Nathan White is finally getting his team back to a state of normalcy. He’s been waiting for it for months.
The head coach had to bide his time for word from the state of Ohio on whether or not Athens was going to take the field this fall. July passed with little word and summer conditioning had to be skipped. By the time White and his staff were given the green light in August, the Bulldogs had to jump directly into practice for their first game of the season.
Despite the questions raised at the potential risks of high school football, no significant problems have emerged yet. The uneasiness surrounding the early days of the season has simmered down. Schools in the TVC-Ohio have kept a tight leash on their health protocols to keep the season alive.
“I've talked to a lot of friends in the coaching profession and everyone that we've played,” White said. “Everyone's said that all the protocols are the same thing. It's just starting to feel kind of like normal.”
Athens has begun a return to a regular practice schedule. The Bulldogs can now be on the field for practice four days a week— the same routine they had last year.
It’s not all the same, however. The team is only allowed outside for practice, and all unnecessary interactions must be mitigated. That includes limits on the number of people in the locker room or other areas inside.
“We can't be in the locker room together,” White said. “No locker room, no weight room. Because it's indoors, it’d be tougher to do social distancing. We have limits on how many people can be indoors.”
Even on the field, the Bulldogs have to take precautions. Players have to stay six feet apart when not involved in drills. All staff members must wear a mask. Team workouts have been relegated to players working out on their own.
White was often frustrated by having to balance the health of his players and the productivity of what few practices he was granted early in the season.
“Starting out I felt like I was monitoring our safety protocols more than I was coaching football,” White said. “It's a tough thing to deal with because I want our kids to be as good as they can be. However, we aren’t going to be able to keep doing this unless the protocols are followed.”
The “new normal,” as White calls it, has finally set in for his team. He doesn’t have to remind players to spread out or tell his staff to keep their masks up. The process of prevention is just a minor inconvenience for most practices.
There have been setbacks, though.
The worst side effect of the regulations affects what happens immediately after practice— the Bulldogs can’t watch the game film together this season. The health risk is too high to have the entire team contained in one space.
Instead, the staff decided to get creative. To supplement the team reviews, White uploads his film to Hudl, the sports-themed social network, and divides it among his position coaches. The coaches then mark the most essential plays for the players to study on their own.
“We've had to take a little bit more time as coaches to pick out certain players and make playlists,” White said. “Honestly that's something to come out of this that we're probably going to utilize more even if we do get back to normal.”
White and his staff are now considering implementing the current Hudl system into future seasons. The staff has received positive feedback from the players who’d rather study themselves than sit through lengthy film sessions.
The coaches believe it gives the players more responsibility to the team to study themselves and what can be fixed. Less film to watch means the player can dial in on the clips that focus on themselves. If they don’t study the tape and learn, that falls on the player.
“They have said it’s better than what they’re used to,” White said. “They don’t have to sit down for two hours on a Saturday watching every play we tag. We can find ten or twelve really good or not so good plays for each position and share them with the guys.”
Even in a pandemic, the Bulldogs can find a system that better suits themselves. The new systems are nothing like what they’re used to, but experimentation is a necessity during a pandemic.
The Bulldogs wanted a normal season, but they’ll do what’s necessary if it means they can take the field.
“If we could, we’d all go back to a ‘true’ normal in a second,” White said. “When it comes down to it we’ll do anything we can, any way we have to if it lets us play on Fridays.”