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A (socially distanced) look at Carleton practices this fall

Despite the postponement of games, the spirit of competition never disappeared from Carleton’s campus this Fall. After months of meticulous planning and preparation, some normalcy finally returned to the Knights’ athletic department in late September as varsity teams resumed practice, albeit with multiple, unprecedented public health protocols in place for all. After spending a month or so adjusting to the “new normal” of their athletic careers, athletes and coaches were asked to reflect on differences from last season and some of the new challenges they are faced with.

The safety measures put in place by the Physical Education, Athletics, and Recreation Department (PEAR) are part of a phased plan, which, according to Athletic Director Gerald Young, was developed in coordination with the College’s COVID-19 Core Team, as well as the MIAC. The department took into account official requirements and recommendations issued by the CDC, NCAA, and the Minnesota Department of Health while creating Carleton’s guidelines. 

The implemented protocols include—but are not limited to—more frequent sanitization of equipment, a requirement for athletes to fill out a daily COVID-19 symptom tracker before arriving at practice, and a few new pieces of technology, including electronic whistles and handheld speakers that prevent the spread of spit particles while coaches are communicating. 

After a two-week pseudo-quarantine before any practices took place, Phase I began with a focus on individual skill development. In mid-October, the athletic department transitioned to Phase II, where teams are permitted to increase contact to accommodate playing within pods for fewer than 15 minutes per practice. Limited, socially distanced locker room usage is also now allowed. 

One of the most dramatic, widespread changes in the phasing process was the implementation of practice “pods” within each team. In an effort to minimize student-athletes’ close contacts and reduce the potential for virus spread amongst teammates, squads are split into pods (groups of 14 people or less) who practice, meet, and work together, while maintaining separation from their team’s other pods. 

Michaela Jellsey, Softball infielder: The biggest change for my team is definitely the introduction of practice pods. Essentially, the team is split in half, and we have to have completely separate practice and weightlifting schedules.

Bert Bean, Football wide receiver: We have staggered practice times to keep us in separate pods, specific paths we take through the stadium and track, our own water bottles that we fill up by stepping on a hands-free lever, and plastic visors to act as masks over our helmets… we currently cannot mix our pods, which means the offense and defense cannot go against each other.

Even within their groups, athletes have had to alter their normal routines to maintain safe distancing.

Kenyon Nystrom, Men’s Cross-Country: We can’t run all together with everyone. We also have to carry masks everywhere for whenever we pass other runners on the trails, and we cannot change and get ready for practice in the Rec Center.

Charlie Hall, Men’s Soccer midfielder: Socially distant practices means play is non-contact, which limits what we can do to certain drills and forces the coaches to be creative when designing practices.

Still, coaches and student-athletes have strived to maintain a somewhat typical team experience inside their pods.

Natalie Mun, Volleyball setter: Since each of our team’s pods consists of 8 players, we can’t create game-like situations as easily, but the coaches incorporate the mental toughness component by having us do drills like pressure serving.

Libby Franchot, Women’s Soccer forward: Within pods, I would say the dynamic is pretty much the same as it always is; we’re competitive and push each other to get better, while still cheering each other on and having a good time at practice.

Despite the sweeping changes, some sports have had an easier adjustment than others.

Stephan Zweifel, Men’s Tennis Head Coach: Given the natural social distancing involved in tennis, we are fortunate that the new protocols have created only minimal changes in our practice structure. I’m hoping we will look back on this adventure as an affirmation of how much we value the privilege of being able to participate in collegiate sports. 

Not only have the new protocols altered the format and content of practices, but they have also affected the way in which the members of each team can interact with each other, both on and off the field.

Kristin Miyagi, Women’s Golf: In some ways these changes have brought our team closer together because the walk to the Northfield golf course takes about 30 minutes each way, so we have plenty of time to catch up with everyone.

Tammy Metcalf-Filzen, Women’s Basketball Head Coach: Eventually, having endured this time well could serve as a positive in the team dynamic category.

Jellsey: We’re not getting the time we usually would as a whole team to bond, grow, and get to know each other, both on and off the field; but I think we are a resilient team and will bounce back to our natural team chemistry once we can start working as a whole team again. 

Many players have expressed approval of their team’s overall handling of the season so far.

Franchot: Interim Head Coach Jessica Mueller has done an amazing job making practices worth the time, and making us better while keeping us as safe as possible. For example, placing cones 6 feet apart for our bags, implementing partner work where we are at least 6 feet apart, adding new challenges onto skills we already know—we now have to juggle jog as opposed to just juggling.

Hall: I think the soccer team has adjusted about as effectively as we could. Our practices have exceeded my expectations, while keeping things safe.

Mun: I think it’s a learning process for everyone. But it seems like the coaching staff and administration are taking things as they come and adjusting as we go. In practice specifically, we’re being as safe as possible, so I appreciate all the precautions the athletic department has put in place.

Normally, the focus of every team’s season is fairly straightforward, but this year, without the shared goal of victory, each team has their own individual challenges to work through.

Bean: The biggest obstacle we’re facing is that we currently have no season. We are hoping to play a quasi-season in the spring, but it does feel like we are practicing for games in 2021.

Jellsey: Since we didn’t get to have a season last year, it’s been quite a while since any of us have thought about softball in “game mode.”

Metcalf-Filzen: Our biggest obstacles are not being able to gather as a group like we normally would: not being able to go up to dinner after practice together, not being able to do the typical things a team would do to get to know one another better, etc.

Jack Heinzel, Men’s Swim and Dive: As a social member of the team, it’s hard to build relationships or create new ones with new team members. There is not a lot of “social” time during a practice with social distancing.

Franchot: I think the biggest obstacle is making sure everyone stays healthy, not just within the team, but the school as a whole. We’re doing everything we can make sure we can play as long as possible.

Bean: Despite the weirdness, everyone is happy just to be out on the field playing football. 

Some of these challenges have proven to be slightly less pressing for the school, although perhaps mildly “concerning” for the town at large.

Zweifel: Now that everybody is wearing masks and my glasses routinely fog up, I have occasionally started team practice with random Northfield community members.

This season has also provided teams with a chance to try out new ideas, both to stay connected and to make distanced practices more convenient. Some of these changes have proved to be quite popular and may continue to be used in future seasons, even after the end of the pandemic.

Hall: Since we knew things would be different this year, we started communicating with the incoming freshman much earlier than usual. We had regular team meetings/calls over the summer to help keep the team connected. I think going forward we should strive to keep the team better connected throughout the year.

Miyagi: I think it is great that the equipment at the stadium is frequently sanitized after each workout.

Metcalf-Filzen: As coaches, we are finding different ways to teach and drill concepts and fundamentals. Our focus, because we have had time, is to really break things down into smaller chunks—helping our players see how every drill fits into our offense or defense. By doing this, we have found them to be able to pick up the big picture much more quickly. We have had every player—whether they play on the inside or outside—step into repetitions that they wouldn’t normally have. We feel like this is helping them understand what their teammates experience.

Mun: Our emphasis on personal relationships this season, since we don’t get to spend time in practice with the whole team, is something I think we should continue into the future. We have team speed dating, where we get a meal with at least one teammate every week, and I think it’s a great way to be intentional with our relationships.

Franchot: I think the big emphasis on individual work has been really nice. In a typical season, practices revolve more around team play and movements. But it’s really nice to just focus on making yourself better with absolutely no pressure of defenders, offsides, etc. I would love to see the continuation of these drills after COVID.

Even with all of the changes, every athlete has plenty of reasons to be enthusiastic about this upcoming year. After all, it is still the start of a brand new season, regardless of how that season may look.

Heinzel: I’m excited to finish off my senior year at a high point, and to get to know my new team members!

Miyagi: I’m excited about the possibility of a spring golf season and the chance to compete in tournaments again!

Metcalf-Filzen: I am excited about the people in our program! Despite the challenges, they are working hard, trying to care for one another well, and are focused on getting better. I would not want to be working with any other folks in a challenging time like this!

Jellsey: I’m looking forward to when we can come back together as a whole team and let this experience bring us all closer. You don’t realize how important some things are until they’re gone.

Bean: I’m excited for when we get a COVID vaccine. Only then can we return to the Carleton experience we once knew and loved. Get on it Bio majors!

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