I texted my buddy the other day and told him how excited I was to have had the opportunity to coach a group of high school kids in the weight room the other day.
His reply was “Happy New Year!”
That response stemmed from a conversation we had in which I referred to the start of the school year as my New Year as opposed to the one we all celebrate on January 1st. I love the start of school—the kids’ excitement to be back whether they admit it or not, new shoes, and the smell of freshly waxed school hallways. But before we get to the start of a new school year let’s talk about the current situation.
It has often been said that a college or university football program is the front porch to their establishment. The same analogy can be used with High School Fall Athletics and the start of the new school year. Recently the government relaxed some restrictions around social gatherings and working with athletes. While adhering to social-distancing and small-group guidelines, we waded into the waters of returning to play and a new normal. I realized that fall sports are not where the return to schools will take place, but it is rather right now on athletic fields, courts, and high school weight rooms across the country.
Success, Success, Success
I have prepared 3 separate rooms inside our facility to accommodate the small-group training/coaching restrictions. During a trial run in these spaces with a group of athletes, I stressed the importance of what we were about to do. I told them that we weren’t just going inside to train, we were going inside to show everyone that we could adhere to a new set of standards and norms that will allow us to move past the digital/online society of the past three months.
I gave it to the athletes bluntly as I told them that there were a lot of people that didn’t want them inside our school. These people didn’t want them gathering in groups and jeopardizing their community’s health.
I explained that successful summer athletic training could be the steppingstone we need to progress to fall sports in August. And if they did this right and had a successful Fall Sports Camp, we could likely start school. I elaborated that if we can start school and did that right, we could have a fall sports season. What I had thought was our front porch has now become secondary to how we get to the fall sports season.
During our first week back, we didn’t put anyone in the weight room at all. I stressed to my sport coaches and administration that it was going to be important to let the athletes figure out and adapt to the new set of standards. Parking, for instance, has never been given second thought until now. Now, it is as important as which door or gate the athletes enter or exit. Kids forgot shoes, water bottles, lost their keys, etc. It was all a process but they figured it out pretty quickly. The end of week one lead to a small select group of athletes training inside to stress test the system before the grand opening. We had kids going to wrong doors, still forgetting shoes and water, etc. But this learning curve will adjust.
The kids will adapt and figure it out, because that is what they do. They don’t want to be left out and will adjust to the group norm to be a part of the group. We aren’t just coaching sports, strength, and training. We are coaching kids how to function within the new required guidelines. If schools think that kids will just follow directions on the first day of school, they are in for a very rude awakening. The same goes for the community—the first football game of the year will be one of the largest outdoor gatherings most people have attended since March. They too will have to learn how to adapt and accommodate new norms. The same goes for everyone going inside for the first volleyball game. We aren’t just educating the kids but we are educating the parents and community as well!
The Next Pandemic…
The public will be much better prepared for the next pandemic that comes along I’m sure. I say this tongue-in-cheek as it has been a mantra for several of us as we navigate this one. The fact is that no one was ready for this and we didn’t know how to respond other than to ride it out. Recent trends are showing us that a return to schools in the fall is a reality. At least it’s something we can think about and envision compared to where we were on the topic last spring. But if we do achieve a “new normal,” we must start working our plan now.
Johnson is a graduate of Normandale Community College, Augsburg College and the University of Minnesota, playing football at both NCC and Augsburg. “RJ” teaches physical education at Wayzata High School and is the Strength and Conditioning Coordinator for Wayzata Public Schools, a position he began in 2000. Wayzata Athletics have captured 52 team state titles in histenure; Johnson works directly with the three-time state champion football program as Director of Operations and Player Development. He is a member of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist as well as a Registered Strength and Conditioning Specialist – both certifications with Distinction and is the Minnesota NSCA State Director. NSCA awards include Minnesota High School Strength and Conditioning Professional of the Year 2010; State Director of the Year 2013; Strength of America Award 2015; and 2017 National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year. In 2017 he became a founding Board Member of the National High School Strength Coaches Association (NHSSCA); and serves as a Regional Director for the organization. A former volunteer firefighter, he also received an Award of Merit from the Minnesota Department of Health and Safety for participation in a lifesaving CPR/AED effort to revive a player that suffered sudden cardiac arrest while at practice. Johnson is a frequent clinician, speaker, author and his Wayzata Trojan Power program has been visited by over 50 other high school and small college programs. He also volunteered his time in the Rockford School District where he and his wife and four children reside by serving as the Rockford Area Youth Athletic Association President and Youth Football Director.