row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
College Rowing Coaches Response to the COVID-19 Crisis- Part II
April 20, 2020
Erik Dresser,

With the cancelation of the 2020 spring collegiate racing season last month, programs were left scrambling to make sure their student athletes were safe while trying to make sense of a lost season. row2k chatted with several coaches and staff on the immediate aftermath of the COVID-19 cancellation and some steps moving forward in Part II of our Collegiate Coaches Corner series on the COVID-19 Response. Read Part I here.

The day we found out everything was canceled it was important to me to uphold our team tradition which is to recognize our seniors during a special “dock ceremony”. Our dock was no longer available because our boathouse location was the nation’s first COVID-19 drive thru testing site. Fortunately, our neighbors at the New York Athletic Club allowed us to use their dock.

Zoom has really become clutch for staying in touch with such a large number of people. We’ve been able to host calls with individual athletes, class years and as an entire team to do check ins and socialize, discuss academic and team updates, and even start some team building. It’s really assisted with our ability to communicate and stay connected while social distancing.

With training, our biggest focus is maintaining fitness and staying healthy through this time. Our suggested workout program has tried to incorporate a way for everyone to be able to do something, giving the team the ability to make modifications for what they have access to or where they are. We’ve included a variety of cardio, lifting and body weight circuits, and even workout videos. We aren’t able to do any coaching right now, but our team has been organizing themselves to do some optional work together and support each other while knowing they have their coaches and support staff as a resource.

Slack and Zoom. I normally put a comic on each workout plan that is related to the focus of the day; the team asked me to keep sharing comics, so they have something to smile about. Right now, we’re doing some leadership and sport psychology development remotely, which gives the seniors a chance to impart some wisdom before they move on. And hopefully it pays dividends in future seasons for those who return with greater perspective and maturity.

Our program is meeting twice a week over WebEx. One time just to hang out and chat, giving everyone the opportunity to talk. The second time to do video review as our attempt to keep everyone’s eyes and sense keen and sharp. This also helps everyone continue to grow as students of the sport, not just their own rowing, but to fall in love with watching all different types of rowing. Outside of those two meetings, the coaches check in with everyone regularly about their mental health.

We’ve given them some goals in training. We also are having Zoom calls regularly just so that they can check in and see how they’re doing.

In addition to keeping in touch individually, we created book club groups, read and discussed Grit by Angela Duckworth together. We also met weekly with our sport psychologist to learn mental imagery skills. These are both things that I wanted to do during the year but got pushed aside for one reason or another. It was nice to see faces and feel like we were working on our mental and emotional skills! My favorite thing that we do is each athlete, coach and support staff uploads a short video on Fridays telling the high and low points of the week and giving a shout out to someone who made the week better.

We are having a weekly team meeting on Zoom just to check in and give any updates from the school and to just chat a bit. We have also been doing individual calls to see how guys are transitioning to this new life. We try to have guests on the team call - last week we had alumnus Mac Copp ’16 talk about his training with the Canadian National Team. He gave his perspective on training for the Olympics, then it all comes to a grinding halt, and how he is adjusting and focusing for the future.

The guys really enjoyed hearing Mac speak and put it in perspective to what they are going through. Mostly realizing that nobody is alone in all of this. Some or our guys will have no problem training on their own. Some are really good at it, some will need extra guidance and encouragement. You can build fortitude during this time of solitude. The teams that do that will come back stronger.

Once the guys went home, we immediately got them thinking about staying fit and keeping up with their training: we knew that our guys, and especially the seniors, needed to stay ready for the summer military training scheduled for after what would have been the racing season. A lot of the initial impetus for that came from the guys themselves: the leadership of the team set up weekly challenges and came up with creative ways for guys to do the workouts with whatever they had in their home gym.

A lot of the challenges were not even rowing specific: one was just how many push-ups can you do in 12 hours, another was doing "the Murph," a military Cross-fit style workout, for time, and one week the challenge was just to do the craziest workout you could think of. In addition to a plan of daily suggested workouts from the coaches, these weekly challenges have been giving the guys a reason to keep working hard all week as they get ready to compete on the weekend--just like we would have on Race Day.

In addition, we have meetings with the guys over Zoom, like a lot of teams, checking in both as a full team and with each individual class. During our full team meetings, we have been lucky enough to have an Officer who has graduated from the team address the group. Each has spoken to the Mids about the things they learned through training at Hubbard Hall and rowing on the Severn that they have carried with them into their military careers and the leadership roles they have as officers.

Well we can’t do anything together literally and due to NCAA Division I rules we are basically in summer mode right now so we can’t even direct a virtual workout if we wanted. Also, the Aquatic Center is closed where we row and who knows when it will open and under what operational mode, so it is tough right now. I am trying to keep everyone informed as we get information and will send out workouts to do on their own knowing they will be limited resource-wise in terms of what they can do.

With the recent NCAA eligibility relief ruling we are trying to talk to our seniors to see who might be rowing next year and then focus on the rest of our athletes because I usually meet with them individually at the end of the year. We will try to do that remotely as best we can.

We have weekly optional meetings on Zoom and the coaches are checking in with all of the guys regularly to see how they are doing and to make sure they are all staying on top of their academics. That is the big challenge now; to make sure we still end the semester positively and continue to build off of our great academic results. We aren’t allowed to dictate any training right now and it isn’t really the time to push ahead with hard rowing training, so the guys are taking a mental break and staying fit in other ways. They have group chats and other online ways for them to be in communication and see what everyone is doing while under various levels of lockdown.

Well, everything is virtual now. A big part of being a team is just doing work together towards a common goal. We can’t really be in the same place now, so it’s up to the team to just do a good job communicating with each other about where they are and what they’re trying to do. There are definitely limits on what we’re allowed to do with the squad, so we’re essentially meeting as much as we can and just working to keep dialogue going.

I think our rising seniors are really looking at this as a leadership opportunity for them. They are facing a unique situation that no other senior class has ever had to manage for their team, so they are working together to get their heads around it all and see if we can’t come out on the other side stronger. Any time you have big disruption, it becomes a bit of a stress-test for your leadership. So far that class has responded really well, and I’m excited to see where they can take our team. I think ultimately this will be a big part of the legacy of the class of 2021.

Not sure. We have one guy that we know is coming back. He was enrolled in a graduate program at BU so it was an easy decision for him and we are happy he is coming back. Even if some seniors are thinking about staying or transferring to another program the questions is going to be cost. Do they want to pay for another year, or is there financial aid or any scholarship money to make this happen. We have 13 incoming freshman next year so we are pretty full. Also, do coaches want to take a chance on bringing someone in for one year? For the right person I would say yes, but there are going to be a lot of moving parts in all of this.

This is certainly an unprecedented time, and while the eligibility questions have been answered it’s become clear each conference, university, and team will be handling them a bit differently. Our university has permitted student athletes to use a fifth year here. There are student athletes from universities where they aren’t able to use a fifth year or now want to pursue graduate school who’ve entered the transfer portal and have reached out to inquire about opportunities to use their fifth year here.

As for our program, I’ve communicated to our student athletes if they’re considering a fifth year, we should be discussing it as early as possible, or it may not be a possibility here. Overall, I foresee there being some immediate impacts across collegiate rowing, but with the general tightening of athletics budgets, and the overall financial recession, it probably won’t be as impactful to rowing or spring sports as it potentially could have been.

The current eligibility questions will have a large impact on college athletics over a short period of time. Four years or so on, after any redshirt eligible athletes move on, the cycle of recruiting and fitting into roster numbers will hopefully go back to normal. On that end, hopefully the NCAA and Board of Education have learned how to prepare ahead of time for situations like this pandemic so the decision making timeline is more succinct.

It’s unlikely that spring sport athletes will be looking to take advantage of that at Division III schools. In general, you see super-seniors in fall sports much more often than spring. But I could see some individuals choosing to stick around, if they feel they have unfinished business and it works for them logistically and financially. Who knows what will happen nine hours from now, let alone nine months from now?

A fifth year is not an option for any Midshipman, and it never was regardless of what the NCAA or IRA Stewards might have decided. Our Firsties are set to graduate and commission at the end of the 4 year training cycle here at the Academy, so we knew, as soon as the season was cancelled, that their rowing careers would be over so that the rest of their military careers can get underway. As important as rowing is to our Mids, it is always just one part of their overall formation as officers, so there was never a question as to whether they would be moving on to the next mission.

For collegiate rowing we have the ability to retain some seniors who we thought were leaving so that can be a positive for next year in terms of depth and competitiveness. Some will move on because there is not a good avenue academically or they have a job or graduate school in mind somewhere else or they are just done. It will really vary by program. Also, there is a cost to retaining these seniors that has to be absorbed even though the NCAA is allowing us to cut back senior aid as an option.

The eligibility relief is nice but not everyone can afford to do it. There are a lot of moving parts including less allocated funds from the NCAA for next year and the uncertainty that COVID-19 ultimately brings. Even a program that generates tremendous revenue through their football programs may be conservative in their approach next year because who knows how fall sports and that revenue stream will be impacted. At Sacramento State Rowing we are doing our best to accommodate our seniors who want to row another year.

Other impacts will be felt in the next few years because basically everyone just got a redshirt year. This is unusual for rowing. Now rowers may opt to stretch their academic progress into a fifth year to make up for this year and not just juniors but frosh or sophomores as well so it probably won’t be a large number but the more scholarship athletes that stay an extra year the less scholarship $$ available for high school rowers in the 2021, 2022 and possibly 2023 classes. This combined with the economic damage from COVID-19 could really affect the choices rowers make regarding what school they will attend in the future. Maybe they will decide to stay closer to home or in-state to save money. Maybe they can’t afford a private school versus public anymore. It will be interesting for sure.

At Sacramento State our in-state tuition is very reasonable and hopefully it stays that way. We also have reduced out-of-state tuition for students from various Western States through the WUE program so that may open up some doors for our program given the environment since our school is a great value. No matter what we have to be prepared for changes that may come in terms of school, how we train, when we can train and conditions of training due to the ongoing virus threat.

Grad school was ruled out in the Ivy League, so I don’t think we’re going to see a major influx of fifth year seniors next year, but there still could be a few on each team that end up returning. It’s also possible that underclassmen may try and extend their undergrad degrees to 5 years to get that additional spring season back. I think Financial Aid will be a challenge there, but if all of this were to happen on a major scale, then you’d essentially have a few years where there were 5 classes of athletes on teams instead of the usual 4. In a lightweight league that is already very deep, it could make for some good competition for sure!

I think it’s going to help us a ton. As a young program we’re tremendously fortunate that some of our sophomores and freshmen will have another year to row with us.

I think that giving the spring sport athletes the additional season of eligibility is/was the right thing to do and I’m glad that the NCAA decided to stick to that in the end. Providing opportunities for student-athletes to train and study at an extremely high level is what our programs are all about so that decision is in line with that ethos. We will continue to build the strongest possible team that we can with student-athletes that want to pursue an education at the top public university in the world while training with a great group of rowers that are intent on winning every single day.

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