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Coaching Challenges: Making a difference during these difficult times

Coaching Challenges: Making a difference during these difficult times


By Dr. Peter C. Scales, USPTA

Since March 2020, the world has changed dramatically, and youth sports with it, as the global coronavirus pandemic and measures to mitigate it dominate life around the world. The great majority of schools have closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 school year, school and community sports seasons around the country are cancelled, and summer offerings, from camps to pools and sports lessons are in limbo, with even fall sports a question mark.

For millions of young people, their families, and the volunteers, recreation professionals, schools, community organizations, and donors who make youth sports possible, the youth sports landscape heading into late spring and summer 2020 looks like something out of an apocalyptic sci-fi movie—bleak, potentially dangerous, and filled with uncertainty.

But our kids still need us, and coaches can still make a difference.

I’m a high school tennis coach and a college-level tennis mental strength consultant. I’ve been in touch with my players and families, giving them suggestions for what they can do during this time of social distancing and stay-at-home orders to stay connected to tennis and continue finding purpose in their lives. Some of what I’ve done might be helpful for coaches in other sports as well.

It is harder to do in a largely online and virtual world, yes, but young people still can benefit from the relationships we coaches have with them, even though we’re not able to play our sports right now. In many ways, with the normal relationships we count on being so disrupted as we try to mitigate the COVID-19 disease, our young people (and their families!) need their coaches more than ever, for caring, encouragement, support, providing challenge, giving them choices, and expanding their sense of possibilities.

Above all, remember you are a model for your players and families. They’re watching how you handle yourself during this crisis. When they see coaches being energetic, enthusiastic, dedicated, factually informed, purposeful, hopeful, and caring, they’re more likely to be, too.


As I told my teams, how you deal with this moment is a choice. You control how you react. The ending of seasons stinks, as it does for every student-athlete, pro, concert musician, artist who can't have a crowd at their exhibition, family that can't go to Disneyland, and on and on. And way worse for families where parents can't work from home and don't get paid when they don't come in to work.

Like any challenge, whether on the sports field or life off the playing field, this crisis presents all of us with choices about how to respond. The people who get more quickly from being sad or angry about the disruption and loss (understandable feelings), to being focused on solving the new puzzles this situation is creating, will be the ones who come through with less mental, emotional, and physical toll on their health. There was a line in the popular TV show Everybody Loves Raymond that I love for how it captures "solve the puzzle." It went something like this: When you're on the Titanic, you get to the lifeboats--you don't stop to yell at the iceberg!

How you handle this challenge is your choice, whether you’re a player or a coach. You can choose to use this time to get better, no matter what adversities are in the way, and you'll be a better player or coach but you'll also be a mentally and physically stronger person, and you'll get through all this in a healthier, more balanced way that's good for you and everyone around you!


You do not have, none of us has, any control over the larger events of the virus and macro steps being taken to control it, from how we travel to whether we can get tested if we need to. We have control only, just as on the tennis court or other fields of play, about how we react to all of this.

You can control taking care of yourself by doing what Dr. Fauci says and following the CDC guidelines. Take care of your loved ones. Wash your hands with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds. Wear a mask when out in public. Keep to the social distancing guidelines. Choose to find and follow authoritative medical guidelines, not rumors. Spread science.

We grieve over the loss of what might have been, if our sports seasons hadn’t been cancelled. And that's appropriate. Young people need reassurance that those feelings of loss are normal. But guess what? On the other side of that grief, that loss, lies opportunity. I told my players that the many hours a week they spend on the athlete side of scholar-athlete, they now have available for other things. Remind them that they have a new chunk of time they can choose to use to explore more deeply interests that could become passions, but which they haven‘t had time to get into before. Maybe now is the time to get more into cooking, writing poetry, building things, learning a new musical instrument or how to sing better, something about science that they’re not studying at school, figuring out where they want to volunteer once we can be in groups again, getting more involved with the virtual opportunities their church, synagogue, or mosque is offering, and endless other possibilities. Same goes for coaches. What might you be able to do right now that coaching responsibilities usually keep you from doing?

I told my players, you have more opportunity and time now to give to others. You might not be able to high five or hug people much right now, but you have the time now to take longer to write a more meaningful text or email, FaceTime with them, or send them a video hello or a handwritten note. You can spend a bit longer in conversations with people you care for, because your schedule is a little less hectic. Or just be in touch with people who haven't been on your "must stay in touch with" list. Time is a gift, even if the cost of losing the sports season and in-person school is the price you had to pay.


Encourage your players to continue to set goals--in and outside of their sport!--stay committed to them, and put in the effort. Process (e.g., I’ll put in 100% effort in my workouts) and performance goals (e.g., I’ll go from doing 10 pushups to 15 this week) are better than outcome goals (e.g., I’ll win, or be a champion), because they have control over process and performance, but not over outcome. And encourage them to stay patient, kind, and flexible with everyone, including themselves. None of us has ever been through something of the magnitude of this pandemic before. We’re all trying different approaches, experimenting, to land on a way of living every day that feels responsible and hopeful. Young people, parents, coaches are all going to make mistakes, and that’s okay!

We can't really play anymore, for now, other than in our homes, driveways, and yards if we have them. But many families involved with youth sports have basketball hoops, baseball gloves and balls, soccer balls, etc. Even if those aren’t the sports you coach, you can encourage your players to play those, be active and have fun with the people they live with! And we can still shadow our favorite sport’s movements—such as swings, stances, and footwork in racquet sports, golf, baseball, etc., and work on technique, mental and emotional training, and strategy even while not playing. Oddly enough, it's a great time to get focused on getting better, with no outcomes or playing results of winning or losing to worry about!

I’ve been giving my high school and college tennis players various suggestions for how they can use this time productively to grow as players and as people. For the high school players, I mostly send emails to their parents and have parents share them with their kids, whereas I contact the college players directly.

  • Give ideas for self-practice. I gave my tennis students ideas for how to hit by themselves if any tennis court was open, or off a wall, and how to do a systematic workout of shadow swinging various tennis strokes in their bedrooms or driveways. Whatever your sport is, there are ways for your student-athletes to rehearse the sport’s movements. Show them how through email, text, or video.
  • Suggest websites for them to go to for increasing their knowledge of their sport. Encourage them to pick a few topics they want to know more about, and look for videos, articles, blogs, and books about it. Suggest a few to get them started. The possibilities are endless. Not just about your sport’s technique, but nutrition, strength and conditioning, the mental and emotional game, strategy, your sport’s history, etc. Encourage them to try different websites and see what they have that works for whatever level they are right now, but that stretches them to grow and get better and helps them stay enthusiastic about their sport.
  • Give them drills they can do to increase coordination and balance. For example, I gave several possibilities I pulled from tennis websites, including this one: Take 2 balls, 1 in each hand. Bounce at the same time and catch them. Vary the height and speed as you get better. Try for 30 seconds and increase to 1 minute. Or challenge them to learn to juggle. One of my players challenged me to learn a few years ago and it was both hard and totally fun!
  • Give detailed guidance for how to practice visualization and imagery techniques in lieu of actual play. Point out to your players and families that sport science research has shown that athletes who regularly use visualization and imagery have less loss of skills during rehab from injury or time away than athletes who don’t, a finding that applies really well to the forced “rehab” most of us are in with social distancing and stay-at-home. There are a lot of good guides for visualization. Check your sport’s national coaching certifying organization for ideas for how to guide your players in getting good at this. The main thing is having them focus on positive images, and making it vivid, imagining not just what you see, but all the sounds you hear, the smell of the ball and other smells around you, the taste of dryness in your mouth when nervous, the way your heart pounds, the feel and taste of your sweat, etc.
  • Detail for them a home workout routine specific to training for their sport that they can do with no special equipment, just using their body weight for resistance. Without the gym to go to these days, most people are figuring out how to work out at home. I told my players to dedicate 1/2 hour to an hour a day most days of the week. Start with cardio that gets your heart rate up a little and gets you sweating a little. 10-20 minutes. If you don't have a stationary bike or a treadmill, etc., you can just jog around a space in your home. Vary your direction so you're pushing off each leg roughly the same amount of the time. You can make it more interesting by listening to music and jogging to the beat of your playlist, going faster with up-tempo songs and slower with slower ones. Add shadow-boxing jabs, crosses, and uppercuts to involve your upper body while you jog--feel like a boxer! Do pushups and crunches. If you don't have weights, you can use a couple of heavier books and gallon jugs of water to do simple lat pulldowns, squats, bicep curls, and triceps stretches. Do 1 leg balancing exercises. Do hops from 1 foot to the other over a 2-3 feet wide space and hold your landing for a count of 1-2-3 after you land.

I’ve also been creating 1-minute videos on various tennis strokes and other topics and sending those for players to use as examples and guides for their own shadow practicing, and sending them funny videos of people creatively practicing sort-of-tennis during the pandemic. And I invited them to send me videos of them hitting or shadowing, or just with questions, for me to analyze and make suggestions about how they can improve. Our college women’s tennis team asked for some suggestions for mental strengthening exercises they can do during stay-at-home, so we’re doing a Zoom session on that.

Finally, coaches can provide useful ideas for decision makers who are trying to figure out when and how to “re-open” their sports. Coaches are the ones who can most clearly walk through every moment of practice and play in their sport, to determine exactly how social distancing and hygiene guidelines can be honored while still allowing some form of modified and safe play. But they might not ask you, so take the initiative! Write up your thoughts, consistent with what the state and national organizations for your sport are saying, and share them with program directors, athletic directors, principals, league commissioners, etc. With my head coach’s support, I did that, and our high school athletic director then shared them with others. So now my suggestions are guiding how one of our hospital systems is advising schools to re-open interscholastic sports. Coaches can help make a difference like this, but you can’t wait for an invitation to comment! Go through channels, but take the initiative.

At some point, we WILL get back to playing. No one knows when. But we will get there, back to the games we love, however modified! In the meantime, the more committed players can be to practicing by themselves, doing home workouts, shadow movements, increasing knowledge of their sport, doing coordination drills, and using visualization and imagery, the more chance they have of coming back with even better skills and desire, despite not being able to play all this time.

While the crisis continues, coaches can help their student-athletes center themselves and breathe, grieve in their own ways, then accept the change and loss, control what they can control in their lives, and in an accepting and mindful way, find new ways of thriving, creating joy, and helping others. This may be one of the most memorable moments and periods of all our lives. Let’s do what we can to help our players make it one of their most meaningful.


Peter C. Scales is a developmental psychologist and internationally-known scholar of positive youth development. He’s a certified tennis teaching pro, JV tennis coach for both boys and girls at Parkway South High School in Manchester, Missouri, and mental strength consultant for the Washington University in St. Louis women’s tennis team. Known to his tennis players and families as Coach Pete, he is the author of Mental and Emotional Training for Tennis: Compete-Learn-Honor (Coaches Choice, 2019, available on Amazon), which the National High School Tennis Coaches Association has called one of the best books ever on the mental game.

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