Student-athletes get creative: approaching new workout routines

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Whether Emily Thompson is listening to her favorite song, finishing homework, eating a quick snack or conversing with her teammates, the two hour round-trip to Greencastle is well worth the investment of time and money. 

Thompson, a sophomore swimmer from Fort Washington, Pa., is currently living in an AirBnB in Indianapolis for the semester. Thompson doesn’t have a car, so she relies on the carpools with her teammates and friends for the two hour commute three times a week for practices at DePauw.

Although Thompson had an option to live on campus, since she is a sophomore, she chose alternative living accommodations that are only a drive away from DePauw. “I chose to live in Indianapolis because I didn’t want to live on campus with all the rules that were put in place that limited me from seeing my friends,” Thompson said.

Thompson is one of the roughly 160 student athletes who did not return to campus this fall. For those who did, a number of changes were implemented for COVID-19 precautions: the fitness center was closed, coaches had to reinforce the social distancing rules and athletes had to adopt new workout routines.

Director of Athletics and Recreational Sports, Stevie Baker-Watson, oversees all 23 of DePauw’s varsity sports, which compete at the NCAA Division III level. When approaching the needed changes, Baker-Watson says that she made a personal commitment to the students and coaches that all athletes would be supported to stay fit and be ready to compete whether they are a campus resident, remote commuter, or a completely virtual student.  

Baker-Watson reinforced with the coaches and athletes that “health and safety come first.” 

Baker-Watson sees the fall as an opportunity for athletes to practice their sport in ways that follow COVID-guidelines so when they compete in the spring they will be prepared. 

“Athletes cannot come into the dugout and high-five a teammate any longer or jump in somebody’s face and scream and yell at them and use that as motivation to create excitement” Baker-Watson said.

Between March and June, Thompson wasn’t able to swim. Since she hates running, she turned to her Peloton Bike for cardiovascular exercise to keep her endurance levels high. During that time, the swim team shared a Google Drive containing YouTube workout links, so everyone would be doing the same exercises at home. 

Living in Indianapolis keeps Thompson motivated because she can work out with her team and socialize with her friends, which helps to justify the cost of online classes. 

This fall, the swim team moved from two practice sessions in the pool per day to one. To complement their workout routine, they all purchased resistance bands for mobility and strength training. 

Another swimmer, Jake Frech, an on-campus senior from Springfield, Ill., feels a toll this semester, due to not having preseason workouts and missing over 25% of the team. 

Even though Frech returned to campus, the on-campus swimmers were placed in quarantine on two occasions this semester, limiting the entire team to only two weeks of formal training. “If you are not in the pool, you cannot stay in shape,” Frech said.

During quarantine and throughout the semester, the swim team tried to stay unified through Zoom calls to discuss training tips, and use Google Hangouts during virtual Netflix parties and online Pictionary games.

Baker-Watson asked herself, “When fall concludes, how do I get the athletes to feel like they are in a better place regarding their skill set than when they started?” She realized that student athletes had to pretend they were playing in the actual game environment.

When practice started, athletes could only work in groups of ten students at a time and in many sports that does not even give you an offensive or a defensive line up. Students were forced to think of the skill building aspect of their sports because the rules had changed.

Baker-Watson said that cross-country and tennis saw the smallest changes to their athletic programs while the other team sports “tried to see the silver lining.” For other teams, it was more drastic, especially for athletes living off-campus. 

This new routine, “Forced the athletes to change the way their bodies were playing the game and how they were responding to it,” Baker-Watson said. 

Many students have taken personal ownership in expanding and customizing their workout routine.

When remote learning was announced for the fall semester, Cooper Mixon, a junior basketball player decided to stay in his home town of Troy, Mich. 

With no daily team practices to go to, Mixon uses a combination of biking, elastic bands and a weighted ball to stay in shape either in his high school gym or his garage. He said that he works out more at home than he did at DePauw because he exercises at least five days a week for two to three hours. He even added yoga to his weekly routines. 

The majority of Mixon’s friends from high school returned to their respective universities in the fall, so his dad often accompanies him to the gym. He uses working out as a break from his schoolwork. Although getting in quality workouts hasn’t been an issue for him, Mixon misses scrimmaging, or a “full five on five run” due to limited access to other players. 

Senior Claire Keefe, from Libertyville, Ill., is living with a group of female basketball players in Indianapolis. Living with her friends and teammates is something that Keefe enjoys, especially since it gives her an opportunity to live in a city outside of her hometown. This living arrangement allows them to play hoops on their own fantasy team. 

Baker-Watson also mentioned that several members of the women’s soccer and volleyball teams that were living off-campus are also participating in adult league games to develop their skill set and to stay engaged. 

To adjust to the shift in team dynamics, coaches made the conscious decision to not only develop a plan to condition athlete’s bodies but also focus on skill and team building. The volume of training this semester would be less than a usual season in the past and many students would have to develop an initiative to figure out what works for their fitness needs.

When Deborah Zellers, the women’s volleyball coach, would normally be finalizing the starting line up, or developing strategies to attack the team across the court, Zellers was forced to “be flexible and pivot in a different direction.” She asked herself what else she could do, and promptly added mentor and advisor to her job description.

The volleyball team went from six practices a week to three, plus one mental health day, which is comprised of yoga at the campus farm, a run at the nature park, or Frisbee golf. The outcome is a team bonding video focused on the mental health development of the athletes.

To stay connected with remote athletes, Zellers has delivered packages filled with sports gear and personalized messages from the team. 

Zellers is also using this opportunity to create space for professional development opportunities for the athletes by using resources from the Hubbard Center, investigating graduate school options, reviewing community service initiatives and strengthening the bonds between teammates. 

Most students said they miss competing and being around their friends, so they plan to return to campus while a few will still be commuting or remaining completely virtual.

There are an average of 600 student athletes at DePauw and Baker-Watson estimates that approximately 5%, or roughly 30 athletes, will not be returning to campus this spring. Baker-Watson said their reasons include, “health and safety concerns, financial focus and [that athletics are] not their thing anymore.”

Baker-Watson worried that if student athletes didn’t have an opportunity to compete in practice, they won’t want to be on campus.

“The virus is in control and we are living in its world right now,” Baker-Watson said. Even though COVID has caused a massive shift in peoples’ lives and devastated society, Zellers tries to keep her team focused on things that she sees as positives like spending extra time with family.  

“This generation of adults is far more resilient than generations in the past,” Zellers said, adding that she believes and they will be able to adapt to life’s changes much easier.