A Female Coach Talks With Her Junior Cycling Racers At A Bike Race

Coaching High School Athletes in a Post-Pandemic World

BY Phil White

As student-athletes come back to sports in a COVID-19-altered landscape, many of them face barriers some juniors coaches have yet to manage.

All too often, when it comes to guiding young athletes, coaches just take what they’re doing with adults and scale it back. The trouble in doing so is that adolescents have unique physiological and psychological needs that such a reductive approach won’t meet, and they aren’t just small men or women.

When you add in the issues that the COVID-19 pandemic created or amplified, coaching teenagers became even more challenging. In this post, we share lessons that a veteran high school coach learned over the past couple of years that will help you better serve teenage athletes and ensure you’re developing them sustainably over the long haul.

The Costs of Canceling High School Sports

It goes without saying that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on your adult clients, but the effects were arguably much more profound and longer lasting for junior athletes. They went from immersive learning with their friends in classrooms to trying to navigate Zoom calls and virtual homework assignments alone. With schools closed, youth sports soon shut down too, creating a significant void in the lives of young competitors and removing an outlet and gathering place that they sorely needed.

Survey results from the NCAA show that the incidence of mental health complaints like anxiety and depression are still at 1.5 to two times the average level among collegiate student-athletes, and subsequent research showed similar struggles for their younger counterparts.[1] A Canadian study on high school athletes noted that “COVID-19 restrictions led to reduced levels of physical activity, increased screen usage, and declines in mental health in youth.”[2]

To hear a firsthand account of the ongoing effects of the pandemic and how it changed what coaching looks like now, I reached out to Craig Babcock, an IRONMAN coach and competitor. He has served as the cross-country and distance coach at Evergreen High School in Evergreen, Colorado, for seven years.

“When the first wave of COVID hit, sports were canceled for six months and we weren’t allowed any contact with our athletes,” Babcock said. “You had these previously active kids who were used to lugging heavy backpacks all day, walking to and from school, getting outside at lunchtime, and training most afternoons. Then all they were doing was shuffling from the laptop in their bedroom to the kitchen and back again.”

Getting Back on Track Through Physical and Mental Challenges

Once the restrictions were eased and the high school sports calendar opened up (albeit on a minimal basis with no meets at first), the desire to return to some sense of normalcy quickly showed.

“We had a big increase in track and cross-country sign-ups,” Babcock said. “From my first few conversations, I could tell our athletes had a longing to be back in their community and an almost desperate need to set and go after goals, find purpose and — more than anything — be back in a team setting with their friends.”

As promising as this increased participation was, it also taught Babcock and his fellow coaches a valuable lesson about the pitfalls of sudden increases in training load.

“When these active kids’ opportunities to train and compete was taken away from them, it set them back physically,” he said. “Suddenly, there were more calf injuries than I’d ever seen after a three-mile tempo run that they’d normally see as an easy session. Many of the athletes were complaining that their feet hurt. We had to build them back up gradually. Once they were ready, include plenty of higher intensity efforts like repeats and some weight training, which research shows reduce muscle, ligament, tendon and bone injuries.”

As the Canadian study and NCAA data suggested, the challenges that high school student-athletes have undergone in the past couple of years weren’t merely physiological but also psychological.

“The pandemic took a heavy toll on teenage athletes’ mental health,” Babcock said. “It’s normal to see pre-performance anxiety, but in a lot of kids, I noticed this constant low-level anxiousness and fearfulness. We’d have someone breaking down and sobbing before practice for no apparent reason and others who just didn’t seem like themselves. It was clear that they needed someone to show they cared and understood that it’d been a rough transition, which coaches are in a unique position to do.”

Addressing Eating Disorders

Another issue that COVID restrictions exacerbated among younger athletes was disordered eating. A study published in The Lancet found that during the pandemic, “child and adolescent eating disorder services of the UK National Health Service have seen almost a doubling in the number of both urgent and routine referrals” and included disruption to everyday routines and limited opportunities to exercise as contributing factors.[3]

Evergreen High School’s track coaches typically provide a nutrition guide to athletes at the start of each season but found that they’ve needed to go further since students returned to school and resumed regular training.

“We’ve seen a lot more eating disorders since COVID lockdowns ended and our athletes came back in person,” Babcock said. “I tell parents immediately if I see warning signs and then just try to support what the counselor, psychologist, or other professionals recommend.

Then there are those athletes who made major dietary changes, like going vegetarian and were the only ones in their household to do so. We had several athletes whose performances suffered and felt lethargic all the time and one who had almost become anorexic. The issue was mainly a huge calorie deficit. Once we sat down with the parents and educated the whole family, she had an amazing turnaround.”

Creating and Sustaining Connection and Community

Such challenges highlighted the heavy toll that being away from friends and sports during the pandemic took on teenagers’ emotional well-being and the tenuous relationship that young athletes often have with food. As hard as it has been to see some of his runners struggling, Babcock also recognized the past season as an opportunity to double down on an approach that prioritizes the whole person first and then the athlete.

“Getting to know high school athletes individually is more important than ever,” Babcock said. “When coaching Gen X and millennials, we had more of a team-wide approach. As Gen Z comes through, it’s clear that their entire life is personalized, whether that’s with school, friends or social media. Creating strong connections builds trust and allows me to have hard conversations. When young athletes can relate to you and know you truly care about them, they’re more likely to keep coming back and participating.”

These bonds might be forged during the school year, but as the pandemic showed, adolescents crave greater continuity in their community and relationships. An offseason training group can provide this and keep fitness levels high so that, as a coach, you’re not trying to start from scratch after every summer break.

“A summer running program is extremely valuable on several levels,” Babcock said. “It keeps everyone connected and makes sure we have regular touchpoints once school is out. We have team-sponsored practices that are somewhat formalized but are also training disguised as fun activities like running to a creek that kids can jump in or an endurance form of capture the flag. I also run with my dog every morning and tell the team where I’ll be and when so they can join me. That kind of trail running is helpful here in Colorado, given how competitive the cross-country season is.” 

Personalizing Plans to Balance Winning and Fun

If you decide to conduct a similar summer regimen, remember that it shouldn’t be an excuse to push your young athletes hard all the time. Babcock and his fellow coaches are careful to incorporate strategic breaks and periods of lower intensity and volume to make sure their athletes don’t burn out for what can be an almost year-round sport.

“Our more elite runners might compete in three distinct seasons – cross-country, indoor track and outdoor track,” he said. “Fall training ramps up as we build toward our first cross-country meet. Then they get a couple of weeks off over Christmas break and can build back slowly into indoor track. This allows them to recover and get used to how their body functions as it changes and grows. The indoor and outdoor track seasons are intense, but we try to include some downtime when possible. Then everyone gets two or three weeks off before the summer program starts.”

Such a balanced plan does have some commonalities for every student-athlete. Still, it isn’t merely a one-size-fits-all prescription, as there can be significant gaps between the various members of a high school training group.

“The bodies, emotional maturity levels and physical development of a typical 14-year-old are much different to that of an 18-year-old — one might look like a kid while the other is closer to being an adult,” Babcock said. “That’s why we have different plans for our younger and older runners. The incoming [first-year high school students] mostly come from recreational sports that have two practices and a game each week, so they need to steadily increase their load tolerance so they can handle training five days and possibly racing on a sixth. We start slowly with their training to make sure they’re not overdoing it. Then as they get older, we monitor how mentally and physically mature they get and use this to inform the plan we typically use with our juniors and seniors, which includes more volume and intensity. We’re also adamant that everyone takes Wednesdays off, so they get a weekly break.”

Having broken the four-minute mile barrier as a high school miler, Babcock understands what it takes to get results on the track. But the fallout from COVID has reminded him that coaching high schoolers means so much more than just achieving PRs or qualifying athletes for state and nationals.

“You have to remember where young people are in their lives,” he said. “There are those that might be trying to meet goals or get college scholarships, and that’s great. But many others join the team just because they want to have fun and be part of something. Some coaches have a very outcomes-based outlook, and winning is certainly enjoyable, but one of the main reasons kids are willing to show up and put in hard days is because they are with their friends. So as a coach, I try to create an environment that encourages improvement and success while still being enjoyable.”


Resources

[1] Greg Johnson, “Mental Health Issues Remain on Minds of Student-Athletes,” NCAA, May 24, 2022, available online at https://www.ncaa.org/news/2022/5/24/media-center-mental-health-issues-remain-on-minds-of-student-athletes.aspx.

[2] Heather A Shepherd et al, “The Impact of COVID-19 on High School Student-Athlete Experiences with Physical Activity, Mental Health, and Social Connection,” International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, March 29, 2021, available online at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/33805249.

[3] Francesca Solmi, James L Downs, and Dasha E Nicholls, “COVID-19 and Eating Disorders in Young People,” The Lancet, May 2021, available online at https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanchi/article/PIIS2352-4642(21)00094-8/fulltext.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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