Contact Sports In Times Of COVID

With Oberlin College student-athletes returning to practice, coaches of contact-heavy sports have had to navigate new policies and regulations to ensure the safety of players and staff. All fall contact sports, including men’s and women’s soccer, field hockey, and football, started their practices in smaller groups and have gradually expanded the number of players on the field.

Head Women’s Soccer Coach Dan Palmer says that practices have been going well and that his players seem to have fun despite new precautions. 

“The team has been following protocols outlined by our head athletic trainer and team doctors, which include daily temperature checks, wearing masks, social distancing, and gradual integration of small groups of players,” Palmer said. 

However, Head Men’s Soccer Coach Blake New emphasized that for teams working with smaller rosters, practicing in larger groups doesn’t eliminate all obstacles. 

“It has been a challenge with only 14 players on campus — [our junior class is 10 guys] and four of our six seniors are graduating in the spring,” he said. 

These challenges have also remained a question for Head Football Coach Steve Opgenorth as he works with players to create an environment that is both safe and rigorous. 

“Trying to recreate gameplay when you’re not even allowed to have that many people together has been difficult,” he said. “That’s the one thing that keeps me up at night as a football coach is preparing college football players without the interaction of 11-on-11 offense versus defense game. It’s been difficult, but it’s even more of a mental challenge for the players.”

Opgenorth explained that the football team has had to approach practice creatively. 

“We’ve installed two-minute periods, so instead of going against a defense, we just have to adjust things and keep throwing out different scenarios to the team for them to react to,” he said. “The ideas are new but necessary.” 

Head Field Hockey Coach Jess West is optimistic and actually believes that no-contact has benefitted the field hockey team by pushing them to get creative with their plays. 

“Taking away contact has actually helped us as a team,” she said. “We have been working on hitting drills to continue working our keepers. Focusing on hitting has also allowed us to work on our accuracy in the cage. I have also taken a lot of time to work on basic field hockey skills. We have the time now to perfect those skills, which is awesome.”

The field hockey team has been able to focus on more technical aspects of their sport through scrimmages. 

“Scrimmages are 7-v-7 on a modified field,” West said. “Again, we focus on a passing game to help speed the game up. I coach with a good, better, best style. During our scrimmages, we focus on the best passing options and the best way to defend. A goal of mine from last season was to work on our back pass options as well as swing options. Small field scrimmages allow us to work on these skills.”

The women’s soccer team has also tested out some new drills and practice techniques.

“The first two weeks we did technical exercises and technical games in groups of seven wearing masks and did not engage in contact,” Palmer said. “Since then, we have gradually progressed from  1-v-1 to 5-v-5 activities and are looking forward to ultimately playing 10-v-10. We plan to have two intrasquad scrimmages at the end of October. We are excited about that.”

Although navigating the pandemic has required a lot of adjustment for contact sports, many coaches see this as an opportunity to work on their teams’ needs. The football team has been able to focus more on team culture. Opgenorth is most proud of their “Real-World Wednesdays” segment. During this time, the team has conversations about things outside of football, related to social justice or experiences of Oberlin campus culture. 

“[We’re] allowing our guys to ask questions, learn, grow, fail, and then overcome those failures and then succeed,” he said. “Obviously, our players are not being thrown into the fire and competing on Saturdays, but they’re learning a lot, and the growth there has been outstanding to watch and see.”