Coaching High School Cross Country During a Pandemic

The Lincoln East Boys Cross Country team social distances in a modified pre-race huddle before Friday’s 5K time trial at Pioneers Park.

It’s race day.

Saying it out loud — race day — seems odd, satisfying and exhilarating all at once. Three-and-a-half weeks ago, I wasn’t sure whether this day would come. Although our team’s coronavirus-mitigating procedures gave me hope for a safe, healthy 2020 cross country season, nothing was promised. And still, we don’t know what tomorrow will bring. So today, I say the words “race day” with more gratitude, more joy than ever before.

And I’m not even the one racing!

Since retiring from collegiate distance running, I’ve taken on a new role: volunteer assistant cross country coach at my alma mater, Lincoln East High School. Despite the pandemic-related challenges we’ve faced so far, I love helping such determined, passionate young athletes achieve their goals and find joy in the process. I love discovering the uniqueness of each individual and learning how I can best encourage them — both in running and in life. I love photographing time trials (and now, competitions!) and sharing the finished product on our Facebook group.

Of course, not every minute is sunshine and rainbows. Especially in a polarizing election year, and dealing with a pandemic that has unfortunately become a political issue, the stress is very, very real. When we unplug ourselves from the peace of our Creator and let anxious thoughts dictate our well-being, the tedious virus-mitigating procedures can drain our batteries.

For instance, here’s what a typical day at practice looks like:

When an athlete arrives at practice — masked up, of course — we read a detailed list of questions related to COVID-19 symptoms. If the athlete confirms that they are not exhibiting any symptoms, we give them a squirt of hand sanitizer and check their name off of the attendance list. Then, each athlete must walk to the center of the gym and sit on their designated blue tape mark, spaced six feet away from the surrounding marks. At 3:30 p.m., we start practice with a few general announcements and a core/mobility drill routine — during which the athletes must continue to wear their masks. After drills, we dismiss the athletes row-by-row to put their masks away and head outside for the run. Upon returning to the gym, all runners must put their masks back on, apply more hand sanitizer and maintain social distance while they stretch.

The top group of girls maintains a strong pack near the 2K mark during last Friday’s time trial.

Additionally, we’ve separated our team into four smaller groups — not all of whom can practice at school every single day, due to social distancing limitations and potential contact tracing concerns. At meets, spectators are limited; parents and athletes are encouraged to leave immediately after their race rather than sticking around to cheer on their teammates. Other traditional team-bonding activities, such as pasta feeds, have been cancelled.

Are these measures necessary? One hundred percent. Do they also threaten our traditional understanding of team unity? Heck, yes.

Every year, our head coach comes up with a season-defining mantra. This year, our phrase is “Control the Controllables.” Since practice began, I’ve found this mantra particularly helpful when considering both how I can impact the spread of the virus and how I can impact the spread of positive team culture. The latter requires creativity, energy and a whole lot of faith, but it is possible for team unity to transcend pandemic-era restrictions.

More on that as the season progresses.

Right now, I’m finding particular solace in Proverbs 12:25: “Anxiety weighs down the heart, but a kind word cheers it up.”

Stressed by others’ stress? Want to see the world become a more peaceful, less overwhelmed place? It all starts with kindness.


One comment

  1. Amen!! I know your faith lived out, producing the fruit of kindness, is just what this team needed! Thank you for giving your time and your heart this fall.


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