by Dan Woog
The soccer coach came off the field, soaked in sweat. It was hot. He’d just run a unique session, training a small group of players who remained six feet apart at all times. Afterward, he wiped down cones.
He could not have been happier.
It was his first time on the field with his club team – well, some of them – since the coronavirus struck. It was a step in the right direction, despite the many written rules and regulations, and the many more unvoiced (or unknown) questions lingering in the youth soccer air.
The strange new world the club coach entered is the same one high school coaches will navigate (they hope) this fall. Though final decisions on the scope and shape of interscholastic sports are a few weeks away, many state athletic associations are poring over the guidelines published recently by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
For coaches and administrators, they raised almost as many questions as they answered. Across the country, coaches wonder:
If temperature checks are needed, who will do them?
If masks are required, will that hinder players? Or coaches, and referees?
Will equipment need to be sanitized? If so, what equipment? Who does it? Must every player bring their own pinnies every day? There has been talk about each playing having their own ball. Is that realistic for, say, shooting drills? Can players move goals? Each player should bring their own water bottle -- but what about that big cooler they all fill them from?
Will players need more time to get fit? Despite coaches’ encouraging texts and emailed training regimens, many teenagers have not touched a soccer ball since mid-March. Some have not even run. Reaching game fitness may take longer than usual.
How effective can training be during social distancing? There are only so many hours to spend on individual or small-group drills. Eventually, players must play. Will the powers-that-be understand the realities of a soccer training session?
What about trainers? They’re on the front lines, in direct physical contact with athletes. Should they wear full PPE? Who provides that? What about crowded training rooms? How can numbers be limited during the always-crowded pre-training time? If an athlete exhibits COVID symptoms, must everyone on every other team who was in that training room self-isolate?
Speaking of isolating, what’s the protocol if a member of an athlete’s family becomes sick? Must he or she be quarantined? What about teammates?
Who enforces social distancing in locker rooms? What happens to practice schedules if only a few players are allowed in at a time?
Weight rooms are “high-touch” facilities. Do schools have the staff and ability to clean them, and monitor their use?
The NFHS recommended using more buses, to avoid close contact. How realistic is that? Who bears the added cost? If varsity and sub-varsity teams always travel together, will this eliminate sub-varsity programs? Can parents drive players to away games? Can athletes drive themselves? (Not very likely!)
Blowing whistles is discouraged. Does that mean officials will carry air horns?!
What happens if spectators are banned? It’s one thing for the Bundesliga to play without fans. What’s the effect of telling high school parents, siblings and friends that they can’t watch? Will that change the game? (Or might it, in some way, make competition “better”?)
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Will social distancing rules affect fundraising? Car washes, bake sales and the like help programs thrive. Will they be banned too?
Unequal resources are a sad fact of American education. What happens to a league if some schools are able to comply with the new restrictions, but others cannot?
But the biggest unknown has nothing to do with training or games. It’s one that keeps many coaches up at night: How will school administrators, parents and players react to the “new normal”?
Will athletic directors look at the many new rules and regulations, and decide high school soccer is just not worth the trouble this year? Will parents be worried about sending their children into an unknown environment, or request even more changes than the NFHS and state associations recommend? Who determined legal liabilities, if a player, coach or official gets sick?
Will some players – in the time they’ve spent away from the game – decide it’s no longer important to them? If high school soccer is no longer “high school soccer,” what happens to programs in the years to follow?
Soccer coaches pride themselves “letting the game be the teacher.” In the weeks and months to come, they’ll learn far more about soccer –and themselves – than they ever imagined.