COVID Keepers: Lessons Learned

summarized by David DeWinter
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Speakers

Dr. Pete Wenger, MD – Team Physician, USRowing
Maida Wallin – Executive Director, Chicago Rowing Foundation
Mike Wieneke – Director, Programs & Member Services, Greenwich Water Club

The 3-Sentence Summary

COVID has wreaked havoc on the programs we can offer our athletes, so much so that it’s hard to see this time period as an opportunity. But because COVID forces us to be flexible, it’s a great time to try new things that might have been challenging before e.g. spending more time in small boats, bringing in more experts to talk to kids about things like mindset and nutrition, engaging more with the parent community, and finding ways to create more fun at practice. Regardless of the uncertainty we all face as coaches and admins, keep taking care of each other, because we are a valuable resource for our communities to feel connected to one another.

Timestamps

Introductions

0:16 Panel intros

  • Jules Zane – Director of Member Services and Referee Programs
  • Pete Wenger – Athlete care at the Princeton Training Center
  • Maida Wallin – Executive director at Chicago and coach to entry-level teams
  • Mike Wieneke – Director of Rowing at Greenwich Crew

The Beginning of COVID

4:04 At what point did your role start changing because of COVID? What did you do first to adapt?

  • Pete: Our whole women’s team was exposed 3 weeks after the first case in New Jersey. Every strategy we started with came together quickly but was cumbersome because nobody knew about the disease. We just started with developing clear communication lines among our staff. When there’s no guidebook on how to move forward, we had to make our own, including:
    • Setting up a COVID mitigation officer at events
    • Providing education and guidance to non-medical populations
    • Developing parity of approaches between the women’s center in Princeton and the men’s center in Oakland
    • Having experts in every location to know the differences in state-to-state regulations

7:44 Mike, did other sports you oversee show early warning signs of what was to come before the rowing season started?

  • Many indoor sports went to Zoom workouts immediately around the same time. Our coaches really stepped up on short notice to figure out how to hand out ergs and set up Zoom workouts.  Summer outdoor swimming was fortunately unaffected.

9:58 Maida, did you get early guidance from the city of Chicago or did you have to figure it out on your own?

  • We got guidance and started setting up plans for daily practices and athlete check-ins. A lot of the parents were doctors who helped advise how we could create meaningful programming for our athletes while also staying safe.

Reflection on Good Changes

12:25 What changes did you like that you wouldn’t have made if not for the circumstances?

  • Mike: We realized how much people don’t know about our sport. We spent a lot of time with the state of Connecticut explaining how athletes could be safe on the water.
  • Maida: The city understood what we did, so we worked within the guidelines of the city. Two things that we held onto:
    • Communicate with families over Zoom. It’s easier than in-person and it can be recorded.
    • Smalls boat programming
  • Pete: We had to restructure our priorities to safety first, and exceptional medical care became harder to provide. Most helpful for us:
    • Teams, structure, lines of communication, and expectations since we can’t do in-person meetings

20:46 Did you take this opportunity to make any changes to your organizations that you had been waiting on for a while?

  • Maida
    • Definitely small boats. But how do you get 200 athletes into small boats? We took the time to figure it out.
    • We brought in experts to talk about things we touch on like nutrition and mindset. Whole athlete care: cross-training, pilates, etc.
  • Mike
    • Small boats, especially for the middle school program
    • We look at regattas a lot differently – we keep it simple now.
    • More outreach and scholarships

Winter Training

27:01 For current winter training on ergs, are your clubs limiting participants? Are they masked? Do you have more athletes erging at home?

  • Pete: Every state is different, so it breaks down to what we can do and what we should do.
    • What we should do is like predicting the weather. The #1 goal is to keep training, which can’t happen if you have massive COVID spread. Pay attention to the spread and risk of transmission in your area.
  • Mike: High school programs are outside in the parking lot, under floodlights. Masked in the weight rooms. Ergs are spaced out indoors.
  • Maida: Very similar to Mike

Staff and Athlete Care

34:29 Did you change your expectations and care of your staff in any ways that you’ll continue to take forward?

  • Mike: Weekly coaches meeting now available on Zoom. Allow for flexibility.
  • Pete: Communication first. The ability to de-silo, be open, and welcome each person to bring their skill sets to the table really helped us learn best on what approach we should take. We started measuring fatigue from athletes to identify trends to the medical team, which can signal if something was worth addressing.
  • Maida: Just because our coaches are adults doesn’t mean they’re not going through similar things to what the athletes are going through. Coaching in person wasn’t compulsory.
    • Before the pandemic, we started a CRF Cares fund and program to help “the rower beyond the rower,” which includes opportunities for connection and mental health care.

43:40 What changes did you make at the request of patients (Pete), rowers, or coaches?

  • Maida: Feedback from the parents helped. Doing more than just rowing by engaging our parents to see who could talk to our group about topics like nutrition, mindset, etc.
  • Mike: I missed bringing the parents into the fold; I just focused on our athletes and coaches. Parents gave us feedback about keeping them up to date. Not just email.
    • Parent socials, parent-led parent meeting (led by parents’ board)
  • Pete: We had to learn together. Athletes led us in telling us what and how much they needed (communication, guidance, hand-holding).

51:58 What did you hope we would’ve solved by this point but haven’t yet?

  • Pete: We’re seeing human frailty at its core: lack of empathy in that we’re thinking of our own needs vs the needs of the community.
  • Mike: We were working with two different companies to create a virtual racing experience, but once we got on the water, we tossed that idea. It might be useful if we have to go through this again. Example: Winter indoor racing against different teams to make it more challenging.
  • Maida: We feel more connected to other teams now.
  • Mike: We realized our teams feel more disconnected from each other–they want to interact more (men’s novice, varsity, women’s novice, varsity).

Travel

59:46 What travel changes did you make?

  • Maida: We removed all travel-related expenses from our fees and asked families to plan them on their own. That also meant connecting families to band together to cover costs for each other. We have a Sarasota trip that I’m worried about.
  • Mike: We also have a Sarasota trip booked; we’re concerned if something falls through (flights, buses, hotels) or an athlete tests positive. The reality is we have to plan but we also have to be flexible.

Race Experience

1:05:11 How did you approach having a new class of kids AND a class of kids who haven’t competed?

  • Maida: We promoted novices to varsity if they had been in a boat, regardless of whether they competed. There was a big difference from the varsity athletes who have competed and know what they’re training for. Keeping novices engaged was very hard.
  • Mike: We also promoted novices to varsity. Kids no longer know what to expect at regattas, so we just have to be more open in our communication. We held some duels on a 2k racecourse to create opportunities.

Training

1:10:20 Aside from more small boat training, how did you modify training for a time period when you weren’t able to race? Are there elements of those changes you’d carry over to “normal” times?

  • Mike: We’re just going to keep it fun. “If your kids are showing up every day and miserable, you’re not going to win a national championship.”
  • Maida: When we got back into boats, we were in masks, so the goal was not about getting faster; it was about being in the boat.

1:13:10 Do you have specific recommendations on how to balance small boats with the return to team boats?

  • Maida: Small boat programming is 2 days per week in the morning, which doesn’t conflict with our core programming.
  • Mike: We relegate small boats to the summer months. We also make an investment to get 2x and 2- riggers for every two-person shell.

Wrap-Up

1:17:00 What’s the biggest takeaway from the past 18 months of COVID, and what part of that lesson will still be helpful after COVID is gone?

  • Pete: Keep taking care of each other. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we do know we can build each other up, because we’re going to rely on each other to make it through.
  • Mike: Plan, plan, plan, but be flexible. Don’t be afraid to challenge your norms, because this is your opportunity to try new things.
  • Maida:
    • Be prepared for uncertainty. Know how your organization will survive another event like this.
    • Understand how meaningful what you do is to your athletes. Provide as much as you can.
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