Pandemic Practicing

Just as she was beginning to think she’d run every last trail in Palo Alto, senior Hana Erickson, the varsity swim and water polo team captain, was finally able to get back in the water last week after the Athletics Department announced the resumption of athletic training on Jan. 20.

“At first I was like, ‘I don’t want to swim to start, that does not sound fun right now, I finally have a good routine going with online school and working out on my own,’” Erickson said. “But after just two practices, I could feel myself having a way more positive outlook on life.”

The Athletics Department officially adopted the Santa Clara Valley Athletic League’s three-season sports schedule on Jan. 21 for the start of official practices and competitions, approving the immediate start of voluntary conditioning for all sports. In this schedule, various scholastic sports are split between three competition seasons, each lasting up to six weeks. Each sport is sorted into one of the four color levels of the California Department of Public Health and the California Interscholastic Federation’s COVID-19 safety tier system based on their level of physical contact. The possibility of a sport being cancelled is still realizable and depends on the spread of COVID-19 around the seasons’ cancellation dates.

I think the three season schedule gives wrestling and all sports a chance to compete,”  wrestling coach Jonathan Kessler said. “Wrestling is now in the third season and the practice start date is April 5, so this gives our sport some time to get to the yellow tier.

Erickson said she has noticed possible issues with this schedule, including the incredibly short break in between her season one and three sports.

“It definitely seems like the schedule that they put out with the three seasons doesn’t really take into account various schools’ spring break or the winter break in February that a lot of the schools have,” Erickson said. “It definitely feels like season two is going to get blown over. But them putting a schedule out there that seems like it might work definitely makes me feel a little bit more comfortable with the whole situation and it  makes me very happy to know that they’re really trying to give us some sort of season.”

Though these three competition seasons do overlap, Coach Nelson Gifford said students can still participate in consecutive seasons as long as they don’t violate the California Department of Health’s regulation that students can only be part of one team at a time. 

For the actual competitions, Gifford said though he doesn’t have a clear idea of how competitions will work as of now, all the coaches are getting together with the representative commissioners for each of their respective sports to work on new league-only schedules, starting with the season one sports.

“I imagined they may be kind of a rolling release, maybe sometime around Thursday or Friday, we might start receiving them,” Gifford said. “It’s a very different year for athletics, a very different year for life … we usually know who we’re playing eight months in advance, but we’re not going to know what the next seven weeks look like until two weeks before we’re supposed to start. And at this point, though, I’ll take it, something is better than nothing.”

As for practices, Gifford said that Paly is taking COVID-19 safety precautions that were successful in the fall and summer: masks, social distancing, having kids fill out a questionnaire when they show up, hand sanitation and spraying and wiping down any equipment that might be shared. Also, though voluntary conditioning has begun for earlier scheduled sports, Gifford said that a large number of Paly coaches are off-campus and therefore not always available to organize out-of-season conditioning.

“Now that we have a three season schedule, it gives us a very concrete idea about when sports should probably start doing their voluntary training,” Gifford said. “We have played around with the idea of having just a general athletic conditioning period for students who want to participate in sports but the coach is unavailable, but we haven’t gotten there yet. Right now, we’re just trying to get season one ready to go and then we’ll address the rest little by little.”

 

Keeping Shape in Quarantine 

After the brief revival of Paly’s athletic conditioning in the fall, many student athletes have taken to training on their own. 

“I was going on a lot of runs and I was doing a little bit of dryland exercise at my house with whatever weights I could find around the house,” Erickson said. “When my brother was coming home from college, he showed me a bunch of cool at-home workout techniques that he had picked up on such as jump roping.”

Varsity basketball player and junior Lucus Sung has been working on improving his skills individually as well since practices first got cancelled in the spring.

“With a couple of exceptions, I can confidently say that I have practiced at least five times a week since quarantine started, whether it is by myself doing ball-handling, shooting or finishing,” Sung said. 

Junior Riley Herron said her experience is similar. 

The dance team, even in light of in-person practice reopenings, chose to continue practicing on Zoom. While online practice allows the team to work with one another, Herron said online training hasn’t helped her in the skill department. 

“Not being able to practice in person or as often has definitely affected my dance skills a lot especially since I don’t have the capabilities of practicing some of the skills I would be able to do in the studio,” Herron said. There’s just no way for me to improve the same way if I don’t have the right resources.” 

Self-discipline, it seems to Sung, is now a requirement for athletes who are serious about their sport, since it is harder for coaches and teammates to hold each other accountable during practices.

“I think that since everything is up in the air, people think that it’s OK to stop being committed to the sport and show up to practices when they want to, rather than doing it for the greater good of the team,” Sung said.

In anticipation of drop in commitment, teams are looking for new ways to hold players accountable. 

The dance team, for instance, has come up with methods that allow them to exercise together, ensuring their commitment to the sport stays on track. 

“What we do is plan specific workouts that we do together as a team over Zoom,” Herron said. “That way people are forced to do the workout which helps us stay fit. We also have workout buddies who we plan different sets of exercises with and do them together over Zoom.”

 

Precautions in Practice

Recently, other student athletes such as junior varsity swimmer Ethan Chien and senior Vienna Liu, a varsity field hockey player and club soccer player, have been doing a combination of individual practices and club practices, which have started earlier than their respective Paly sports practices.

“The practices are incredibly limited, with only one person per lane allowed to swim for only 45 minutes maximum a day,” Chien said. “It’s disappointing that we don’t get to train like we normally do, but it’s for everyone’s safety. Our school team coach has offered some training during the summer and winter of 2020, but like our club practices, they are pretty limited. I’m really excited to start athletic training again, because I know that high school practices will be a lot less limited compared to our club practices (since) less people means more time in the pool.”

Erickson, who has already started training with the Paly swim team, said they have been taking similar COVID-19 safety measures.

“We’ve been split up into three groups,” Erickson said. “We’re going an hour and a half for each group. We all bring our own equipment, no sharing of anything, we have to stay six feet apart, we’re wearing our masks when we’re on the deck, and the group that ends at seven o’clock gets out at a different side of the pool than the side of the pool that we come in on so we’re still able to maintain our distance.”

Liu said that though her hockey field team has yet to start conditioning or practices, her club soccer team has also taken COVID-19 into account during practices; they separate the team into cohorts so their exposure is limited, and enforce basic mask and social distancing policies. She also said Paly practices can be 100% safe as long as everyone takes the correct precautions.

“Especially because field hockey is a fairly new sport, we want more people to join and learn about the sport and it’s kind of hard for people to learn about the sport if you’re not having practices,” Lui said.

With ongoing voluntary conditioning and the turf field on El Camino reserved for the wrestling team two days a week, Kessler said the team is making sure to always stay six feet apart, wear masks during workouts, utilize hand washing stations and never share any equipment or water bottles.

One of the biggest challenges is not being able to practice in the wrestling room,” Kessler said. “Prior to COVID-19, we were in the wrestling room year-round and some of our individuals’ biggest gains were from practicing and competing in the off seasons. Other challenges are lack of competitions and face-to-face interactions with wrestlers.

In addition to the challenges the pandemic has posed to their performance, upperclassmen athletes face difficulties in college recruitment given that recruiters are unable to scout players in person.

According to Erickson, one of the most important water polo scouting opportunities is the Junior Olympics, which was canceled last summer due to the pandemic. In addition, Erickson said it was very difficult not to have the times she would have sent to coaches from her junior swim season, which was cancelled last spring. 

“It was weird talking to coaches who were interested in me and having to send either really old clips for water polo or really old times,” Erickson said. “My friend had to film her practice the other day, just because she had nothing to send to the recruiter and she just wanted her recruiter to see what she looks like in the water right now.”

 

Future Outlook

However, despite these obstacles and SCVAL’s decision to not participate in CCS or State playoffs, Kessler still has high hopes for the season, with the team’s goal set on being SCVAL champions.

“It’s tough on the wrestlers to not be allowed to participate in CCS or CIF because we have wrestlers that have goals of being state champions, state place-winners, CCS champions, CCS medalists and CIF state qualifiers,” Kessler said. “These student athletes work their tails off to get to these levels and it gets taken from them. It’s a tough pill to swallow. Even though this is a tough time especially for our seniors, our number one priority is the health and safety of our student athletes.”

Meanwhile, Gifford just wants his team to fulfill his yearly expectation: to have fun.

“I want every kid in here to have fun, to enjoy being with their friends, to feel like they’re getting something out of this experience,” Gifford said. “That’s really all that matters. It’s great to win, championships are awesome, we have a lot of really awesome competitors who are high achievers in their respective sports, but I think everyone, you ask them, what do they miss most? It’s playing and being good friends doing it. So if I can get that for as many students as possible, then I’m going to take that one.”

Though Erickson has high expectations for both the water polo and swim team, she said she is going to focus on fostering a good environment for both the water polo and swim team members during these challenging times.

“I feel like our water polo team could probably win SCVALs this year and I would be very, very confident in us beating at least some of the teams—and that also goes for the swim team,” Erickson said. “But I do think it’d be really great just to have a lot of fun with the girls and, as a senior, provide a very welcoming environment for some of the new swimmers because this obviously isn’t how it’s going to be for most of their time on the team. As much as I do want to be a really strong swim team, I think it’s also really important that we’re a really strong community, especially because they’re not even able to go to school right now.”

On the other hand, junior Anika Chang, a varsity field lacrosse and club soccer player,said that focusing on individual growth and strength as players seems to be the theme of many athletes during COVID,  especially with no contact and no games.

“I carry this mentality with me now, especially with no contact being allowed and no games to be played,” Chang said. Team sports now feel a lot less competitive and more about individual development. Overall, I take sports day by day and see it more as a time where I can focus on something I enjoy outside of school and just feel extremely grateful to just be out on the field and having the opportunity to sweat and see my teammates, even if it means no games or tournaments.”

Despite the challenge of finding ways to continue to play their sports in this pandemic, Chien, Erickson, Chang, and Liu all said they were excited to get back to their teams. 

“I don’t know what it was but I just realized how important really hard exercise is for my body and the person that I am. And I think just being back with the girls and being on a team and seeing people outside of just the four zoom squares that I see on my computer was really important for my mental health too.”