row2k Features
Collegiate Coaches Corner
Fall COVID Challenges
December 1, 2020
Erik Dresser,

Following the turbulent fall of 2020 season, row2k re-engaged the collegiate coaching community on the topic of COVID-19 and how it impacted their programs. We thank the coaches and staffs that found time to contribute their thoughts during this stressful time.

Multiple coaches responded that their squads weren't allowed on campus in the fall and we wish everyone better luck in getting together with their teams in 2021.

This week's COVID-19 related question:


Well, it's been a year of challenges, that's for sure. That said, I think that, as an athletic department and as a rowing program, we've managed many of the logistical challenges quite well. We're very fortunate to be in a league that took a cautious approach to everything and a department that invested heavily in policies and procedures that enabled students to participate in their sport in the safest way possible under these circumstances. As a result, while there has obviously been no competition, we've been able to train in a well-maintained bubble. Of course, training hasn't been the same as in previous years, but we've been able to create opportunity for an eager group.

With those changes in mind, I think one of the most challenging has been managing the need to divide the team into training groups. Like many places, we've created training groups that don't really overlap and the challenge of managing the effects of that on our sense of team has been on my mind every day. The team's ingrained system of stewardship from freshman to senior year has been interrupted and I think we all recognize it. That's the good news – that we all recognize it. With that, I've had help from all corners of the group in finding new ways to come together and to maintain the unique culture here.

It's really hard to say that there was any one challenge that was bigger than another, there were a few. Of course, health and safety of the student-athletes was paramount in order for us to practice, and F&M established some strong guidelines to ensure that people remained COVID-free and able to participate in athletics. Some of these guidelines required us to rethink practice set ups and scheduling because we couldn't go out in anything but singles, practices were voluntary across the board, and sophomores couldn't return to campus this fall. Even though we didn't have everyone participating in practices, since we don't have 20 singles in the boathouse, we could only get each rower on the water once a week, otherwise they would practice on land.

The other challenge was trying to keep everyone engaged and focused on short and long-term development and goals. It's hard for athletes to continue to train and train without a finish line in sight for all the work they are putting in. Finding small opportunities to achieve success was important, and overall, getting on the water was a big change of pace for the rowers even if it was once a week.

Our campus has been de-densified, so only our first years and sophomores were on campus for the fall term. While it has allowed for a much safer campus environment, we have missed the juniors and seniors and their leadership.

We are also working in small groups, so even though we have 27 student-athletes on campus, they don't really know each other all that well, which is such a stark contrast to how our team normally functions.

St. Lawrence head coach Nick Hughes chats on fall CoVID issues

I think the greatest challenge was the limited amount of time the whole team was ever together. In order to limit any potential spread, we only had one practice when the whole team was together and that was our last day on the water. Every other practice/workout was split into pods/boats that used the facilities at different times. The emotional bonding of the team that stems from personal interaction before, during, and after practice was stunted this semester. I do know Notre Dame and Notre Dame Athletics worked very hard to help reduce some of the obstacles that would have caused more challenges.

The biggest challenge for us was not being able to bond as a whole team in person, face to face. We were in pods and although the entire team met together for one practice, there was no interaction amongst pods. Non-Zoom team building will be a big part of our first couple of weeks in January, COVID depending.

No in-person activity allowed, and no opening of any athletic facilities. We were not allowed to row singles, set up ergs outside, or even open the regular gym. Every one of these facilities remained closed the entire semester. Coaches were forbidden from organizing any type of training/congregation of their athletes aside from Zoom calls. With no available activity the disenfranchisement of the athletes has been the hardest thing to deal with.

We had quite a few challenges this fall due to restrictions in terms of space for ergs (our athletic facility is being renovated) and limits on women in vans to practice. We were also restricted to singles for the duration of the fall. The biggest challenge though was to give the women that sense of team that they thrive on. Not being able to row in big boats and execute full team interactive practices due to the restrictions put upon us made keeping the team a cohesive unit very difficult. Our freshmen never got to truly know our upperclassmen and vice versa.

We held a team challenge that drove our training through the fall and allowed for the women to get some sort of competition within the team between our pods. Also, the captains coordinated a team game night that we executed virtually, and we had a fun practice competition for one of our last Saturday practices which allowed for our whole team to attend at once while remaining socially distant. While we had so many challenges, our team handled it all very well and we had an overall successful fall.

I thought it was really important for the team to train together as much as possible. So, finding an outdoor space that would accommodate 60 rowers was the first priority. Fortunately, we were able to use the baseball stadium concourse from third base around behind home plate up to about the right field wall. The women loved it; especially the couple of times we erged in the afternoon during baseball practice.

Finding times to lift in small groups was difficult but after a few weeks doing circuits outside we were able to go through protocols to allow the entire team to get in the weight room with masks. We also created training pods based on living arrangements and carpools so while we initially rowed in singles, pairs and fours, we were able to get in eights a few times.

I think trying to keep the team together has been the toughest. No rowing, RP3s in the gym, limited strength training opportunities, etc. The kids are also very limited with their on-campus time as most classes are virtual. In fact, due to the recent rise in cases, the campus is all online and all athletic related activities have been prohibited. All we can do right now is be responsible and hope for the best after the holidays.

That's a tough question because there have been so many challenges since we were shut down in March last year, including connecting with recruits, getting to know our freshman, and keeping the team growing in a challenging environment. However, the number one thing for our team is creating a sense of "sisterhood," which is obviously hard to do when you can't even give a teammate a high five. That said, I'm really proud of how well we've worked together this fall and the persistence our women have shown in continuing toward our goals.

I think the biggest challenge of the fall has been just dealing with uncertainty (I'm sure this isn't anything new for most programs).

We haven't been able to do anything as a team all fall. Our winter camp has been approved so hopefully we can start with that and have some form of spring training and racing. The guys have all been great about maintaining their training on their own or with their respective national teams.

Building team cohesion; how to train and problem solve with the athletes (ie 'coaching the athletes'), how to build team culture in this distanced world. It meant we had to strip down and redefine what was 'mission critical' and what was the 'value add.' I remember John Madden on Sunday NFL TV - he would analyze the intangibles of a team on game day.

I can see how Codified Knowledge can still be delivered by virtual means. It is not the best, but it still works. An example, "do this many minutes on the erg with some stretching in the month of December and you will be in good shape for a 'PR opportunity' on the erg and racing season in April." Where I am unsettled is how Tacit Knowledge is passed; it is acquired through experience from our upper classmen 'leaders & hosts' of culture to our newest athletes 'followers & guests' on the squad. It is experienced directly 'on the shop floor' in doing it and through mostly unspoken actions of being together as a team.


  • Approval process for Standard Operating Procedures when interpretation of guidelines varied at different levels of approval.
  • Finding ways to keep novice engaged when we can't compete or be on the water.
  • Maintaining engagement of Varsity members who know the thrill of being on the water.

We have so many international athletes, and just getting into the country was such a challenge back in August, our biggest issue this fall has been having enough kids to row a sizable fleet from day to day.

The biggest challenge of the fall was trying to handle a long list of the unknowns. From a coaching standpoint planning and preparing is important to me but with COVID, you really had to be ready to change at any moment. From a student-athlete standpoint, I think they really missed the competition of the fall season, w. Which meant we had to find ways for them to be excited to row without a race around the corner.

The biggest challenge of the fall season was the inability to personally connect with athletes off the water. While we worked with small groups of athletes on the water, we were not able to work with them one on one on the ergometers, or in the rowing tanks. We would normally schedule individual tank sessions to work on technical issues that they were having difficulty with on the water, or to just solidify changes they had made. These sessions also enable us to connect with each athlete individually, which is something we really missed this fall. Traditionally, the fall has also been a time to build team culture and chemistry. This was difficult to do with the team training in small groups, rarely having the entire team together at one time.

Building team chemistry and camaraderie while maintaining physical distancing standards has been tough. Particularly early in the season, there was a bit of a learning curve on what athletes could and couldn't do. And, of course, it goes against just about every ounce of human nature to be physically distanced from your teammates, especially after they'd been apart for so long. Although it was challenging, the team did a great job of embracing the necessary changes while still finding creative ways to get to know each other, spend time together, and build a sense of "team" together as a group.

The first 10 weeks of our fall was all online, and consisted of a couple of Zoom meetings a week and prescribed workouts. This was definitely a challenge and we saw a significant drop-off in participation as the weeks rolled on; thankfully we were given the green light to start in-person practice a few weeks ago and it has been great. Lots of guidelines to follow, and the school has told us it isn't practice, but 'conditioning.' It's a long way from our normal routine, but great to have the majority of the team in person and getting some work done.

OCC four in eight (Credit - Jim Jorgensen)
OCC four in eight (Credit - Jim Jorgensen)

Lack of water time and lack of racing meant a real difficulty in creating moments for motivation or selection, so it was hard for the team to feel momentum towards any specific goal. The athletes who handled the training the best were able to really internalize their goals and set their sights on personal benchmarks instead of exterior goals.

We've seen more mental health challenges for a number of understandable reasons. The need to remain diligent and aware of safety considerations at all times can be stressful for our student-athletes. One rower described it as feeling like he always has to be "on".

We asked our rowers not to leave campus on weekends in an effort to maintain a bubble, which was challenging for some rowers, especially freshmen for whom going to college is already a big transition.

There's also the decrease of normal stress-reducing social activities, including informal group socializing that college students would normally have, as well as larger team social events (like Saturday morning post-practice brunches at my house) that we would normally have.

Also, the lack of racing was definitely a bummer for a lot of members of the squad. We got in a lot of quality training, as well as intra-squad competitions, but of course they love to race other teams too.

Additionally, typically we have most of our men's and women's practices at the same time, whereas this year we ran more separated/individual sessions (with fewer rowers per session). This meant a lot of coaching hours for our staff (~25-30/week), not including recruiting/admin/maintenance/etc., and that was taxing at times.

The biggest challenge for us was simply to have practice, and have it resemble any kind of practice that we would have considered "normal" in the past. Cornell University had all 4 of the classes back on campus, but the rules set up for the safety of the campus and community really slowed our progress. We had a long wait to even get started in very small groups.

Eventually we were allowed on the water, but we had to be 6 feet apart, and wear masks regardless of the distance. So that meant either rowing the single, or rowing in 8+ but only having 4 rowers, and masks had to be worn at all times.

The worst part wasn't having to row in different boats in different ways, but really it was the lack of team. It was so hard to get the team to be a team even on regular Zoom meetings. There is no replacing a team meeting after a great row, or a dinner or brunch following a challenging workout. I feel we have made some good opportunities, and had some fun, but it was harder to create, versus having the whole team practicing and racing together. Even teaching and learning from each other was harder because you simply did not have that much contact with the rest of your team when it mattered.

It's a challenge we have embraced – reminding the guys, through action and activity as a team, that there is so much value in what they do as oarsmen, student-athletes and teammates that transcends the bounds of simply preparing for competition.

Getting the entire squad together, physically in the same place, continues to be very difficult, given campus restrictions on meeting size and location. Academic schedules normally allow only early mornings when everyone is available for practice, but the boathouse is limited to twenty-five rowers, female and male. The challenge came down to a choice between some large team activity on the fields at campus or getting on the water.

Really hard to pick just one. As a new head coach, it was a challenge not to be able to meet, get to know, and work with all of our athletes in person. We trained with a small group who were great, and we were also able to maintain a virtual presence with the rest of the team. We got quite a bit of work done, but not as much as we would have in a normal year (we were only allowed to train up to 12 hours/week).

Just getting going again was a challenge. All of the safety protocols, testing, PPE at practice, daily COVID screens, cleaning/sanitizing, masks, etc. There were a lot of hurdles to the extent that we actually didn't have our first erg practice until October 26th! We still haven't been down to the boathouse yet and I don't expect we will be for quite some time.

Although the end is in sight, as of Thanksgiving we are still in the teeth of this pandemic. We have done a lot of things differently, all by necessity. Some seem to have worked well, others I would jettison. Here in Philadelphia, we have six college teams run by experienced and qualified coaches. Each one has taken a very different approach to dealing with these circumstances.

We are really grateful for the work the department has done to create the opportunity for us to train safely. With that opportunity has come a need to be flexible and an ability to pivot on a moment’s notice. We may have one plan we think is sound and manageable; and then an hour later we have to completely change our approach. I know this experience is far from unique! Our strength coaches, athletic trainers and student athletes have been tremendous in this uncertain space.

We have been training almost exclusively outdoors this fall. Our ergs have been outside of our field house this fall and we plan to move into the stadium come January. With that move we will be able to have the entire squad together for and erg session, which we haven’t been able to do yet.

There are so many challenges this year for everyone but some of the biggest here are logistics and consistency. With protocols put in place to provide the safest environment for everyone, it has led to new moments of figuring out how to make practices work within those protocols. Usually we have a plan A, B & C daily. Those definitely had to be redefined. But, through all of that, we have kept moving forward, trying to provide some normalcy to their lives.

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