COVID-19’s Impact on GDS Athletics

Women’s lacrosse practice. Source: Hopper Happenings.

Through the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the GDS administration has been challenged with the task of safely reopening school while maintaining the school’s tight-knit community. A major focus was the return to athletics. Since spring 2020 and through the summer, Athletic Director David Gillespie has made athletics a priority and has tried to bring some normalcy and consistency to these times of uncertainty.  

“Throughout the summer, athletic directors from the ISL and the MAC formulated a plan for the entire year, which all the heads of schools had to approve of” Gillespie said. 

The plan to return to interscholastic competition and games of some sort was discussed over the summer, along with what was allowed to happen and when, including practices. The real competition  seasons, postponed until January 4, are going to follow rules set by the leagues. 

“The plan said that up until January 4, schools can hold conditioning practices but no league competition would happen,” Gillespie said. “Some schools decided that they were going to do nothing, some schools said that they were going to do general strength and conditioning across all sports and then some, like GDS, are doing specific conditioning seasons based on sport.” 

“GDS, with help from the administration, planned out three mini seasons leading up to the actual competition seasons,” Gillespie said. “I felt like it was the best way for our athletes to connect with the coaches and the other players on their teams by having this sort of six week fall season, six week spring season and four week winter season that leads right into their actual season.”

The conditioning and skill program for fall sports started on the first day of school. The spring sports conditioning program is currently happening—it started October 19 and will last until November 27. Based on constantly evolving CDC guidance, spring sessions started in person the week of October 26 to limit the mixing of cohorts from the fall session to the new spring one. 

The winter practices are slated for November 30 until January 1, with competition planning to begin again on January 4. These practices are ever evolving and changing based on new guidance and safety measures. GDS is doing its best to create an atmosphere that is enjoyable, while adhering to safety regulations. 

There are also protocols set by the administration that students must follow in order to join practices once on campus. 

“The guidelines are not sport-specific at this point,” Gillespie said. “Every sport is following the same guidelines. The big four things are wearing masks at all times, staying distant— ten feet apart when practicing and six feet apart when not practicing—not sharing equipment and staying in cohorts of 10 to 12 that stayed 20 feet apart from the next cohort.” 

High school cross country and track coach Anthony Belber acknowledged that the school has taken a very cautious, methodical approach to allowing on-campus activities of any kind, these mere one hour once a week socially distant practices provide numerous advantages. 

In-person practices not only are an improvement socially, but also makes the physical act of exercising easier. 

“Sports are very social activities, even running,” Belber said. “People say running is an individual pursuit but I think any of us who have done high school track or cross country understand that it’s very much a social group sport.”

Belber feels tasked with not only coaching but also serving as a motivator for his runners as well during these challenging circumstances. 

“When we’re all by ourselves and we can’t be together for our practices, we suddenly realize how much of a challenge it is to motivate ourselves to go outside and run each day or to exercise,” Belber said. “As a coach this fall, it has been very different. I suddenly have to find ways to motivate people. I don’t want to make that motivation through guilt. I wanna make some of that motivation through reminding athletes what we like about running and why it is important to get out the door. When it’s all just talking to people on Zoom, it’s very hard to feel like I’m getting people excited and motivated. When we’re on campus it’s much much easier.” 

Under direction from David Gillespie, coaches were required to have at least once weekly Zoom calls to check in with their teams. Belber and other teams’ coaches worked on forming connections and creating a teamlike feel even if online.

Belber also believes that mental advantages of on-campus practicing are immense—part of the reason motivation is critical during this pandemic is that it can be very mentally taxing to convince yourself to leave your home or exercise every day. While coaches were required to send out weekly training schedules to athletes, following these schedules can prove challenging. Belber thinks the current on-campus practices not only provide a sense of stability and structure but can relieve some of the mental burden of getting out the door.

“Even if it’s one time a week, we have that sense of: It’s not up to me to get out the door and start my runs and initiate the exercise,” Belber said. “If I’m there and a coach tells me to do it and my peers are all doing it together, then at least one day a week I don’t have to have that mental energy to begin my exercise.”

GDS’ policies regarding sports have been extremely cautious and slow but Belber stands behind the administration’s approach, even if that means going back to on-campus practice much later and less frequently than neighboring schools. Belber believes the administration is working to hear everyone’s voice while trying to keep the community safe. With that being said, Belber is also cautiously optimistic about the more frequent return of in-person practice and even competition. 

“I would think if we were having success with the once a week model for each team, then a logical next step might be to try twice a week, more often or even daily practices,” Belber said. “For sports like cross country, where competitions are not high-risk, I’m hopeful that there could be competitions like they’re proposing starting in January. But there is also a realistic part of me that says, although we’ve made progress in that direction, we may not get there by January. ”

COVID is really hard on the entire school community and its athletics program, but the student-athletes are faced with a unique set of challenges. Not being able to practice on a consistent basis, either because of the lack of equipment or the absence of teammates, has hindered their growth as athletes on and off the field.

Junior Lizzie Rosenman was slated to play her third year of varsity volleyball, but because of COVID-19, her season has been pushed back to at least January or February 2021. Despite this setback, she and her volleyball team have returned to GDS with the hopes of staying in shape ready for their first match of the season.

“We have to keep our masks on, can’t touch the same volleyball or get within 10 feet of each other during practices,” Rosenman said. 

But even with these restrictions, Rosenman said the team was ecstatic to return to school. “It’s so much better to be back,” she said. “Just to see people and talk about volleyball is great!”

The varsity volleyball team is pretty small and through their in-person meetings, Rosenman feels like the team has already built “a sense of community.” She just hopes the team is able to play real games this year, but Rosenman knows “it depends on what other schools do and what GDS allows us to do” as well. 

While these are unusual times, GDS athletics have sought to remain somewhat of a constant. Building community and teamwork across screens is hard, but as teams can now safely return to campus once a week, students have managed to stay connected to their teammates even under abnormal circumstances. Motivation for these fall practice seasons is higher, as there is the hope that GDS athletes will return to competitive activities in January. The ISL and the MAC, along with athletic directors from every school in the leagues, are trying their best for competitions in the second semester.