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West Virginia University holds seminar dealing with keeping athletes connected

MORGANTOWN — Sports as we know them are in a holding pattern.

And as the COVID-19 pandemic continues, there simply isn’t anyone who honestly knows when sports — at any level — may resume or get back to any kind of normalcy.

With that — especially for the players and coaches — comes a myriad of emotions.

Those emotions, dealing with them and ideas on how to keep kids connected were major talking points during a 60-minute, virtual town hall meeting hosted by West Virginia University’s Center for Applied Coaching and Sport Science Thursday afternoon.

The seminar, which attracted upwards of 60 people, featured an impressive panel of coaches and faculty members at WVU. It included football assistant Travis Trickett, Dr. Dayna Charbonneau, director of Clinical and Sport Psychology; Michael Ryan, Program Coordinator for CPASS Athletic Coaching Education; Johannes Raabe, Sports and Exercise Psychology assistant professor; and moderator Kristen Dieffenbach, Director for the Center for Applied Coaching and Sports Science.

The NCAA and major conferences around the country shut down athletics in mid-March and prep sports in West Virginia and Ohio were suspended as well. Because of the trickle-down effect, youth sports such as baseball, softball and soccer have also been put on hold.

Add that to the fact that schools are closed and both states are enduring a stay-at-home order and the variety of emotions that student-athletes — and adults — are feeling has changed significantly.

Even if sports resume soon, at the prep level, it’s going to be an abbreviated season and then a tournament. Obviously, there’s still a chance — in both West Virginia and Ohio — that both states could cancel remaining sports for this school year.

Regardless, of how it transpires, there’s a loss involved, which can be quite difficult for some to deal with.

Charbonneau pointed out that each student-athlete, coach and even fan will have a “natural grieving process” that they must sort through.

“Sports hold such a special place in so many of our hearts and when something like COVID-19 or something else hijacks your typical day or a lot of your season, there’s a loss,” Charbonneau said.

Regardless of which group a person falls in — athlete, coach, fan, parent — Charbonneau stressed communication and even acceptance to allow those people to be able to get through their grief.

“At some point, people will settle into a place of acceptance to recognize the new normal,” Charbonneau said. “That doesn’t mean we have to like it, but it lets us acknowledge where we are and opens a door for us to move through and work with what we have. It’s not going to be an ideal time.”

Unfortunately, as sports affiliated people sit idly by waiting and wondering if and when things will resume, that’s not doing them any good. Quite simply, it’s not in their control.

“The unknown and uncertainty can fuel stress and anxiety,” Charbonneau said. “We have to be able to find the things we can control. And people can start to do that by setting a schedule and routine to help themselves feel like the owner of their day and helps to make them more productive.”

Each panelist stressed that no one is alone in this. Whether it’s professional athletes or youth baseball and softball players, each person is dealing with a similar situation. Thus, talking to someone about what they’re thinking or feeling can be highly beneficial.

Thus far, that’s worked quite well for the Mountaineer football staff, according to Trickett, who stressed that communication has been the biggest thing that WVU head coach Neal Brown has pushed with his staff.

“The number one thing that Coach (Neal) Brown has been stressing is communication,” Trickett said. “If there’s a void in communication, there’s a place for negativity to stall. Communication bridges everything and leads to commitment.”

That doesn’t only apply to major college athletics. Because, like both West Virginia and Ohio high school athletic officials, the NCAA has instructed college coaches to be hands off of their players in terms of directly coaching or overseeing what the student-athletes are doing.

Trickett pointed out that the Mountaineer football players hear from at least one staff member daily. They’re not checking up on them to make sure they completed a workout. They do check in with the players on their academic work, their nutrition and physical well being, but beyond that, It’s more of a personal connection, which is especially important in these times.

“We want to connect with our guys for both the physical and mental health part of things because each kid is dealing with different dynamics,” Trickett said. “When our guys are on campus, we have a pulse for everyone, but when they’re at home in different situations. Actually, football is the lowest priority of the group of things we’re talking to them about.”

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