Many different things are impacting us in collegiate strength and conditioning (S&C). Unlike many professions, college S&C is fairly sheltered in terms of remaining employed. While some institutions are mandating that everyone have a certain percentage of their salary reduced so that the doors of the institution remain open, coaching personnel have remained employed.
I will say that I’m writing this for those who are in somewhat protected S&C roles. Many of you are out there struggling as you had a business rather than worked for a university. My heart goes out to you in these unexpected times, and I hope that you come out of this OK.
I’ve done a ton of traveling over the past decade as a result of being fortunate enough to have people ask for my opinion or share the research that I have done. Every time you are on a plane, they always say to make sure you have your mask on and secured before you attempt to help anyone else. For those who are struggling right now to make it through any given day, please don’t think I’m telling you to go and do more because you are not doing enough. THIS IS NOT THE CASE AT ALL. If you are one of those people, please read this with the lens of “there are some things that may be able to help me out here, and this is a non-exhaustive list.”
The athletes and their parents, however, may not be so lucky. As we are experiencing the highest unemployment rate since the great depression, many people are struggling to keep a roof over their heads. The lowest socioeconomic status groups have been hit the hardest. They are typically in what is deemed non-essential roles, and their employment has been ceased. Some may be receiving unemployment benefits, but some states have systems that are not set up to process the number of applications. Individuals are not receiving these benefits yet, or if at all due to numerous glitches. Some of these are the fault of the state or the person's previous employer. What does this have to do with S&C you may ask? Well, to be honest with you, everything.
I have seen numerous posts about how to do Zoom (or similar platform) workouts, how to develop programs for those without much at home, etc. But what is training? It is the creation of stress that we expose the athlete to in the hopes that they adapt to this stress level and are able to then adapt to more stress as a result. However, is sport even a stress that these athletes are going to care about right now? Many of these athletes come from lower socioeconomic houses. These athletes may now be the sole breadwinner in their household, supporting their brothers and sisters and parents on their scholarship checks. If we reexamine Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we see that the base is air, water, food, shelter, sleep, etc. The physiological needs. If someone is not having those met, why would we worry about those needs that are higher up? They can’t be met because the base of the pyramid is not taken care of. They are at risk of losing their shelter, having no food, having the utilities disconnected, among other things.
What can we do as S&C coaches? This can be overwhelming as we see the issues that the athletes are undergoing, and we then experience paralysis by analysis. We, of course, resort back to what we know and focus on the training to ensure that they are ready for the upcoming season. However, what if the lineman loses 35 pounds as a result of not having adequate food. Are they ready for the upcoming season? Are they going to be able to perform optimally if that 35 pounds was force-producing muscle mass? Most likely not.
A 19th-century clergyman Edward Everett Hale once said, “I am only one, but still I AM one. I cannot do everything; but still, I CAN do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.” Of course, we can write workouts, but is that helping? Is that all we can do?
How can we, as coaches, help? Well, for one, we can reach out to our athletes and see how they are doing. Some will be coming from great homes whose parent's professions were insulated from the pandemic and experience no real hardships other than having to stay inside. Others will have significant needs. They may have lost their place to live (their shelter), or they may not know where their next meal is coming from. While it would be an NCAA violation to provide them money for shelter or food, we can still do something.
From my experience, when athletes are in those sorts of conditions, they are in fight or flight mode. The ability to slow down and stop and think, “What are my options?” is nonexistent. However, as a coach, you may be able to help them out with some of these areas. There are social systems in place to help individuals experiencing tough times. There are often funds set up with the utilities to either forgive or delay the shutoff of water, gas, and electricity during times of need. You may be able to help them to search out this sort of information with the utilities. They may not have access to any means to search this information out, or they may not be in a mental state to connect the dots with the information provided, or they may not be of sound mind for the search terms in the first place. If you can help them get this sort of information, and keep their utilities on, then they have a better chance of being healthy for several reasons:
Frequent hand washing and good hygiene have often been said to be one of the top ways of protecting yourself.
IF you are not adequately hydrated, your body is not going to work optimally due to its reliance on water to carry out nearly every physiological task that is out there.
3. Eating, Sleeping, and Cooking
These are important to living.
If they have their utilities on, but don’t have any food, this is an issue. You may be able to help them by pointing them towards their local food bank. While this may seem obvious, it may be something that they simply are not aware of. MANY years ago (probably around 20), we had an athlete who had lost about 30 pounds during the semester. The athlete was sending their entire check back so their younger siblings could remain sheltered, clothed, and fed. They would get what food they could obtain from their friends and spent money on NyQuil so they could sleep through the pains of hunger. They were not aware of the food bank's existence. We had berated the athlete for losing weight several times, and when I had a closed-door discussion with the athlete and found out why they lost weight, I felt smaller than an ant. I had berated this person for doing an extremely noble cause. We then pointed them towards the food bank, which allowed them to go and get food. While they may not have had all of their preferences met, they at least had food that they could eat. I also tell you this story so you can learn from my mistakes. Talk to people and find out why before just blatantly berating them. Merely telling this story brings me to the verge of tears of embarrassment and regret of how I treated them.
If they have already lost their place to live, this is, of course, a dire situation. There are short-term homeless shelters that are out there to help people get back on their feet. While the conditions may not be what they are used to, they are four walls and a climate-controlled environment. While there are different names for these everywhere, there are a few places to start. Of course, there is The Salvation Army, which may be a great place to begin. I had volunteered for a local homeless shelter during the winters in Missouri and thus was well connected to their services. Many of you may have similar circumstances but may be unable to help when it comes to other areas where your athletes may live. On a quick search, I found a website www.shelterlistings.org that has compiled a list of shelters by area. If you can help them to find resources here, it may keep them and their family off of the street.
I recently read that in Australia, there were more deaths from suicide as a result of self-isolation than there were from COVID-19 itself. While many will point to this as the reason we need to open up, this is also an indicator that mental health is an issue. As a result of the way society is now, we have a greater mental health epidemic than ever before. We cannot ignore this. For many people who have underlying mental health issues or may be extremely extroverted and are forced to shelter alone, this is a great strain. If the athlete is struggling, they may feel hopeless and helpless and do not know what to do next. A call from you may be what they needed, but they also may need more help than you are unqualified to provide. Mental illness does not discriminate between socioeconomic statuses, genders, races, etc. There are services from many national organizations. There, of course, is the Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and their number is 1-800-273-8255.
Always take every comment that may allude to suicide seriously. I have heard people say, “Oh, they weren’t going to kill themselves. They are just crying out for help.” Well, how many people were crying out for help but were unfortunately successful in their suicide attempt? Get them the support they need immediately. Other organizations are helpful, one of which I recommend is the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI. I was not familiar with them until moving to Miami, and they have very active county offices here and across the nation.
Some of the athletes are going to be in a situation where they are witnessing or experiencing domestic abuse. Domestic abuse hotline calls have increased by 52 percent as compared to this time in previous years. While I hope that your athletes are not experiencing this, it is happening. The stress that everyone undergoes is making an increase in the activity in this area, especially as the pandemic is driving some people towards unhealthy coping mechanisms such as alcohol and drug abuse. Alcohol and drug abuse often unlock the inner demons that drive individuals to do all sorts of unthinkable acts. Of course, if the athlete is involved in this, you need to encourage them to try and get out or get them assistance from their local authorities who can help. The National Domestic Violence Hotline is 1-800-799-7233. There are also local shelters for children and women who are experiencing domestic violence. They are well versed in privacy and anonymity while keeping the victims away from their abusers. I recommend helping them to reach out to one of these shelters if they are experiencing these sorts of issues.
I believe the word strength is a part of our profession for reasons other than just physical strength. As a profession, we have always had to remain adaptable to meet the needs of the athlete, the sport coach, the administrator, and many others. We may not be able to do everything for everyone, but we can do something. Do this: Get off social media and focus on strengthing our athletes. Be there for them and enable them to survive this pandemic—make them stronger. Remember, exercises, sets, and reps do not dictate our world.