Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, AthleticDirectorU chats with a trio of athletic trainers about dealing with COVID-19, the demands on leadership, mental health of student-athletes and staff, communicating up the ladder in their department and more.
There are a myriad of complex challenges in dealing with COVID-19. What have you found to be the most acute or demanding for your individual leadership position?
Jacob Moore (Head Football Athletic Trainer – East Carolina) – I think the biggest challenge in dealing with COVID-19 is the ever-changing policies and procedures. We have not had to face anything like this before, so everything is new, guidelines seem to constantly change as we learn more about the virus. Staying current with the latest guidelines can be a challenge. Especially as there can be differing protocols between conferences, universities and communities across the country.
Mike Nicola (Assistant Athletic Director – Athletic Performance – Nebraska Omaha) – The most challenging aspect of COVID-19 is the responsibilities of balancing COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and keeping institutional policies and procedures in line with NCAA and conference guidelines all while providing care for our student-athletes on a daily basis.
J.C. Weida (Head Athletic Trainer – Montana) – As a leader in athletics health care working in a pandemic dealing with the COVID-19 virus, the most demanding part currently is the fact that the virus is new and the knowledge and science are changing.
These changes create a moving target of requirements and a shifting of best practice for the prevention of the spread of the virus which can be hard to follow and even harder to implement. This alone would be problem enough. The other issue this creates is a level of disbelief by the student-athletes, coaches and the public in the government, both federal and local, as well as health care providers in general in how they are dealing with COVID.
Another troublesome issue is the commitment to follow the COVID guidelines of those in the group of college age individuals when not in a controlled setting. Once a protocol is in place monitoring and enforcing this protocol at all times is tough. We only have some level of control of the student-athletes for 4-8 hours of the day. Getting everyone to buy in to what needs to occur in all the other hours of the day is tough.
We’ve all seen & read multiple reports on the challenges of mental health amid the pandemic. How are you consistently assessing the mental health of BOTH your student-athletes, but also your own staff?
Moore (East Carolina) – I think we have become more conscientious over the past 10 years or so with mental health and even more so now during the pandemic. It is tough and stressful for anyone to have to remain in quarantine/isolation, especially the student-athlete, who is accustomed to a schedule and regular intense exercise. Taking that away for two weeks really changes their world. To help combat this for those that are quarantining due to being deemed a close contact we are allowing for some regular daily supervised exercise. Unfortunately for those that are isolated due to a positive test, we are somewhat limited. Twice daily phone calls assessing not only physical symptoms but checking on their mental well being are made by the athletic training staff. We also provide resources through our counseling center on campus and community.
As an athletic training staff, we are often our worst patients. We have definitely seen an increase in our responsibilities and stress levels as a result of the pandemic. As a staff we try to do small things throughout the week; splitting hours throughout the week or just taking an hour off here or there, just to step out of the office.
Nicola (Omaha) – I am trying to communicate with the student-athletes and my staff as much as possible. This may be by phone call or in person. When students are in the athletic training room I try to speak to them, ask them how their day is, what’s new, etc. I have always operated with a Teddy Roosevelt quote in my mind, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” As a result, I try to connect with the student-athletes as best I can to show them I care for their well-being and I am there if they need anything. Relationships are so important and this is more true today than at any other time because if you have that relationship the student-athletes may confide in you or you can tell if the student is struggling with an issue and suggest resources that may help.
Many of these same things are important with my staff. We spend a lot of time together and your staff becomes an extension of your family. You can spot when things are off with your staff when you talk to them because of the time you spend together. You know when a staff member is not doing well based on body language and their personality.
Weida (Montana) – As far as dealing with student-athletes mental health, my staff and I provide access to counseling resources both in person and via teleconference. We check in regularly with screening tools and education about COVID and mental health. We encourage student-athletes to try to keep some level of normalcy and to focus on trying to maintain a routine that includes good sleeping and eating patterns, as well as making time to study and workout as well as socializing smartly in small groups.
As far as staff mental health, I try to remind them and educate them about how to keep themselves and their family safe first and that we can only control what we can control, again focus on self first. Then focus on caring for athletic injuries, (I dare to say the normal stuff), and then take time to do other hobbies and stress relievers when not at work. I personally work hard as the leader of the training room to problem solve the COVID stuff so they can focus on athletes.
Has the current paradigm changed how you communicate with your staff and/or others within athletics leadership (frequency of meetings, depth of meetings, record-keeping processes, outside parties, etc.)?
Moore (East Carolina) – Communication between the coaching staff continues to be daily, maybe a little more frequent as we keep them constantly up to date as players report symptoms and have to quarantine/isolate. We continue to meet with the coaching staff in-person following the proper guidelines, while most of the communication with other departments are relegated to email, phone and video conferencing.
Outside of the athletic department, we have increased our communication with healthcare providers that we normally utilize less frequently: cardiology, lab technicians, infectious disease and county health boards. And in regards to COVID record keeping, that has become a full-time job.
Nicola (Omaha) – Prior to the pandemic, the athletic training staff would get a lot accomplished in informal meetings throughout the day. Now, due to gathering restrictions, physical distancing, and masking, much of the communication is done through talking on the phone or zoom. Many of the zoom meetings from an athletics leadership perspective have been clear and concise. As a result, I find them more productive.
Weida (Montana) – Communication is key to running a good athletic training facility at any time. During a pandemic communication is extremely important. Many athletic trainers like or use face-to-face or hands-on care as the main means of working on or caring for others. COVID has changed that significantly. The phone and computer (zoom meetings) have become even more instrumental in daily life. One of the biggest changes for me personally is the increased interaction with the campus community. Usually we in athletics take care of ourselves. The campus community has become an integral part of the day for me. That communication includes our campus health center, our research labs for testing, on-campus housing for quarantine and isolation, and our local health department for reporting and contact tracing. This has brought to the forefront the relationship a full campus community plays in dealing with a pandemic.
Earlier in this Experts’ Roundtable we asked about the “most acute or demanding challenges,” but what about under-the-radar issues that may not be as high-profile, but equally as important? Any learnings that you’d like to highlight for others around the nation?
Moore (East Carolina) – One of the more demanding challenges that may be under the radar is the scheduling of appointments. In the world of athletics, specifically the coaches, we have become accustomed to expedited healthcare services. The entire community has been affected by the pandemic. Our providers have had to adjust and change how and when they can see patients as they face challenges due to the pandemic. We have seen some delays while scheduling non-COVID related issues as our providers are limited to appointments due to capacity or as they try to catch up from appointments lost due to the shutdown in the spring; making it even more important to remain patient, often difficult when working in athletics, and continue to foster the relationship with our outside providers.
Nicola (Omaha) – Many Athletic Trainers and Healthcare administrators are consumed with COVID-19, but the other components of athletic training are still there. Practices at most institutions continued throughout the fall so we continued to be present at practices, evaluate athletic injuries and treat and rehabilitate student-athletes. We have injury documentation to complete and communication with coaches and physicians. Some of us also have additional administrative tasks such as institutional drug testing, athletic injury insurance claims, budget and procurement tasks, and mentoring of students, to name a few. These are all important to the overall function of athletic training and in providing for our student-athletes.
Everything I do is for the student-athletes and that is what keeps me operating at a high level each day.
Weida (Montana) – I have learned that having a good working relationship with multiple parties, including our campus health center, our research labs for testing, on campus housing for quarantine and isolation, and the local health department, is ideal when dealing with the frequent changes and that education about COVID is a never ending battle!!