Reflections on a COVID Fall Athletics Season

Due to the COVID-19 crisis, Swarthmore’s student body has existed in a fractured state this past fall semester, with some students exclusively Zooming into class and others existing  in a perpetual state of Sharples carry out. The semester has forced students to reimagine the quintessential “college experience,” as students are scattered across a continuum of geographic space and time zones. For 40 percent of students, varsity athletics serve as a major component of college life, compelling the sports teams to restructure their fall 2020 programming in response to the COVID-19 crisis. With the Centennial Conference suspending athletic competitions for the fall season, Swarthmore coaches and student athletes have had to creatively adapt to a balanced regimen that simultaneously improves their teams’ competitive levels, fosters team unity among students both on and off-campus, and safely follows social-distancing protocol. 

Under normal circumstances, the fall athletic season combines lifting, practicing, and team bonding to produce winning outcomes in competitions. However, the sports teams have had to adjust their season goals in the absence of most upperclassmen teammates and opportunities to compete with other teams. According to shifting COVID regulatory phases based on Pennsylvania case numbers and strict social distancing guidelines, varsity teams can conduct some of their typical programming. Lifts must adapt to limited capacity in the Matchbox, restricting physical contact between equipment and team members. Meanwhile, only a fraction of the team can practice on their practicing surfaces at one time, forcing teams to split up into smaller “pods” with different assigned practice times. 

According to Cole Smith ’23, a player on the men’s soccer team, this season grants him and his teammates the opportunity to focus on improving their technical skills and strength training. Noting the smaller squad on campus, Smith recognizes the advantages of a more personalized interaction with the coaches.

“[The coaches] haven’t focused as much on the game aspect because they just know that we can’t scrimmage, we can’t do any contact. So they say, ‘Let’s see what we can focus on, which is your actual technical ability.’ So, for me, I put a lot more focus on my touch and how quick I can make decisions,” he says. “The coaches are giving every different player their own little thing to work on. So they’re all constantly talking to us, making sure we know what we need to work on in the next couple weeks while we have the time and just getting the most out of what we can do.”

Mainly consisting of underclassmen, the on-campus cohort this past semester introduced a group of first-year student athletes who had never experienced Swarthmore athletics sans COVID guidelines. First-year field hockey player Alex Kelleher ’24 stepped onto campus without the nostalgic memories of preseason, pre-game pump-up sessions, or communal away-game bus rides that her older teammates cherish. Reflecting on this concern of missing out, she optimistically recalls ways in which her coaches attempted to salvage the first-years’ opening seasons.

“The coaches have definitely been good about trying to make it feel as normal as possible, kind of going out of their way to make sure that we get a good experience. Just a week or two ago, they had us take pictures in our uniforms and have that formal experience all together. That was really fun since we wouldn’t have gotten to do that if the coaches hadn’t talked to the athletic department about it and gotten a photographer to come.”

For those returning to campus as second-, third-, and fourth-years, many older players have also extended their support to their younger counterparts, making concerted efforts to organize socially distanced opportunities to facilitate a cohesive team camaraderie. Women’s tennis player and co-captain Sonia Varma ’22 illustrates her team’s efforts to foster team unity during this fall season, the tennis team’s typical off-season. 

“One thing that’s been really great about this semester and this year in general is that we have been doing a lot more of programming as a team outside of actual physical tennis, which has been really really great. They’ve been taking us on hikes in the Crum Woods, obviously socially-distanced and with masks,” she explains. “We did a movie night for Halloween, where we got permission to hold that in the tennis center since it was big enough to hold all of us to socially distance.”

Similarly, Smith recounts his attempts to connect with his first year students. “Me and another sophomore, Bless, have an apartment in NPPR. It’s little things like saying, ‘I know you guys don’t have a lot of common spaces right now. If you wanna come down here we can all follow the rules and we can hang out and do work and play XBox just to get to know you guys.’ 

This focus on team cohesiveness also extends to those off-campus — those teammates attempting to maintain their connections via their pixelated screens.  The coaches of the interviewed athletes encourage these students to sustain their skills to the best of their ability, providing athletes with practice and workout plans. Field hockey, for example, employs weekly Zoom meetings, some including the coaches, through which the teammates also keep in touch and bond. 

“We have a program every Sunday, where we do either just the players on Zoom or with the coaches,” Kelleher explains. “When it’s just the players, we do a fun game on Zoom, I think we played Pictionary one time or just random fun games you can do over Zoom or to get to know each other better. That’s with everybody who can come, and some people are obviously in different time zones, so they can’t. But it’s just getting to meet people who aren’t here that obviously the freshman have never met in person. And then, opposite Sundays, we do film with everyone, and that’s with the coaches, and that’s more for playing and understanding positioning.”

For those on campus, team-related programming necessitates the priority of safety, calling for a conscientiousness that involves not only the individual but also the greater community. 

Discussing the realities of playing a team sport under COVID guidelines, Varma mentions the caveat of having to play with a mask.  

 “It was definitely an adjustment having to wear a mask while doing intense exercise because while we practice we have to keep our mask on at all times except for when we go to drink water. So actually having to play tennis while wearing a mask has been an adjustment. Definitely, breathing is a little more difficult, especially when you’re doing intense cardio, but that got easier as the semester went on. It’s a small trade-off to pay to just know that everyone is safe.”

With students moving off campus this week, the fall athletic season is coming to a close, as are the challenges of social distancing, practicing without the goal of attaining a conference title, and navigating campus without many upperclassmen teammates. In reflection, though, Smith accounts for the positive aspects of his fall season and semester, which even allowed him to develop relationships with people outside of the soccer team.

“I think that now with the semester coming to a close and the experiences I’ve had, I wouldn’t change my decision. I definitely feel like coming here was really beneficial, getting to have direct contact with the coaches on a daily basis, getting to meet the freshmen, getting to expand the relationships I already had, and getting the on-campus experience while it was available was definitely worth it.”

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