Coaching college sports with no promise of a season

Julia Driscoll/The Occidental

When sports were cancelled at Occidental last spring due to COVID-19, athletes headed home. That time has stretched to nearly six months, with Occidental coaches working throughout to train teams remotely and maintain relationships with their athletes scattered across the world.

According to water polo coach Jack Stabenfeldt and swim and dive coach Haley Mitchell, coaching remotely has made them more appreciative of the little moments and personal connections they have developed with their players.

“There’s a lot of limitations on what we can do, with workouts and sports stuff, so it’s been nice to just talk and get to know them more than I ever would have in the past,” Stabenfeldt said. “I think it’s hard to say I am closer to them, because I’m not with them, but I think I just know a little more about who they are and what they’re interested in.”

According to Mitchell, although it’s been a challenge to connect with a team of 50 players over Zoom, she trusts that her players are doing what they need to in order to prepare for the season.

“I think swimming has been in some ways one of the safer things that people can do, but access to pools has been hit or miss depending on where you live or where you are right now,” Mitchell said. “I think that’s actually been the most challenging thing because people thought they would be able to swim in our new pool and they haven’t been able to.”

When the spring season was cancelled, athletes went home with little idea of what would happen next. As global COVID-19 deaths surpass 1 million, there is no clear end in sight for the spread of the virus, and all sports are seemingly on hold for an indefinite amount of time. According to Stabenfeldt, this has caused additional mental challenges for both the men’s and women’s water polo teams.

“The difficult part about this is we’ve always prepared with an end goal or with a calendar in mind, and now both programs are preparing for something that we don’t know when it will happen and we don’t know if it will even happen,” Stabenfeldt said. “I think we’ve shifted more so to the benefits of being healthy and almost working out for our mental and physical health as opposed to working out for goals that we can’t control.”

Mitchell said prioritizing mental health would continue to be her biggest message, whether or not sports start at the designated time and swimmers are back in the pool in January.

“I think in some ways I’m doing a good job and in other ways, I’m probably doing a terrible job, and I just think that one of the things that have been harder over time is people not being realistic or honest,” Mitchell said. “It’s frustrating to me when people just kind of pretend it is totally unacceptable to think it’s really hard and this time sucks, so I have tried to be honest with my team in that there’s no perfect way to stay in shape or for this season to be everything you wanted it to be.”

Though sports cancellations have made it difficult for coaches, it has also made them realize what aspects of coaching they look forward to upon returning, Stabenfeldt said.

“The toughest part is that I always loved the first 10–15 minutes before practice begins, hanging out on the pool deck while people are stretching and getting ready for practice and joking around, seeing how their day went,” said Stabenfeldt. “When you see someone everyday for a semester, you really get to know them. There’s just this pulse you have of who they are and how the team is doing.”

Mitchell said she misses the audience and the excitement of all eyes being on Oxy swimmers while they compete, in addition to connecting with the athletes. According to diver SaraJoy Salib (senior), Mitchell has great dad jokes that she shares during practice.

Mika O’Shea (senior), a goalie on the women’s water polo team, said her silver lining in this whole experience has been getting to know Stabenfeldt as a person, not just a coach.

“I think we definitely don’t really just hang out and talk and chat during the school year or the season, that’s just always more focused on water polo and training and everything,” O’Shea said. “It’s been really nice to just take a step back and just talk about non-water polo related things. I feel like I’ve learned about him as a person and my teammates.”

Henry Grady (junior), a captain and goalie for the men’s water polo team, said the men’s water polo team read a book together over the summer and discussed it over Zoom meetings, which allowed them to stay in touch.

“The team has gotten a little closer since this kind of forced us to kind of communicate and stay connected probably without thinking about it,” Grady said.

While the loss of a season hurts, Stabenfeldt said the bigger loss is that of an athlete’s closeness with their teammates.

“You spend so many hours together. Any group that you would be with, a lot of your closest friends and closest relationships are going to be from that, so I think that the most difficult part might not even be taken away from the games, but just the camaraderie and the togetherness and the unity that you feel being a part of something that’s bigger than you,” Stabenfeldt said.