Keeping a Team Going When There’s No Practice or Competition

Story by Sean Bilsborrow ’94

When coronavirus cut the spring season short, Cavalier coaches were presented with the unprecedented challenge of keeping student-athletes motivated, engaged and active — without the benefit of the in-person interaction and attention that are critical during a typical season.

Losing the season left a significant void in our daily lives — one with physical and emotional implications. All that hard work put in during the offseason and all those goals our teams set to work toward were seemingly nullified, with the health risks and uncertainties of the world around us adding another layer of potential anxiety.

Coping with adversity is a cornerstone of one’s athletic experience. Whether dealing with a loss, battling for playing time or rehabbing an injury, DA athletes are well-versed in addressing conflict, and it would be those character traits which would be so important in handling such an impactful, wide-reaching challenge.

The speed and intensity with which our administration and athletic department rallied to provide us with resources and assistance was inspiring, as was the ability to communicate with my fellow coaches and to hear and learn from their efforts when creating a plan for the varsity boys tennis team. Several things were important from the offset:

  • In order to maintain motivation over multiple months, we needed to decide on a course of action as a team. If my players bought in, they would be more likely to hold each other accountable.
  • It was important to set the bar high, both in terms of frequency and variety of team activities. Akin to following a workout routine — the more one does, the more results one sees and the more one wants to do. Minimal communication would make it easier to cut corners or check out altogether.
  • Our plan needed to address both the physical and emotional aspects of the season having been cancelled. On the tennis court, we often discuss the relationship between physical and mental fatigue, where the former is often more noticeable, but is actually created by the latter. For our team to avoid complacency as the quarantine wore on, we needed to engage both the body and the mind.
  • Lastly, this plan needed to be FUN. There were enough stressors in the world around us as it is; time spent with teammates and coaches needed to be a welcome distraction rather than an added obligation.
  • With these pillars in mind, we came up with the following program — one that I’m pleased to report our team followed in mid-May with the same steadfastness that they did in mid-March:
  • A 20–25 minute, tennis-centric workout that all 15 of us (13 players plus two coaches) would complete, seven days a week. Upon completing the workout, we would post the brilliant #cavstogether to our team group text. If we had 100% participation for a certain number of days by the end of the school year, I would spring for a team outing to Dave and Buster’s. As of writing this, we were two days away!
  • Weekly team video calls, which were a cathartic means of seeing everyone together. We ended each of these calls with some laughs by playing an online party game from JackBox (highly recommended for fun with your families and friends). Often I would leave the meeting open and the guys would hang out longer afterward.
  • Weekly individual video calls — it was great to have this time to have “empty slate” conversations. In the process, I learned more about each of my players than I probably would have during a normal season. I hope they got as much out of these calls as I did!

At the beginning of the season, we stole a page from Carolina basketball by starting each day with an inspirational/meaningful quote and interpreting it on an individual basis. We decided to keep this new tradition going during the distance learning period. Anyone from famous athletes and musicians to historical figures and animated characters found their way in.

Comprehensively, this plan has served the varsity boys tennis team well. We did have a built-in advantage of a smaller roster size compared to many of the spring programs, which undoubtedly made communication easier. But the guys deserve so much credit for their dedication to the team and to each other — something that should only make us stronger next season!