10 Tips for a Smoother Return-to-Play

Sep 8, 2020 | 2020-2021, Division I, Featured Stories

Temple University head coach, Susan Ciufo, shares what she’s learned through her team’s return-to-play.

Photo credit: Terri Batze / Temple Athletics

To say the last six months have been a giant maze for us as coaches is an understatement. I was supposed to be starting my second season as the head coach at Temple University, but COVID-19 had other plans and instead our team is looking forward to competing at a later date.

Recently, we returned to campus and to our Temple family with COVID-19 policies and limitations in place. Our return-to-play requirements included regular testing for student-athletes, 10-day isolation for anyone with COVID-19, and a 14-day quarantine for anyone who has been in contact with someone with COVID-19. We were also informed that in our first six days with the team, we were not permitted to schedule double sessions, that we could only do 50 percent of our conditioning (if you know our staff, that was a real dagger in the heart), and we were not permitted to do any live play (back to the basics).

I am fortunate to have a great staff in Michelle Vittese, Carissa Vittese, and Mackenzie Greenberg — who have made trying to plan for the impossible slightly less challenging. Our administration and support staff, including our athletic trainer, Fafa Tsikata, and our strength trainer, Abi Goldberg, have gone through the ringer figuring out best-practices for our team not the least of which included an outdoor weight room, a new app called Healthy Roster, and many temperature checks. We are also fortunate to have our academic advisor, Tara Evans, leading the way in getting our student-athletes acclimated to virtual classes.

But, despite our incredible support network, transition to our new reality was still a challenge.

For a program that typically centers everything we do around small games, the limitations in the six-day period seemed daunting to say the least. We followed the return-to-play policies and it was a truly eye-opening experience for me as a coach — we had less injuries, people were in high spirits, and we actually took time to focus on our technical pieces instead of rushing into the tactical layer of our game like we so often do.

Hindsight is a gift and I have many swirling thoughts about how our first three weeks went. I am thankful for the opportunity to gather my impressions and share some advice based on what went well for our program and I’ve learned.

Photo credit: Jhalen Wingate / Temple Athletics

1 — Push to get your student-athletes tested often.

I find this to be a key component in keeping all of our programs practicing this fall. As you know, carriers of COVID-19 may be asymptomatic and could contribute to the spread across our campuses and communities.

2 — Embrace return-to-play policies.

While we are all eager to get back to playing with intensity and pushing our student-athletes outside of their comfort zones, these policies are critical to ensuring that our student-athletes return safely. We will have plenty of time to get to back to where we once were — don’t rush it, trust the process.

3 — Keep them in their pods as much as possible!

This is something I wish I had done better as we entered week two. We were excited to play live — once our six-day limitations were lifted — and it became difficult to keep our student-athletes separated for contact-tracing purposes through live play. As fall goes on, keeping student-athletes grouped with their housemates or pods will make it easier to manage your squad if someone does test positive.

If your department suggests only having a small number of student-athletes out on the pitch at a time, take the advice. 

Photo credit: Jhalen Wingate / Temple Athletics

4 — Masks matter.

Encourage your team to wear their masks at practice as much as possible during warm up, group talks, and technical work. They protect each other and they protect you.

5 — Pay attention to cross contamination.

Speak with your department about limiting cross contamination through teams who use the facilities at the same time.

With this, feel comfortable calling out other student-athletes from different programs for not properly following protocol.

6 — Limit use of the locker room.

There should be small numbers going in just to grab their things.

7 — Have a plan for equipment sanitization.

Get a spray bottle and soak your balls and cones after each practice and each time you use the cones.

Prohibit student-athletes from touching the cones — we love when they help, but it’s best right now to leave clean-up to the coaches…echoing my note earlier about mask wearing: this protects them and protects you.

Photo credit: Jhalen Wingate / Temple Athletics

8 — Do team meetings on Zoom.

Most of us may be sick of our Zoom meetings but it is the best way to keep your team safe and limit the amount of time they come in contact with each other.

9 — Talk about their social life.

Have open conversations with your student-athletes about their social lives outside of field hockey. Ask them to consider the question: am I being a good representative of our program, of our athletic department, and of our university during this pandemic?

10 — Care about their happiness and mental health.

This should be at the top of your list. Our student-athletes have gone through a lot in the last six months and it’s important to stay engaged with them emotionally.

You can be creative and plan game nights that get their parents involved or do socially distant team bonding, but more important than that, listen to them. We have frequent team meetings where our student-athletes can discuss what they think is going well, where they feel we are lacking, or what is currently challenging for them. By giving them an opportunity to speak up you are giving yourself an opportunity to explain the necessity of COVID policies and it also gives you an opportunity to take their feedback to improve their experience. If the best place for them to be is home, respect it.

As coaches we are always evolving and that is most certainly true during the pandemic. At the end of the day, we need to make sure that our student-athletes are well physically and mentally.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Susan!

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