Broadening the Macalester athletic community during COVID

Broadening the Macalester athletic community during COVID

Lily Denehy, Food and Drink Editor

On March 30, the day that marked the beginning of online classes, the Athletics Department announced its new virtual programming in the Mac Daily.

The announcement read that the department will hold sessions on Zoom every week, Sunday through Friday, ranging from sports performance workouts to yoga to sessions with two of Macalester’s sports psychologists. Weekday sessions begin at 4:30 p.m. and the Sunday session begins at 2:00 p.m. They are open to all students, faculty, staff and alumni. The Zoom link for each session can be found on the Athletics website.

For the athletics department, these sessions are a method of maintaining community and helping students, staff and faculty connect to each other while spread across the globe.

“The first things we were thinking about, even before we were told we couldn’t stay on campus, was how can we stay connected with our student-athletes?” Director of Sports Medicine and Performance and head athletic trainer Paula Natvig said. “How can we keep the community we have built?”

Athletic Director Donnie Brooks echoed her statement. “As students are away [from campus] and dealing with some challenges that we’ve never faced before, it’s important to me and to our staff that we provide some sense of normalcy, a way for us to stay connected and lastly a way for us to stay well during these times.”

Sports performance staff at the Deno Fitness Center are continuing to provide sports training programs online for varsity athletes if they have access to resistance equipment, but Brooks wanted to offer the opportunity to stay well to a broader sector of the Macalester community including MacFit students — a program started this fall where students can earn rewards for working out twice a week.

“As I’ve gotten closer to and learned more about our intramural programs, they’re athletes and they want to compete, our MacFit students want to do the same thing,” Brooks said. “The other thing was we got some interest from our alumni who wanted to stay engaged… Paula did a great job of creating the platform to offer [wellness sessions] to everyone who could possibly want access to them in the Macalester community.”

These sessions will continue throughout the semester. According to Brooks they were well attended the first week, with almost 30 people coming to one of the sports performance workouts and a broad cross-section of the Macalester community attending yoga from student athletes to alumni.

Head of Sports Performance and the Deno Fitness Center Scott Hintz offers virtual sports performance workout sessions with assistant sports performance coach Taylor Ulrich on Mondays and Thursdays for the Macalester community. His goal is to provide athletes and the larger community with opportunities for fitness and health during COVID-19.

“Most people are at home without access to resistance equipment and we hope to provide them with alternative ways to still get a decent workout in.” Hintz wrote in an email to The Mac Weekly. “We are also trying to give as many modifications for those exercises based on the different levels of experience.”

These workouts are built for all levels and don’t require specialized equipment. Instead they teach participants how to stay fit and workout with common household items like soup cans, towels and kitchen chairs.

“Many people think they need to go to the gym for a workout and the fact is, you can get a great workout in by going outside and working out on playground equipment, a tree, a hill, with a partner, etc.” Hintz wrote.

Working virtually has led to changes throughout college athletics, and for Brooks it was important that Macalester be at the forefront of these changes.

“I think I’ve really pushed on our staff to be innovative and creative through this, and so I don’t know of anyone who’s going this far,” Brooks said. “Providing workouts online, I think, [is something]everybody’s doing, but I have not seen other schools in the MIAC that are providing programming on a regular basis online. We want to be on the cutting edge.”

One feature of the programming both Brooks and Natvig highlighted was the opportunity for all members of the Macalester community to ask questions of two sports psychologists, Dr. Jaimie Rubin and Dr. Ben Merkling. Typically during the year, Rubin and Merkling only meet with varsity athletes.

“Providing everybody access to our sports psychologists to ask questions — it’s something that we’ve never done,” Brooks said. “It’s always been the varsity athlete-specific so to have professional trained counselors — if you’re an ultimate frisbee player and now you’ve lost that ability to play ultimate but you think you want to run long distances, so to be able to talk to someone about that could be interesting.”

Sports psychology applies a clinical and counseling lense to address mental health and optimal performance of athletes and for athletics. It also focuses on sport participation and systematic challenges associated specifically with sport and for sport including those in sports organizations and athletics departments.

The sports psychology sessions have educational content, practices for well-being and a space to talk and connect.

“[We offer] a space where they can talk,” Rubin said. “Where we can really connect socially, and also have their questions answered or just process. Some of the other sessions, they’re really walking them through exercises. For us, part of that walking through is giving space to process what everyone’s experiencing right now.”

Brooks also emphasized the importance of listening to the Macalester community throughout this time as the department considers implementing more virtual programming.

“I think we start with this and measure it and see if it’s even popular and has staying power,” Brooks said “Then after that I think we’ll decide if we need to pivot or change or enhance the current programming that we’re offering.”

In addition to the Zoom sessions, different parts of the athletic department continue to offer more individualized programming to student-athletes and athletic teams.

Both the sports psychologists and athletic trainers still meet with athletes one-on-one, and teams are connecting over Zoom to maintain community.

“We’re trying to stay connected and keep community, you know stay in touch with each other,” Natvig said. “We feel like we have so many touch points with the community and the student athletes when we’re on campus and we’re doing our very best to make that as much as we can.”

She highlighted the department’s use of the virtual office app Slack to stay connected and have channels for both work communication and more informal “hallway” chats on a channel where people can catch up on each other’s lives.

Besides Zoom, social media has become a main channel of communication with the broader Macalester community. The sports performance team, for example, now posts workouts on Instagram.

“We are putting daily workouts on our Instagram page.” Hintz wrote. “You can follow them @Macalestersp. There you will get a workout routine and videos showing you the exercises.”

In addition to posting workouts, videos of past Macalester athletic events and creating the hashtag #ThrivingInPlace, the Mac Athletics social media pages are honoring individual seniors in spring sports daily.

“We all have such great empathy for them, you know having been athletes ourselves, and understanding that last year, that last game, that last season was so emotional,” Natvig said. “You know, you remember that. You remember your senior year of — fill-in-the-blank. So we’re honoring each of those seniors separately.”

For Brooks, it all goes back to reminding students and the community that the athletics department is here to help them thrive during the COVID-19 pandemic and show them that there’s a greater goal after this.

“We want to continue to pursue excellence while we’re away, but when we come back the mission still does not change,” Brooks said. “We don’t want to just win in the classroom, we don’t want to just win in our personal endeavors. We want to win on the field too. I think all of this fits under the umbrella of ‘we’re gonna thrive in place now, but we’re still building towards excellence.’”