While walking through our usually electric athletics footprint, I was struck by the silence as I passed the empty baseball park that should have been hosting a home series and the quiet Husky Softball Stadium ready to host the Washington and the USA Olympic teams in a sold-out exhibition. No matches on the tennis courts, and no track athletes out for a training run around the lake. Our rowing teams weren’t unloading shells in the parking lot during what was hopefully another championship season.
Our academic center was void of co-workers, who are like family, and student-athletes loudly bouncing in and out, celebrating an A on the paper they worked on for weeks or grimacing at the thought of a midterm that was harder than anticipated. Coaches weren’t bringing in recruits or celebrating the previous team’s GPA for the quarter.
I sat in my office and cried.
Professionals in academic services and student-athlete development live for our engagements with student-athletes. Our days are filled with hundreds of interactions, both positive and trying, but impacting our students gets us up every morning and leaves us with a smile or laugh as we put our heads down on the pillow at night. And while we engage with our students remotely over Zoom, it is not the same for our students, our staff or our coaches. In a culture of high-fives, hugs and daily celebrations, it can be isolating.
Yet in these moments of isolation, fear and uncertainty, I have seen daily examples of extreme ownership, value-driven leadership, moments of celebration and selflessness. Just a few of the many examples of staffs coming together to serve our student-athletes include:
- Our IT staff’s relentless pursuit of laptop computers and hot spots that we could secure for our student-athletes who did not have access to technology at their “home schools.”
- Our medical and athletic training staffs, who have been on the front lines and are providing leadership and direction with care and compassion.
- The strength and conditioning staffs, who are putting together workouts with minimal equipment and maximum creativity.
- The marketing and digital communications teams working in partnership with our student-athlete development staff to create a memorable virtual graduation experience for our seniors who are not returning.
- Each coaching staff stepping up to monitor virtual study tables, check in weekly on students’ academic progress, and serve as cheerleaders for tired academic and compliance staffs.
- Compliance staffs navigating through unknown territory and assisting students and families with the myriad questions and concerns that have arisen in our new world.
- The university bookstore tirelessly ordering and sending textbooks around the world.
- Our athletics administration showing unparalleled leadership and heart in making the best decisions for our student-athletes, coaches and staff in unprecedented times.
- Student-athletes showing leadership, gratitude, perspective, grit and humility. They balance academics, team Zoom meetings, their own workouts and training with additional responsibilities of caring for siblings and parents and being with families instead of teammates.
- Academic services and student-athlete development staffs, who have showing creative problem-solving, patience, relentless work ethic and resilience.
Some of the most valuable opportunities have been our weekly team meetings with head coaches and senior leaders. We have opened with timely updates and answering questions, but most of the time has been focused on connection and professional development. What an honor and privilege it’s been to learn from our coaches and staff, gaining insights we never made time for before COVID-19.
Other resources have proved invaluable.
Besides Zoom and Microsoft Teams, one of the most important resources is the app Headspace that we have provided to our student-athletes. It is a meditation and positive mental health app that our student-athletes have embraced during these stressful times. Our mental health services are still available remotely to student-athletes, but Headspace meditations provide additional coping strategies and stress reduction in real time.
Our athletics department Staff Council has created weekly “challenges” for staff in the five key areas of physical health, mental health, food and nutrition, professional development, and activities for children at home. Prizes are given, and victories large and small are celebrated across the department. Parents within the department are sharing best practices for juggling home schooling and work. Spotify playlists of staff “walk-up” songs provide some much-needed music and connection.
Collaborative Zoom calls with professional colleagues and friends in both the NCAA and the N4A have promoted best practices, creative problem-solving and connection that make us all better in serving our student-athletes. Rivalries don’t exist in the COVID-19 era. We are all on the same team, working for the same goals.
I have never been prouder of being a part of not only the Washington athletics team but also the entire college athletics family. I am confident we will all get through this and be stronger for the experience in what will be a dramatically different athletics world. Most of all, I look forward to the day when the silence gives way to the cheers, the competitions and the graduations we have all come to love being a part of.
I believe in the unique healing power of sport in our lives, our communities and our world.