By late July and August of this summer, most facilities and program administrators were getting anxious about the many return-to-play (RTP) questions. Skill development coaches and hockey schools were equally concerned as their ability to train athletes had turned to online components and some small group dryland sessions.
What facilities are open or opening?
Are they safe?
Who is qualified to lead training and practice?
What are leagues, associations and sport governing bodies recommending?
When do we get to play again?
These are just some of the questions concerning players, parents, guardians, administrators and coaches.
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So, it are the national sport governing bodies, and state and provincial sports groups who oversee sport, but these groups have mostly looked to public health and federal governance for direction on return-to-play. Only small steps forward were offered with the advice hinging on a stepwise or phased approach to a resumption of play. By late August communication has been less than clear and many competitive programs have jumped forward largely disregarding the phased approach to RTP and have elected to begin right where they left off.
One thing became certain as facilities begin to re-open and as the numbers of players to hit the ice grow. Things are anything but normal! Going to the rink now has a whole host of pre-requirements and rules.
First, traditional access and participation barriers for players have become even more pronounced. Cost increases, justified by the need for enhanced screening, cleaning and (even) monitoring, for example, have acted to further marginalized individuals who before the pandemic struggled to play due to socio-economic status, disability etc. As such, barriers to participation have become more exaggerated and the relative ease of jumping on the ice once enjoyed by us hockey nuts is gone.
The rush to competition regardless of possible risk is clear. These risks include: facility and program closure, league and association prohibition, fines and suspensions for non-compliance, not to mention the obvious risk to public health. These irresponsible few seem willing to put athletes in danger and even are willing to risk the possible exposure to vulnerable people. Don’t be one of these people.
But, I remain confident, hockey people are resilient and a worldwide pandemic isn’t going to stop us from lacing up. Regardless of what it looks like.
Here are some best practices you can use from those who have RTP and are getting it right.
1. Prepare and prevent
Because things have changed we must now alter our preparations as leaders of sports before we get to the rink. Begin with packing your coach kit. Ensure you have player profile documents, participation waivers and player/family contact sheets. These documents may be required on entry or in a case of someone presenting with symptoms.
Document entry, exit times, dates, location and attendance. Be prepared to answer a few exposure questions on entry. Be prepared and carry your proof of insurance and coach/instructor credential. Further, text, email or call participants and explain to players and/or parents/guardians dressing at home needs, facility access requirements and specific needs at the rink. Explain that access and egress of the facility are carefully controlled by facility operators.
The old days of arriving early to dress and warm-up are gone… forget about hanging around after. Most arenas will demand you leave within 10 minutes after the rental.
Coaches, plan activities to match your athlete needs based on age and understand that their “readiness” (physically, mentally and emotionally) may be delayed and affected in terms of seasonal readiness due to long absence from training. Do not assume everyone has embraced virtual training and that you can accelerate training to catch up. Sports training cannot be crammed and you can’t cheat time.
Plan for “iso-training” by selecting individual simple skills progressing to more complex fundamentals as your primary emphasis. Progress to individual tactics and skill applications.
Remember, to keep players spread out on the ice by two meters (about two hockey sticks) at all times, in all drills, activities and even in explanations and during instructional and hydration time/intervals.
Use your pre-practice time — it will be short to use pre-ice briefings. On-ice, keep coach scrums spread out, reminding players will be a constant on the ice, so get used to this type of instruction.
When planning, divide the ice into stations, lanes or quadrants. This means you may need access to more equipment.
Consider using bumpers, cones, and markers to divide players into squads or pods. By doing this players will be required to stick together in small sub-groups as they rotate from station to station at equal timed intervals to get in their reps. By doing this you are creating mini-pods or bubbles that control and limit getter potential exposure to others. I suggest keeping these pods together for future practices and events. Perhaps use a creative name or colour coding process on the helmets (sticker) as visual identifiers.
Plan also for hydration breaks by having players attend the benches where bottles have been carefully placed in demarcated locations that are physically distanced. Remember all water bottles, towels etc. must be labelled. No sharing of these items is permitted. Half of each pod can be allowed to hydrate, return to activity followed by the remainder.
A further best practice is to also plan for exiting the ice. This too should be carefully controlled by the coach and instructor. One pod at a time, retrieving their sticks, bottles and supplies from the benches then exiting. Followed by the next group.
Bench use other than this should not be included in your practice planning in the early stages of RTP.
2. Personal protection and self-care
In addition, non-medical masks will be required to enter all public buildings for most jurisdictions, but are usually not required on the ice. The space on the ice, when proper physical distancing is used, suggests suitability for activity, but as a precautionary step, check with your local rink to see what they are recommending.
Pack and carry hand sanitizer, disinfectant wipes with your first aid kit, and safety supplies. Do not assume the facility will supply it at the rink level. Some do and some don’t.
Hand hygiene, not to mention wiping down of all high-touch and shared equipment is required. Try to avoid gloveless touch and unnecessary handling of things. Players should also be encouraged to carry their hygiene items. For that matter, all sports equipment should be thoroughly cleaned after use. Clean and sanitize mouth guards, masks, helmets, and I recommend washing sweaters, underwear and any equipment that is skin-to-skin or could be saturated with water droplets from normal respiration.
Carry a hand towel, hanky, or tissue on the ice for personal use and consider wearing a buff as a precaution to act as a personal wipe and/or face-covering if physical distancing proves challenging.
3. Situational awareness
Athletes and family groups will present with a range of emotional and practical preparedness. Some will be well equipped and familiar with public health hygiene habits. Others will be lacklustre and unfamiliar.
Impress on family groups the importance of compliance and every reasonable precaution in the circumstances. Mentor and model what is needed and create a welcoming, fun and safe environment where players and their families can experience comfort and quality RTP.
Don’t be in a rush. Breakdown skills and offer fundamental skill instruction that can be completed by players independently or in small groups. Overall keep participant numbers low between 16-20. This will help you keep physical distancing during activity and promote “iso-training”. Load on the general feedback and encouragement and create practices that are rich, valuable and productive. Remember getting to the rink for families is even more challenging. Having a bad session will lead to drop out.
4. Skills first
There simply are so many skills in hockey to discover, establish, improve and refine that teaching skills should not be too difficult. But, a word of caution, only a few athletes are “task-orientated learners” that is they will be motivated for prolonged durations of practice doing technical skills repeatedly. So, mix up your activities by creating skill tests and competitions, run obstacles for time, relay races and of course low organizational games or small area games with clear rules and parameters to limit (incidental or deliberate) body contact/checking and unnecessary proximity.
In fact, I would suggest that iso-training may present many teachable moments where players can discover how to find space and time on the ice.