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Bird Brown: Finding my way through a ‘faux’ fall high school sports season | COMMENTARY

Second Wednesday of August.

For 10 years ― four with the girls, and the last six with the boys — I have spent all year looking forward to that day. The second Wednesday of August represents the official first day of fall sports, the day that we can begin tryouts for the high school season. I can visualize the early morning fog burning off the fields bright and early as cars pour in and dump players off with their bags, balls, and large water coolers trying to sneak in a three-hour session before the temperature becomes unbearable.

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As tryouts, then early practices progress through the dead of summer, coaches are constantly checking our weather apps and comparing them with our peers to prepare for the inevitable summer thunderstorm that will send us running to the cars or under the overhangs of the school seeking shelter. Several years back the state introduced the heat acclimatization process where we would decide the length and intensity of the practice, or in some cases, whether we’re able to hold a practice at all. A simple, color-coded rating system based on the current and expected heat and humidity, sent out via text to all of the coaches providing us with directive on practice limitations.

The prospective players came to tryouts expecting to be challenged at their maximum fitness level with a predetermined test each day of tryouts. They would have had the opportunity all summer long to work on their fitness on their own or in any number of team conditioning sessions that are available to them throughout the summer, so most show up on the first day at least somewhat prepared for the rigors of the fitness tests and the ones that haven’t bothered to prepare would probably not survive the tryout process anyway.

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There was a method to our madness, working on various parts of the game to identify and expose players strengths and weaknesses, from fitness and footwork to passing and finishing, passing and possession to defending and distributing, one vs. one to small-sided games, all culminating in the final day of full-sided scrimmage to apply their skills to a game situation, their last opportunity to showcase their talents against their peers.

Second Saturday of February.

Technically, there was no rule preventing us from starting at the crack of dawn as we would normally do in the summer, but with temperatures in the low 30s and sleet and freezing rain expected for the afternoon, teams scrambled to the snow-covered practice fields, tracks, and cleared parking lots to meet with our players, go over the new COVID rules in detail, do a little stretching and light jogging, and most importantly get the calendar started for the season with our eyes on our March 9 opening game.

As tryouts went on through the first week of our “Fall 2020” season, sessions moved to after school so for those players who weren’t there that day in hybrid form (about 95% of the athletes), their parents left work early or arranged with a friend to get their kids to tryouts.

With the same line of cars dumping players, this time in addition to their bags, balls and water bottles, the kids roll out with various styles of facial wear, wearing and carrying extra layers of clothes in hopes that it will help them get through the frigid February temperatures and wind chill factors.

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We were able to get in a few weeks of OTAs (Organized Team Activities) and many boys played in a rec league together in the fall so they were able to get some fitness work in at that time. But like much else, the world of sports (at least high school sports) shut down, as did the individual effort and team training opportunities as was obvious in the first days of tryouts.

Like the board of education’s decision to waive the academic accountability of our student-athletes, so too did I make the decision to de-emphasize the fitness tests with this year’s tryouts. No longer were the boys challenged with their favorite double-perimeter, Calvert Hall’s, or Man U’s, but rather were asked to do a 15- to 20-minute jog around the school grounds where the sidewalks and parking lots had been shoveled and plowed. If we chose to evaluate their fitness as we do in a “normal” fall season, I suspect the grades would reflect what we’re seeing in the classroom from many of our students these days.

We still have the same method to our madness in setting up sessions to provide an environment for a fair and equitable tryout for all to showcase their talents, but we’ve had to be far more creative this year in all facets of the game, beginning with adjusting to the surface. Instead of having our kids spread out across the huge grass field, our boys leave their cleats in their bags and rock their tennis shoes as we go through drills and small-sided games in the school parking lot.

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Reminds me of my days learning the game on the streets of Rio, albeit with the temperatures maybe a good 60 to 65 degrees warmer.

Undoubtedly, there are players who have chosen to sit out this “fall” season until things can get back to some sort of normalcy, and they will be welcomed back when things open up. For those that have braved the storm, so to speak, and come out in these conditions, you have earned my lifetime respect. Your ability to adapt to the changing conditions and still put forth your best effort under the circumstances is something that will serve you well in life.

British mathematician Peter Hilton once said, “Adaptability to change is itself a hallmark of successful education.”

See, you can learn something from sports.


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