselves to their city and state rules – to their own circumstances and situations with their families.

We really have to think out of the box. Yes, we all want our student athletes to be fit and ready to go, but we also need to step back and recognize what’s really important. All this has a silver rim. We must continue to control what we can control and help players get through certain obstacles. I watch some of our student athletes and they are back at home with their parents. They have chores. If we say, “Hey, jump on a Zoom call,” it might not work for their parents and their work schedules. So we try to be open and agile in everything we do.

You’ve talked about determining what you can control and refining the mental side of the game. How do you stay positive for your players?

We talk a lot about celebrating the little wins and thinking about your change from week to week. Where did you grow up as a person? It does not change the circumstances. Yeah, it sucks. You cannot be with your teammates. You are not in college. But we try to think about how much we have grown and what opportunities have arisen from this. However, being optimistic doesn’t mean everything is positive. It is important to find the silver lining and realize that it may just be part of the process.

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected university recruitment?

Recruiting is almost taking a break, but given the virtual world, there are so many other ways to do things. We are at home in new areas and need to think outside the box. If there is anything nice about this pandemic, it is that you reset it and you get time to think. You have several conversations with players, you become less rigid, you focus on developing deeper relationships. At the same time, not being able to go out of tournaments or evaluating players presents its own problems.

As a team we are in a different place because we are a new staff. We work together to develop our own processes and procedures in the future. Having had time to develop our own plan was positive.

I also think the new NCAA rules that are emerging are important because we need to protect the recruits and our own student athletes in terms of official visits and the traveling component.

You’ve talked about building relationships with players. How do you approach these relationships and see that something changes in the current situation?

When it comes to coaches and players, building trust and respect for each other is paramount in everything. The women we coach are well rounded – it’s not just football players. Some are going to play professionally and some are going to be CEOs. How one defines success is different for every student athlete. It is important to get in touch with them on a deeper level and get to know them. In addition, it is important to understand what motivates them. How do they want to be communicated?

Ultimately, players and coaches drive in the same direction. We want to be successful and we want to win competitions. That’s the direction, but how you get there doesn’t always look the same – it can vary from player to player. When I look back at some of the teams I coached, the closer the players are, the more successful the teams are. Players start to play for each other – they work for each other and they have mutual respect for each other. I think the more you can focus on building relationships as a coach, the more your players will do the same. Everything is based on relationships.

Editor’s Note: Thank you for reading this story, which is part of a weekly series in partnership with Just Women’s Sports, a platform promoting women’s sports coverage. Visit their website or Sign up for the newsletter here.

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