Coaches get creative to stay connected with young athletes at home

Coaches get creative to stay connected with young athletes at home

With two active and athletic children at home, there’s a lot of dancing, stretching, and elaborate footwork going on in the Wilds household these days.

In the evenings, eight-year-old Liam Wilds practices breakdancing moves in front of the TV as he watches a Zoom class guided by his coaches at Montreal-based Break City. Or he uses items from around the house as creative props while he follows along with his taekwondo master on Google Meet.

In the basement, Liam’s 10-year-old sister, Kayleigh, watches short videos put together by her dance teachers. They focus on a warmup, stretching, and technique.

Kayleigh had been working hard with her H4L competitive dance team—taking jazz, hip hop, and ballet—since September. But she won’t get the chance to wear her costume at any end-of-season shows.

“She’s lost her entire competitive season,” says her mom Shannon Sullivan. “For the little kids, that’s kind of huge.”

Liam and Kayleigh are just two of the thousands of Canadian children whose sports lives changed abruptly in mid-March, when training, practices, and games were postponed and then canceled because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In this new normal, coaches and trainers have had to evolve and change strategy fast to support athletes’ emotional well-being and physical literacy skills, and to keep kids engaged and active while they’re apart from their teammates, equipment, and training facilities.

Kids keep active with online training

Within a week of lockdown, Liam’s coach, David Arsenault of Interclub Taekwondo, had online classes available on Google Meet. The child, teen, and adult classes have between 12 and 25 people per 50-minute class, three times per week.

“I start with three minutes of talking with the children and trying to engage them through the video conference while giving them a chance to connect with each other,” says Arsenault, who’s also the founder of Champions for Life Foundation. “I always tell them how happy it makes me to see them even if we can’t be together in person.

“We do a proper warm-up, and depending on the mood or energy, we may horse around to get our bodies moving and our minds activated. I always do all the activities with the children, sweat, and have fun with them.”

Using brief but specific instructions, the class reviews technical footwork, kicks, blocks, and patterns called poomsee.

“The faster and more varied I keep it moving, the more focused they are on me.”

Arsenault notes that while the classes may be high energy and constantly moving, they can also be calm and focused: “We regularly do meditation and breathing exercises, and there is always an element of fun.”

He expects to hold a promotion test in June like normal, though this year it may happen online.

“In my 30 years of teaching, I have never imagined that I would be doing this, but I feel that it’s very important because we all need to continue to strive towards our objectives; teachers and students alike.”

Related read: Grow your program by educating parents about physical literacy

Parents like Sullivan are appreciative of the time and work coaches and instructors are putting into keeping kids active and motivated.

“The coaches have really learned to think outside the box, and quickly. I see the evolution of coaching throughout the eight weeks that my kids have been doing online classes,” she says.

“The kids learn and practice skills, and the mental health aspect of keeping connections and talking to people is huge. The videos have done so much for team unity.”

I’m sad I can’t be with my friends, but I love getting to practice with my teachers.”

-Liam, age eight

Teammates stay connected via social media

In addition to Zoom and Google Meet classes focusing on skill retention and training, some teams—including the Prescott Russell Rockets U12 basketball team and the Mississauga Hurricanes Atom BB hockey team in Ontario—are participating in social media challenges to stay connected and have fun.

In Alberta, the provincial ringette association launched “Social Media Provincials” on March 18, and had over 1,900 separate online submissions from teams from across the province.

“Players and coaches submitted photos and videos of themselves doing various things to stay active and healthy including completing at-home workouts, walking the dog, calling friends and family, demonstrating how to wash your hands, and helping neighbors—all while following physical distancing guidelines laid out by the Alberta government and chief medical officer,” says Robyn Gillespie, sport development coordinator at Ringette Alberta.

“The more people that participated, the more submissions your team had, the better chance you had of winning!”

Players from the Fort Saskatchewan U10 Step 3 Ice Force, along with head coach Erin Krueger—who’s also a frontline RN—put together an inspiring photo collage urging everyone to stay home so that teams could get back to the rink sooner rather than later.

Guest speakers offer inspiration and support

Let’s Play, an initiative of the BC Wheelchair Basketball Society that helps children with mobility-related physical disabilities, started online physical activity sessions on April 27. The weekday Zoom sessions incorporate fun mini-workouts, activities, games, and have special guests and theme days.

On the other side of the country, Lynn Boudreau, senior sport coordinator at Sport PEI and co-founder of Island Surge Volleyball Club, is keeping her 12 athletes (ages 15-17) connected through conference calls and Zoom videos.

The team also hired a mental prep coach and used Adobe Connect to facilitate three sessions on staying motivated and working through COVID-19.

While virtual guidance won’t replace in-person training, for the foreseeable future, it’s the next best thing in youth sports to keep kids of all abilities physically active, healthy, and socially connected.

Looking ahead to summer

With the return of sports and team play uncertain, summer leagues are developing various contingency plans to support players while they wait.

Some of these initiatives include:

  • Through June, the Township of North Glengarry in Ontario is offering eight weeks of virtual soccer skills workshops for youth ages nine to 12.
  • Football Canada will be launching Football from Home to provide education, learning tools, engaging activities, and football experiences.
  • Field Hockey PEI is starting a “Socially Distant Summer Program” with instructors sharing weekly videos that consist of agility, fitness, and skills/drills that can be done at home.
  • Soccer Canada has launched the Canada Soccer Nation Inside platform to unite the soccer community and provide unique online content.
  • Softball Canada has put together a list of resources to help kids stay active at home, all while learning the fundamental movement skills needed to participate in softball.

Is your organization doing something interesting to keep players and teams connected to sports and each other? Let us know in the comments!

Photos of the Wilds kids courtesy of Shannon Sullivan.

Photo collage courtesy of Kristin Greenwood and the Fort Saskatchewan U10S3 Ice Force.

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