Fostering Connection and Competitiveness in the Era of COVID-19

As many parts of the world are loosening the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, most competitive athletes are returning to training, albeit in a modified capacity. While the effects of the pandemic on physical fitness and tennis skills are evident, so long as safety protocols are still in place, the challenges will continue when athletes return. With most regions only allowing two players on court instead of four, athletes are more spread out, making communication more difficult (both between coach and player and amongst players themselves) and lowering the energy of the practice. Similarly, social distancing requirements make it difficult for coaches to connect with athletes – no handshakes, no fist bumps, no intimate conversations.


At the same time, the very things being restricted by the current situation – competition and connection – are more important now than ever. Many players who have been off for a couple months may have lost the competitive drive or forgotten why they got into the sport in the first place. One of the other driving factors for sports participation is the social element, which is now being threatened. And of course, let’s not forget that many kids may be struggling in other areas of life, whether due to the stress of scholarships being revoked or parents being unemployed, making the coach-athlete relationship all the more important.


As I returned to group coaching for the first time two weeks ago, I noticed these issues and tried to adapt my coaching in response. I’ve compiled a few ideas for best practices during this time, but this list is by no means complete. If you have any thoughts or observations, please leave them in the comments.


Fostering Connection


1. Open and close practices with a moment of connection


These are tools I stole from Doug Lemov – two techniques called Threshold and Exit Ticket. Right now, because the situation allows me to do so, I meet each player at the door before they walk on court.

Note to self: have better posture!


This has several benefits. First, it allows me to greet each player and exchange pleasantries before the practice begins. Second, it offers me the opportunity to sense each kid’s mood and gauge which side of me they might need in the hours ahead. Third, it allows me to set expectations before practice even starts, by checking with each one: “Are you ready to train?” I’m also able to check attendance and send kids to their courts right away (that’s why I’m looking at my phone) which both saves time and ensures proper spacing.


Ordinarily, this would be accompanied by some sort of handshake, but for obvious safety reasons, I’ve replaced this with a gentle pat on the back with the racket – my attempt at establishing some sort of physical connection while maintaining social distancing.


With Exit Ticket, the goal is usually to check for understanding of the day’s work. In this case, I’ve turned it into another opportunity for connection, as well as the chance to engage in some self-reflection. When practice is over, while the kids put the balls away, I give them a question to reflect on. It could be about their game, their effort, what we worked on, or something else. Once they’re ready, they can come see me at the door and share their reflection before leaving.

Again, the benefits here are multiple. Anyone who might be in a bad mood can’t just storm off. If there’s someone in particular I want to praise, I’m guaranteed a nice private moment before they walk out. And, as seen in the clip, it gives me the chance to reinforce any individual teaching points.


2. Get them talking


With me or with each other – it doesn’t matter. The social aspect of junior sports is too important to ignore, and the spacing requirements can squash it in a heartbeat. I’ve found a few things that work well:


Cold Call

When I bring the kids in (while maintaining spacing, of course), I’m more likely now to ask questions and call on a specific member of the group, rather than leaving it open to whoever chooses to raise their hand or shout out an answer. This allows me to get everyone involved, rather than just the vocal few. So if I want to review the 4 R’s of intensity, I can pick four different kids to name one each, and I’ve engaged a good portion of the group.


Turn and Talk

Sometimes, if I think the question is a little more difficult or might require some more reflection, I’ll pair players up and get them to “turn and talk” – discuss the question with their partner for 30 seconds to a minute. Then, I’ll cold call randomly. This has the benefit of making sure everyone engages in the thinking while offering them the support of a teammate. And, most importantly in this context, it gets them talking to their friend, and me.


Call the Score

I’ll talk about this more later, but I’ve been encouraging players to call the score for various reasons, and I think it’s just one more thing that helps create a feeling of togetherness. Even something that small creates a bond of communication between the two players that might not otherwise exist.


3. Do the rounds


It’s always been good practice to circulate in a group, but it’s more relevant now than ever. I’m making sure not only to spend as much time on Court 1 as Court 6, and on the North side as the East, but to pass behind each player’s baseline to give some personal feedback, lend a listening ear, or just sense their mood. Otherwise, running what might normally be a three-court practice across six courts, the individual personalities can get lost.


4. Stay in touch


Once again: not new, always important, but more so now. Some kids haven’t yet returned to training; others are on a reduced schedule. Even those who we are seeing regularly might be struggling with the various changes to their lives and schedules. Staying in touch, whether by text, email, or phone, goes a long way towards maintaining that personal connection and ensuring that they can thrive sooner rather than later.


Fostering Competitiveness


1. Start and end with a bang


If competition is important to you, you better show it. I am trying to start every session with a little game – something quick and intense to engage the mind and the body. I’m also finishing every practice with points. This in itself is not new, but I’m playing more open points to let the kids compete more freely, and I’m putting something on the line more often than not. Which brings us to point 2:


2. Make everything competitive


Turn everything into a game Of course, this doesn’t mean that everything has to be a game. But right now, I’m making even cooperative drills competitive – either one vs. all, one vs. one, or team vs. team.


Put something on the line

Regardless of your stance on using physical exercises as consequences, you can always find something to raise the stakes. Loser has to pick up the balls. Winner gets to choose who they play against. Anything to create a little bit of pressure and ensure competitiveness.


Call the score

Simple, but important. Make sure players are calling the score. As mentioned above, it creates a line of communication between players, but more importantly, it ensures that they are playing to win, not just for fun. This doesn’t mean that winning is the only goal, or that it’s what’s most important. And it doesn’t mean we don’t have fun, either. It just means that any time we step onto the court, we compete our hardest. And you can’t compete if you don’t know the score.


3. Use music


Strictly speaking, while I don’t think one can connect music to competitiveness, one can connect it to energy. And with kids being spread out and spaced apart, creating an energetic environment is critical. Of course, there are decisions to make: who gets to choose the music? When do we listen to it? What kind of music is allowed? Done right, however, the effects can be surprising.


Conclusion


This is not an exhaustive list – these are merely the ideas that have been on my mind in the last few weeks as I adjust to the new reality. Those of you who are back on court, what have you found? Have you made any adjustments? Things that work, or things that don’t? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment or shoot me an email – zack@zackohlin.com.


(photo credit: Pascal Ratthé/Tennis Canada)


#culture #competition #connection #covid19 #environment

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