How sports teams can stay connected through COVID-19

Gyms, pools, sports centres, and even playgrounds have all been shut down to slow the spread of COVID-19. Team sports, group activities, and play dates are all on hold too. Now, families around the world are looking for creative ways to be active at home.

For author Angie Abdou, a lifelong swimmer, the pandemic has put pool time on pause for her and her children. Without the usual schedule of swim meets and other activities, she’s found time to rediscover her love of activities like running, and to have fun shooting hoops with her kids, thanks to a new basketball hoop she installed at home. Although swimming is currently out of the question, her kids are staying in close connection with their teammates at the local swim club, thanks to videoconferencing and some creative dryland training.

AfL: How old are your kids? What team sports or group activities is your family involved in? 

AA: My daughter is 11 and my son 13. This year, my daughter did ski racing, swim club, and Guides. She also played school basketball one morning per week. My son had begun to focus almost exclusively on swimming, as well as a little bit of school sport. Together as a family, we usually downhill skied on the weekends, when we weren’t traveling for competitions.

About the interviewee

Angie Abdou is the best-selling author of seven books. Her first novel, The Bone Cage, was a finalist on CBC’s Canada Reads, while her newest book, a memoir called Home Ice: Reflections of a Reluctant Hockey Mom, hit the Canadian bestseller list and the #1 spot on Amazon Canada’s bestselling hockey books. Abdou is an associate professor of creative writing at Athabasca University. Her next book, This One Wild Life, about hiking with her daughter, will be published in spring 2021. You can find her on Twitter.

AfL: Are their teammates, coaches, or program leaders doing anything special to socialize, train together, or stay connected in other ways during self-isolation? 

AA: Yes, the swim club has been great. For the younger ones, they have a Zoom meeting once per week, but they don’t try to do a workout. They keep the meeting light and focused on games and conversations with prizes for contests, like a trivia quiz about the coaches. Those weekly meetings work to keep the kids connected to their coaches and their teammates so that when we are able to go back to the pool, they will still have that relationship and will be excited to see everyone again.

I like the fact that the coaches acknowledge the importance of the athletes’ relationships and prioritize maintaining those. The head coach also sends out two dryland workouts a week, each of which includes a small five-minute fitness challenge. The athletes can win awards for sending in their results on the challenge, which works as motivation.

The older kids meet on Zoom more often: they do three dryland workouts together a week (an hour each) and then two more fun chitchat meetings more like the ones the younger kids do. The dryland sessions are good for my son. He’s more likely to be keen and work hard when he has a coach giving him instruction and some friends keeping him company, as opposed to me or his dad nagging him to stay active. Then, since those sessions motivate him to stay fit, when we do ask him if he wants to go for a run or do a little circuit in the gym, he’s more likely to say yes.

As a parent who values an active lifestyle, I am grateful to these coaches for keeping the clubs going whatever way they can. I also notice that connecting with friends regularly, even if it’s virtually, really improves my kids’ moods.

AfL: How exactly does a swimmer work out on dry land? 

AA: That’s funny! My mom was so confused when I said, “Ollie is upstairs, at swim practice.” Good question. They use an app called Train Heroic and do burpees and squat jumps and planks and knee-ups and jumping jacks. That kind of thing.

AfL: Daily and weekly routines have changed dramatically while we all try to maintain social distancing to reduce the spread of COVID-19. How is your family staying active at home? 

AA: My husband and I both fall into the category of people who have to exercise to stay cheerful, so we made “stay active” arrangements very early in the COVID-19 crisis.

My husband set up a training circuit in the garage. It’s very easy to do. We have seven stations: skipping rope, doing squats, performing step-ups on the Yeti cooler, dribbling the basketball through a small obstacle course, holding a plank, and doing (dreadful) chin-ups. We use a free tabata app on the phone and make each station a minute. Three times through makes for a workout just over 20 minutes, one that we all feel in our muscles the next day. We’ve never exercised all together like that, since the kids are typically busy in scheduled programs. It’s surprisingly fun.

The other big change we made in response to social-distancing measures? We bought a basketball hoop for the driveway. I always resisted this purchase because I am cheap. Our town has local courts—I thought if we don’t want to play badly enough to walk five minutes to a court, then we don’t need to play. However, public spaces are now out. We’re here at home, always. I justified the purchase by counting all the money we’ve saved by not going to swim meets and other competitions this year.

It turns out I love having a hoop in the driveway. Now, we play basketball together every day. One-on-one or two-on-two or even just shooting hoops are great activities that don’t feel as much like effortful exercise (in contrast with the circuits). All four of us have a lot of fun, and the hoop gets us off our devices and up out of the couch.

AfL: Have you taken up any new activities or hobbies, or revisited sports you used to play but had to put aside to make time for things like swim meets?  

AA: The kids come jogging with me now. We make sure to go in totally unpopulated areas, and we keep a safe distance from the odd person we do see. I had been a regular lifelong jogger, but fell away from it in the fall when I got wholeheartedly back into competitive swimming. Back at running after a long break, I am taking my time about upping the distance and intensity because my old body definitely feels the impact. I do love being back outside, though. Trail running is a wonderful way to spend an hour or two in the woods. The kids have never come jogging with me before because their days were always so scheduled. I enjoy the different kinds of conversations I have with them as we jog through the woods.

If COVID-19 is going to come in waves and we need to plan to experience closures again down the road, then I’m glad my kids have the gift of a passion for running. Running is an especially great sport in a time that we need to avoid crowds and stay away from public facilities. That sweaty, continuous movement is so good for the mind in times of stress too. My kids even look healthier and happier after they come in from a run.


Related read: How to encourage kids to run


AfL: Are you also using this time to work on skills training related to your regular sports? 

AA: My son has always had trouble with shoulder flexibility that hinders his swimming somewhat so I do remind him to do his shoulder stretches regularly, which will put him in a good spot when we’re ready to get back to the pool. Similarly, I occasionally mention that the running and circuits will improve their fitness, which they’ll notice when they get back to competitive swimming. However, I’m trying to curb that tendency in myself—the focus on the competitive aspect and the emphasis on doing this training to a certain end. Those comments don’t motivate the kids as much as I thought they would, and with so much uncertainty, my future-focused comments might only draw attention to what we’ve lost.

Emphasizing cross-training might provoke my kids to ask: When are we going back into the pool? When will we have swim meets again? The truth is: none of us knows. So I’ve quit stressing that we do exercise with the goal of being better at swimming. Instead, we do exercise because it feels good, improves our mood, keeps us sane, and builds strong, healthy bodies.

Plus, exercise is fun. These bouts of activity have become the highlight of each day. The cross-training aspect is still there, of course: maintaining fitness, strength, flexibility, cardiovascular health, and endurance will help with whatever sport kids do when this is over. But we don’t talk about our activities in that way anymore, at least not very much.


Related read: Playing different sports and activities is best for physical development


AfL: Have you found any positive outcomes from breaking with regular routines? 

AA: Yes. Definitely. In addition to enjoying being active as a whole family, I’ve been surprised by some less obvious changes.

First, the kids sleep more. They’re growing so fast and we always had them getting up early for swim club or basketball practice or ski racing. We do not get them up early anymore. I think they are finally getting as much sleep as they need. Seriously, they’re growing right in front of my eyes—and without the crankiness and exhaustion that I tend to associate with this phase. 

Also, we’re eating very well. We have set up a meal-preparation schedule, so the kids are cooking a couple times a week for the first time in their lives. They have to think about nutrition and healthy choices.

In this slower time, we have struck a three-way balance between eating well, sleeping well, and exercising well. I wonder if we can carry that balance forward when we resume regular activities. I so look forward to being able to try.


Related read: What to feed your active child?


AfL: Do you have any advice for families who are missing team sports? 

AA: Remember the cancellation of team sports is temporary. Athletes excel at overcoming adversity. Use that strength here. Stay active. Stay connected to your teammates. Do workouts with your friends via Zoom even if it’s a simple stretching session. If you’re running or doing circuits of some sort on your own, make a little competition with your teammates and compare times or reps. Set up a weekly challenge. Comparing workouts in that way will remind you that you’re still part of the group and that you’re in this together with your teammates.

Full family boys-versus-girls basketball is filling some of the team-sport gap for us, until we can get back racing in the pool with our peers. Meanwhile, I tell my kids, “How about channeling some of that competitive, focused energy into your homeschooling?” That gets me a good eye roll.

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