How to Measure the Changes On Deck Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic

Photo Courtesy: Brent Rutemiller

How to Measure the Changes On Deck Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic

by Violet Johnston and Michael Kidd

As the swimming community turns it gazes to Japan, we wanted to take a moment to look back at the past 18 months and measure COVID-19’s impact on the foundations of our sport. Recognizing that this was an issue far broader than our team, the Naples Tiger Sharks, we did this by sending surveys out across the United States and Europe. When we first sent out our survey, we expected significant athlete participation with a handful of coaches; moreover, we used the logic that because there were more athletes than coaches per team, active swimmers would dominate the response pool. Fortuitously, our hypothesis was not even close to being accepted. Nearly 70 percent of our respondents were coaches, from volunteer age group to full-time college. In total, there were 108 coaches who responded, from the Unites States, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and Ireland.

A few months ago, we launched a “Sports during COVID” survey, consisting of separate sections for coaches and athletes. In each section, there were several questions focusing on one central topic: How has the pandemic affected sport teams? Furthermore, how have teams adapted?

Although many of our received responses were directly in context to our topic, a very different trend appeared in the free response sections: Team bonds. The results of the survey were phenomenal — they demonstrated how important the bonds within teams are, specifically coaches and athletes. Repeatedly, we heard from swimmers and coaches who both leveraged the bonds to remain socially connected to the sport and each other, as well as some who left the sport as pool closures and canceled seasons tore those bonds asunder.

The coach/athlete bond is special; good coaches mentor while diligently pushing their charges to their limits to help them achieve their goals. American basketball player and coach John Wooden, said “A good coach can change a game. A great coach can change a life.” Survey responses and conversations with Naples Tiger Sharks athletes showed Wooden’s statement to be true. We repeatedly heard a version of, “My coaches have helped me improve my skills in swimming, encouraged me to do my best, and made an extraordinary impact on my life.” Coach Kim Clark of Impact Multisports shared that she was the first on her father’s side to graduate college. “Without my high school coach encouraging me, I never would have gone,” Clark said. The community expects that coaches put everything into their teams; this clearly reflects in the survey responses.

Nearly half of our athletes told us that the loss of connection was the biggest impact of the season. This held true from the 10-and-under group all the way through Division I swimmers. Nearly every swimmer mentioned staying connected via social media, and many shared that their teams utilized online meetings as well as social media to maintain a connection within the team.

From the swimmer side, there was a clear message that this approach helped. From the coaching side, it was a mixed bag. Some teams did it well, while it appears that others struggled with remote connections. A huge takeaway is that the teams who were best able to leverage interactive connections had coaches who were far more positive. Those who had limited opportunity for connections, or used email and other less interactive methods of connection, were largely the coaches who had a more pessimistic view of the situation.

Most of us picture coaches as spending their time on deck, whistle around their neck pacing back and forth. But the reality is that many spend large portions of the week supporting the business of running a team. We heard from a number of coaches that the past year has put an increased strain on the business side of operations. Coach Emma Munsch of Tucson Ford Dealers Aquatics in Arizona reported the team had lost over half their membership and resulted in staff downsizing. Coach Graham Wardell of the City of Cardiff Swimming Club in Wales echoed the sentiment: “Financially things have become a lot more difficult for the club to keep paying the coaches. “

We heard from several coaches about significant impacts on how they run their teams. While they have been forced to innovate regarding training, the business of maintaining a program is straining. “It’s a lot harder now, less facility access, fewer members, more hours on deck, costing me much more to operate the team, for much less profit. Not yet sure how sustainable this is, long-term,” opined one coach. Others had to switch teams due to shutdowns.

It was heartening to see that nearly three quarters of coaches responded that interacting with athletes was what they had most missed during the year of COVID-19 challenges, far outstripping things like competitions and lost pay. This was amplified time after time with how much coaches talked about bringing the team together, regardless of the level of challenge faced. Nikki Schnieder of the Fondy Cardinals in Fon du Lac, Wisconsin, shared, “It forced me to find other ways to get the team to feel ‘together.’ It taught me to be more flexible moment to moment in practice and competition, and to never stop teaching and growing, because there is always something to learn. It hasn’t been an ideal year, but we’ve learned an awful lot, about the sport and about each other.”

Similarly, Carolee Gregg from Dart Swimming said, “When we got back in the water, the joy of the kids was amazing. And the joy of the coaches to be back with the kids! It hasn’t been easy, and with restrictions trying to fit all kids in it has been crazy and made for really long days on deck and on the computer organizing it all. I’ve worked longer hours than ever this past year. But being with the kids has made it worth it!”

While we certainly found overwhelming expressions of what can only be described as love of the sport and for the athletes from the coaching respondents, there was also significant fear and frustration. Be it the impacts on kids, perceptions of injustice in how sports are treated, or the challenges faced personally, the stress of the past year is palpable.

“The kids are hovering at borderline depression and suffering from lack of connection outside of school,” Clark said. “Especially high school kids. Sports is often times the anchor that keeps kids focused on staying on their school work.” The silver lining of this is that teams are working harder than ever to foster connections.

Several coaches shared how much the year took out of them, physically and emotionally. “This was a hard year once back coaching again. So many unknowns and stressors. Burned me out a good bit. Will need some time away from the pool once championships are over,” said one coach who asked to remain anonymous.

“It made things harder and exhausting as a first-year coach,” coach Sierra Hansen said. “I hope that I don’t experience burn out to the point I can’t coach anymore afterwards.”

In fact, there were a number of coaches who shared that the challenges of the year pushed them to leave the sport. It will be interesting to see if the coaching attrition rate of this year exceeds the normal turnover teams see, but we can only assume that we will lose more talent on deck this year than in most. Some, like a coach from the Great Lakes region who said, “I’m 67 and decided coaching put my in peril so I retired,” were worried about the risk. Others were beaten up by the additional pressures, as expressed by a senior coach in Virginia who shared, “Nothing throughout the year has been easy. The restrictions have caused a great deal discontent and lack of cooperation. It is the first time in 51 years I’ve contemplated retirement.”

The most common trend we saw in those who were leaving or considering leaving the sport centered on shifting priorities in their lives.  Some mentioned spending more time with their families. Others decided that the time at the pool was just too much and that they would transition to less-time intensive commitments. Still others cited financial pressures, like coach Michael Fashing who said that he would “very much would like to continue coaching and teaching swimming but need to be able to support myself.”

“Before COVID I couldn’t imagine a life without coaching,” said coach Lisa Kanak. “After COVID, I could.”

While we observed frustration from the pool deck, the news was not uniformly depressing. Many coaches indicated that the challenges steeled their resolve to continue coaching and to innovate on behalf of the sport. Shelly Rawding from the Hood River Valley Swim Team put it wonderfully: “Realized I am not ready to retire….!! I missed my swimmers.”

Looking at the responses, we see that there is a need to rebuild our community, both in the pool and on the deck. While it is a challenge to pick up the pieces and build a new normal, let’s face it, no community knows grit and determination like swimmers who have for years put in the grueling yardage and hard work to succeed. We have no doubt that there will be changes – swimmers and coaches will leave the sport, but perhaps a delayed Olympics is not the worst thing. Teams that can leverage the quadrennial (or in this case quintennial) spotlights will likely be able to recover. The recovery must recognize the healing that needs to take place and should better focus on the relationships between and among us all. While the loss of pool time was challenging, the loss of connection was the real threat to our sport.

Violet Johnston and Michael Kidd are a swimmer and coach team who have worked to understand and document how COVID has impacted the swim community at their local team, the Naples Tiger Sharks, on a US military base in Italy, but also on the swimming community at large.

— All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine nor its staff.

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