Coaching Fall Sports During COVID-19: Make the Most Out of an Uncertain Season

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In a typical year, the fall sports preseason would begin across the country over the coming weeks. This year, fall sports in many regions have been canceled, postponed, or modified. As a result, whether you are coaching fall sports at the youth, high school, or college level, your season may take on a very different appearance.

Some states have categorized sports by risk level and established return-to-play phases; others have outright canceled competitive seasons. In most cases, though, it seems likely that coaches will be able to convene with teams for socially distanced conditioning and skill work. Based on CDC recommendations, the next steps allow for contact sports, intra-squad scrimmages, and eventually games.

Coaches and athletes will soon need to adjust to the “new normal” and decide how to approach the fall season. There will likely be disappointment and frustration along the way. This fall season may not be marked by season records, awards, or championships, but coaches can still make the most of the fall season.

There’s a time-tested saying about the journey being more important than the destination. Now more than ever, there is value in the journey. Coaches can maximize the fall season by focusing on the process, rather than just outcomes.

Know Your ‘Why’

Most journeys begin with where. I suggest coaches begin with why. Simon Sinek is well known for his book and Tedx talk, Start With Why. His message is that why we do things is more important than what we do or how we do it. Coaches may want to take a moment to reflect on why they coach and why their team functions as it does.

Recently, the Aspen Institute shared relevant research on why youth sports matter. There are many long-term benefits to sports participation including physical, cognitive, and social-emotional effects. Knowing why we coach and what we hope our athletes will glean from their athletic experience is critical going into the fall season. SHAPE America’s National Standards for Sports Coaches offer much of what coaches should focus on, as well.

Coaches who are preparing for a modified season may need to reimagine the fall sports experience. The next step after answering why, is really defining what it means to be part of your team. Which physical, mental, and social-emotional aspects of your sport experience will you teach, and why?

By better defining what it means to be a part of your team, coaches can identify priorities, adopt new strategies, and create a journey that has long-term benefits for athletes.

Here’s how:

Physical Development Strategies for Fall Sports

Chances are that athletes will start preseason at various fitness levels. While it may be tempting to run your team back into shape, avoid extreme conditioning sessions. Instead, approach fitness in a functional way. Combine fitness with sports skills to help athletes play their way into shape. For example, small-sided drills like 1v1s, are effective and exhausting which is a win/win.

For coaches with an extended or delayed preseason, consider ways to build a better athletic foundation. A strong athletic foundation boosts performance and reduces injuries. Too often in organized sports we skip ahead to tactics, instead of spending time on the athletic fundamentals. Incorporate more body resistance exercises like push-ups, lunges, squats, planks, and burpees.

In addition, focus on the ABCs: agility, balance and coordination. For example, add dynamic movements to warm-ups using simple equipment like agility ladders and hurdles to jump and land, shift weight, change direction and change speeds. Continue to include basic locomotion like hopping, jumping, skipping, shuffling, high knees, butt kicks, and grapevine. Athletes with improved physical literacy are healthier and more successful over time.

For coaches with modified seasons, be sure to foster an environment of self-improvement. Establish team fitness goals, track progress, and set personal best records. Be creative and fun with fitness challenges. Involve athletes in the planning process, as well. Consider providing acknowledgements to recognize improvement and honor milestones.

Most importantly, the upcoming season is a chance to rekindle the love of the game. Keep sports fun and competitive at all levels. Take advantage of pick-up style play, which has been shown to cultivate intrinsic motivation and creativity. Small-sided games are also an ideal way to maximize involvement with added opportunities to learn from mistakes. Avoid the temptation to over-coach by keeping the environment light and athlete-centered.

Cognitive Development Strategies

Mindset will be especially important during the return to competitive sports. After the unprecedented time off from sports, coaches will need to help athletes adjust their mindset and regain confidence (e.g., learn how to teach a growth mindset with Stanford’s Dr. Carol Dweck).

Coaches should expect and prepare for a transition. Athletes may be experiencing unfamiliar school schedules and family situations due to COVID-19. Help your team by staying organized, managing time, and communicating effectively. Coaches should create a consistent and positive atmosphere, regardless of the inherent challenges and frustrations of the season (i.e., focus on the journey).

Now is the time to develop any of the mental skills which can be cultivated through sports: work ethic, attitude, passion, hustle, concentration, stress management, goal setting, positive self-talk, and more.

Pick a skill or two and make them a theme for your season. If your budget allows, add your theme to team T-shirts or reminderbands. My teams will focus on learning grit and resilience this fall. I already have a T-shirt picked out!

Coaches can incorporate mental skills through planned activities, team problem solving challenges, guided discussions, or even journals. Tap into any local sport psychology resources, as well. For example, graduate students are often an inexpensive yet valuable resource (and they need to gain experience). Another useful resource is Bring Your “A” Game: A Young Athlete’s Guide to Mental Toughness. After establishing the why and what of mental skills, planning the how to should be the fun part.

Social-Emotional Development Strategies

For many, the quarantine and isolation have been among the greatest challenges of COVID-19. A return to sports marks the much-anticipated return to social engagement. While reconnecting with teams is very exciting, it may also be anxiety provoking for some athletes.

Plan for a transition similar to that used for physical and cognitive strategies: ease back into your team environment Take this opportunity to help athletes enjoy being part of something larger than themselves. Purposefully develop team leadership and cultivate healthy group dynamics. SHAPE America and Human Kinetics offer a series of useful videos to learn more.

In addition, help athletes develop the many social-emotional skills that can be generated through sports participation: problem solving, decision making, conflict resolution, teamwork, group cohesion, and more. Determine which social skills are most relevant for your athletes and spend time on social-emotional development. Intentionally establish your team atmosphere to reflect the social skills and themes you value most.

Bringing your team together with a theme is also an effective approach to maintain focus and motivation. Depending on the nature of your delayed or modified season, it may be critical to sustain motivation. Check out the Positive Coaching Alliance for more related resources.

Another valuable approach for coaches is to create meaningful moments with teams to build connections. In their book, The Power of Moments, Chip and Dan Heath show the value high impact moments have on personal and team development. Help make these moments by creating a new team tradition or establishing new team awards. Commemorate your fall season with an imovie or a unique ceremony that honors the accomplishments of each team member. A sports season offers numerous opportunities to create moments with lasting social-emotional effects.

Make the Most of the Journey

The only certainty for fall sports is that it will be an uncertain season. Coaches can make the most of the fall by focusing on the process of developing teams physically, mentally, and social-emotionally. By taking the time to purposefully prepare, coaches will be able to redefine the journey for their teams … and remember, it’s the journey, not the destination, that matters the most.

Additional Resources


Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch
Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch

Lynn Pantuosco-Hensch is an associate professor in the Movement Science Department at Westfield State University. She is also a licensed soccer coach with the United Soccer Coaches. Her current research focuses on long-term athletic development (LTAD) and youth sport specialization. Lynn can be reached at lhensch@westfield.ma.edu or https://www.lynnpantuosco-hensch.com. (She thanks Paula Leahy Welch for her editorial support.)