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Leading In Uncharted Territory

By Jill Bodensteiner, St. Joseph's

Athletic administrators across the country have joined the rest of the world in confronting the unprecedented threat of coronavirus, which has unapologetically disrupted the wonderfully predictable rhythm of the academic year in ways none of us could ever have expected. Many of us had been monitoring the virus’s initial outbreak in Wuhan since mid-January, yet few anticipated the outbreak’s scale, speed and impact intensifying to the degree it did in early March.


On Wednesday, March 11, from the 2020 Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championship at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, NY, my conference counterparts and I learned of the NCAA’s decision to conduct its upcoming championship events, including the Division I men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, with only essential staff and limited family attendance. My being in Brooklyn, removed from campus colleagues but in the company of my trusted A10 peers, provided me with the space to digest this new information, assess the situation from multiple vantage points, and begin anticipating possible next steps. The morning of Thursday, March 12, Saint Joseph’s President Mark C. Reed announced that the university would extend its Spring Break through March 18, transition to virtual instruction beginning on March 19, and that all students were encouraged to return to their primary home residence if their situations allowed. Shortly thereafter, I arranged to speak with my entire staff, a group of approximately 100 coaches and administrators, via Zoom video conference to share what I knew of the university and NCAA’s most recent decisions, and to offer my thoughts on how to prepare for additional change. Hours later, the national office announced the historic cancellation of the Division I men’s and women’s 2020 basketball tournaments, as well as all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.


Much has been written about the importance of university and departmental emergency action plans, but the development of such plans cannot possibly fully prepare leaders for the rapidly changing public health crisis that is coronavirus, a pandemic that will be regarded in later years as a generation-defining moment. This is uncharted territory and we are relying heavily on the good judgement and goodwill of colleagues within and beyond our campuses. In Brooklyn, the NCAA’s cancellation of all remaining championships, developments across the country, and the advice and counsel of a number of trusted officials made clear that we needed to take a series of difficult but essential steps in order to safeguard our student-athletes, coaches, administrators and staff, while contributing to larger efforts to stem transmission of the virus. With the support of the athletic directors and the league’s Presidents’ Council, A-10 Commissioner Bernadette McGlade announced the cancellation of the A-10 Men’s Basketball Championship, a decision she would later echo with regard to remaining Spring sport seasons. Obviously, these decisions were incredibly emotional for student-athletes and coaches across the conference and the country, who put their heart and soul into competing and representing their institutions. Much of my focus shifted to monitoring the emotions of the student-athletes on Hawk Hill.


Leaving Brooklyn on Friday, March 13, I grappled with the immediate and inevitable disruptions, aware of the thousands of variables that would challenge our individual and collective strength in the days and weeks to come. There were countless questions to which I did not have answers, but I knew the situation demanded that I: (1) move swiftly and deliberately to assume both reactive and proactive approaches to logistical planning; (2) communicate frequently, thoughtfully and honestly with key internal and external constituents; and (3) prioritize, above all else, the health and wellness of our student-athletes, for whom the entire athletics enterprise exists. To help prepare myself to lead and best understand what our student-athletes and coaches were feeling, I spent the drive home from Brooklyn talking to each of our Spring sport coaches. The calls were surprisingly uplifting, as I was amazed by the resilience, compassion, and understanding of the bigger picture exhibited by our coaches.


Assuming reactive & proactive approaches to logistical planning


As is probably evident, March 11-12 proved to be a period of considerable, yet purely reactive, logistical planning. When Dr. Reed announced the changes to our Spring academic calendar and online class delivery, followed by cancellation of the Spring sport seasons prompted by the A-10 and NCAA decisions, I asked our senior staff to account for and document the whereabouts of every student-athlete. I wanted our spring sport coaches to be ready and able to meet with their student-athletes in person to the extent possible should spring championships be cancelled, and I wanted a coach or administrator to make personal contact with each of our international student-athletes about their travel and accommodation needs. In the first 24-48 hours, it was hugely important to me that our student-athletes felt supported, cared for, and understood. Their sense of loss, I knew, would be real, but it would also be shared.


In an effort to better anticipate the emerging concerns of student-athletes, soon after returning to Philadelphia on March 13, I engaged a previously established steering committee of three administrators, two coaches, and eleven student-athletes to discuss the department’s response to the university and NCAA announcements. This group and my senior leadership team stepped up quickly and with enthusiasm, setting clear priorities for our response, identifying key decision points, and empowering others to act. By demonstrating not just a willingness, but a genuine eagerness to quickly and effectively address the needs of the community, individuals broke down barriers to cross-campus collaboration and formed partnerships that expedited the deep cleaning of athletic facilities and equipment, aided the movement of student-athletes off campus, and equipped student-athletes for a full transition to online instruction.


In terms of proactive logistical planning, the fluid nature of the situation has demanded that we not only react to recent developments, but also scenario plan for the months ahead. We don’t know the depth and duration of this pandemic, but questions regarding summer camps and clinics, student-athlete eligibility, scholarship limitations, recruiting efforts during an extended dead period, and athletic finances loom large. With the outbreak having pitched the financial markets into turmoil, we know higher education will be put under considerable strain. We will need to re-imagine our athletic fundraising and development activities, a key driver of our strategic planning efforts. In the weeks to come, we will have fervent discussions and debate about what our new normal might entail. As we work through the complexity of this situation and its proposed impact, we must also work to make forward progress on pre-coronavirus initiatives, making adjustments where necessary but not letting the immediate consume so much of our energy that we lose sight of moving the department forward.


Communicate frequently, thoughtfully and honestly


Now more than ever, with the uncertainty surrounding coronavirus weighing heavily on all of us, it’s critical that leaders communicate frequently, thoughtfully and honestly, sharing what they know and what they’re working toward. From the moment the NCAA issued its limited attendance decision, marking the start of a whirlwind of activity, I have sought to address the size and scope of the situation as candidly as possible, not wanting to alarm student-athletes, coaches and staff but also needing to make clear the magnitude of the situation. Notably, oral and written communication across the athletic department has included an explicit acknowledgment that our first response may not be our final response. The rapidly changing nature of this pandemic means we must maintain a sense of perspective and demonstrate a willingness to adjust course as we learn more from federal, state and local authorities. Equally, I have tried to reiterate and underscore what it is that makes St. Joe’s a special place, an attempt at reminding fellow Hawks that our belief in the power of community, our commitment to the student-athlete experience, and our care for the whole person will serve us well in this extraordinary time.


As the department’s leader, I have also begun to think critically about how to foster feelings of connectivity when student-athletes, coaches and administrators are physically separated from one another for an extended period of time. With the postponement and cancellation of numerous events and gatherings, and with most of our daily interactions having moved online, maintaining a sense of who we are as a community is more important than ever. Regular check-ins with student-athletes, coaches, and administrators via the full range of tools available to us will be central to our collective health. We cannot underestimate the power of asking those for whom we are professionally responsible two simple questions: “How are you?” and “What can I do to help?”


Prioritize student-athlete health & wellness


To that end, we need to accept that this is a highly stressful time for everyone. Understandably, as information about coronavirus unfolds, student-athletes may experience a wide-range of thoughts, feelings, and reactions. The abrupt curtailing of the spring semester and the subsequent loss of routine, structure, closure, and daily in-person connections has caused heightened levels of anxiety and profound sadness for many. At St. Joe’s, in an effort to help our student-athletes navigate these emotions, we’ve taken several steps. For example, our departmental sport psychologist held small group, virtual counseling sessions with our Spring sport seniors, and has created a HIPAA-compliant tele-therapy module; we provided our entire campus with complimentary access to Calm, a sleep, meditation, and relaxation app that aims to lower stress and anxiety; and we have planned professional development sessions with our coaches – the first one focused on forming connections during challenging times. We have also worked to provide our student-athletes with access to available campus resources which are operating in new ways.


Embrace the promise of a new normal


This situation is requiring all of us to lean heavily on the core principles of crisis management, strategic planning and accelerated innovation. We will undoubtedly come through this crisis with new found strength and innovative ideas for how an athletic department should operate within the context of a university and higher education at large. Against the backdrop of this unprecedented pandemic, I have been inspired by the ingenuity and determination with which student-athletes, coaches, administrators and staff are adapting to new forms of work. The outpouring of time, effort, commitment, and personal sacrifice has been palpable. My hope is that the coronavirus, as challenging as it will be, will force us to rethink who we are and what we value. In the years ahead, as a result of this emotionally, physically, and financially taxing period, we may find ourselves having embraced a more sophisticated and flexible use of technology, developed a creativity and nimbleness not often associated with our line of work, accepted that flexible work arrangements need not adversely impact performance, and reoriented our relationships with others and the outside world.


In these times, I am reminded of my many blessings in life, including the fact that I work with student-athletes, coaches and administrators who inspire me every day. I am deeply saddened by the health, financial, and other hardships created by the global pandemic, at home and abroad. There is much work to do on each of our campuses, but we can always find time make a difference in our communities. I am so encouraged at the outpouring of action and love from the college athletics community to those in deepest need. Keep leading.