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Coaching during quarantine: Wilson Hall's Ripley embraces team building during virus pandemic

By TIM LEIBLE
tim@theitem.com
Posted 4/22/20

The shutdown of sports has been difficult for athletes and coaches across the country. Wilson Hall track and field head coach Rip Ripley has seen a lot of twists and turns during the hiatus from sports, which has lasted over a month now. At the …

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Coaching during quarantine: Wilson Hall's Ripley embraces team building during virus pandemic

Posted

The shutdown of sports has been difficult for athletes and coaches across the country. Wilson Hall track and field head coach Rip Ripley has seen a lot of twists and turns during the hiatus from sports, which has lasted over a month now. At the beginning, he and many other athletes and coaches thought this was going to be a short break.

They were wrong.

As the hiatus went from a 2-week break to lasting at least until the end of April, Ripley knew his approach to coaching would have to change.

"Off the bat, we thought it might just be short term, just a couple of weeks," Ripley said. "We just tried to give them some workouts to do. Track is a little bit easier because a lot of it can be done on their own. You don't have to have someone to play catch with or pass a soccer ball to.

"But track is hard because they need that accountability to the workouts. Early on, we gave them a little bit to do here and there, not too much because there was a lot else going on with them mentally with everything that was going on, so we weren't trying to overburden them.

"Once we realized this was going to be a longer-term thing, we started sending out workouts every week. I get with my coaches and we send them pretty detailed workouts. We're not there with them, but we encourage them to correspond with us, do the workouts and give us feedback."

While this hiatus has been rough, Ripley has seen one major benefit to having a break. Many athletes at Wilson Hall play sports all year, some of them even play two sports in the spring. Ripley saw this hiatus as a time to give those kids a chance to rest their bodies before getting back to workouts.

"A lot of our student-athletes at Wilson Hall are multi-sport athletes, and it's almost been a blessing in disguise for some of these younger guys," said Ripley. "Obviously it's a different situation for the seniors, but for the younger ones to be able to take a pause (is a good thing). Some of the guys are going straight from football season to basketball season to track or baseball season; the girls are going from volleyball to basketball to softball or track and it's a lot.

"Some of them have taken this time to spend time at home with their family and enjoy the time off. As we get longer into it, that time might be tougher to enjoy, but it's helped them a lot."

The biggest challenge facing a lot of coaches right now is just finding the best ways for their athletes to stay in shape. Ripley has tried to make diverse workouts to keep his kids engaged and find ways for them to compete with each other from afar.

"We've got a couple of different challenges we do during the week, like we'll do a plyometric workout with a lot of jumping and bounding they can all benefit from. Just total body fitness," said Ripley. "I have them post their scores and send me their times and let them compete a little bit within the team. I've had some that have done a good job of that and every week they'll send me their times and they see that time going down and get excited about it.

"Just (looking for) different ways to get them excited about the workouts because I'm asking them to run and jump and do these things on their own every week and that can be hard for some of them to do when there's another TV binge they can watch on the couch or schoolwork that needs to be done."

On top of the challenge of finding the ideal workout, coaches also have to deal with the fact that a lot is still up in the air right now. Ripley is struggling to plan for a potential return when there is no timeline and the students are dealing with the loss of most of their spring.

"I am a very organized guy and in track you have to be. I have my practice plans, I put them out a week in advance, so the TBD (to be determined), for me personally, is difficult. I don't like not knowing. I want to know when the state meet is going to be and how to get the peak conditioning at that time of the year, so that's very difficult for me," said Ripley. "And for the kids, they're not just losing part of a spring sports season, they're seeing proms, they're seeing exams, they're seeing graduations, a lot of things that we're used to going to in this time frame and they're not seeing that. It's tough not knowing when this is going to be over.

"If we had an end date, I think it would be easier in a lot of ways."

While there have been a lot of difficult times this spring, Ripley has tried to find fun ways to keep his team united. One of those ways has been through virtual popsicle Fridays. The Wilson Hall track team has a weekly tradition of getting together after practice on Fridays and eating popsicles, while seniors or an alum gives a weekly speech. Ripley decided to continue this tradition digitally during the quarantine, as one senior per week records a video that he posts online for his teammates to watch together while eating the dessert of their choice.

"What we started doing in this hiatus is doing virtual popsicle Fridays. I've had the seniors recording themselves eating a popsicle, me and my family will get on the front porch and do kind of the opening and closing with our popsicles and we send that to the whole team to give them a word of encouragement," said Ripley. "All of the seniors that have talked, they're upset that they're not getting out there, but they've stayed pretty positive. In a sense, it is what it is; we can sit back and be upset and complain and lament about how terrible this is or we can just take it for what it is, follow our instructions, stay inside, get our workouts in and at the end of this, whenever that end may come, we'll see where we are.

"As silly as it is, having that little bit of normalcy with popsicle Fridays, getting that video and getting that speech from the seniors, they really enjoy that."

Ripley said just the simple act of keeping the tradition of popsicle Fridays alive has been a real moral boost in a frustrating spring.

"I think it really has helped and that's why we decided to try to keep that little piece together just to keep that communication," said Ripley. "Just to see the seniors and see them talk and hear that story for motivation for the next week of workouts. We're all sitting back and having our own popsicles at our own locations or ice cream or whatever they want to have, and it gives us this sense that we're all in this together."

That sense of community is the No. 1reason Ripley wants to see the season pick back up again in some capacity. Wilson Hall had a long weekend when the news initially hit, so Ripley didn't have the chance to talk to most of his athletes in person right before the hiatus began. Even if the state meet isn't held, Ripley would love to have the chance to get his team together one last time this spring.

"We haven't even had the time to say goodbye at the front end of this thing other than to the 30-35 kids that I had show up at an optional practice that Friday." Said Ripley. "It would absolutely be something just to get together and have that sense of community; just to kind of wrap it all up would be better than nothing. Obviously the goal would be to compete again, especially for those seniors to have that chance to run again, because we have kids that are lifetime -- like six or seven years (in track) -- that would be ending this year and they're not going to be able to compete at the next level.

"It would be nice to have something to wrap up the careers of those kids, even if it's just a get-together, with the team would be nice."