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Nicole Van Dyke is the head coach of the University of Washington’s women’s soccer team. She previously served as the head coach at the University of Pennsylvania and as the Associate Head Coach at Stanford. Below, she spoke to Just Women’s Sports about the challenges and opportunities of coaching from afar amid the coronavirus pandemic.
What is it like to be coaching remotely right now?
It’s an unprecedented situation, because we, as coaches, are wired to be in front of our players — interacting with them on a daily basis. Now, we’ve resorted to strictly phone calls, texts and Zoom. It totally changes the dynamic. You’re now asking kids, “Hey, can you come off of mute for a few minutes?”
Having just taken over the program, we’re trying to view this as an incredible opportunity to engage with our student athletes in different ways. Some things that we’ve derived from it have been awesome. That’s not to say that there haven’t been challenges or obstacles, but we face those and try to find unique ways to continue moving forward. Ultimately, this isn’t going to last forever. We want to be in a position where health and safety are the number one priorities, but we also want to stay connected with our team so that we’re ready to compete whenever that is allowed.
How much of your day-to-day is spent on Zoom?
With all the rules about how long you can connect with players, we don’t want to monopolize their time with meetings. We want to make sure they still have time to do the voluntary workouts, despite the fact that they’re not mandatory. With Zoom calls, they can monopolize your day and players can become Zoomed out. Then, it’s hard for them to get out of the house and get outside.
What have been your coaching priorities given that practicing in person as a team is now limited?
We spent some time on culture and leadership. We’ve also reviewed film. We’ve tried to do some fun things, whether it’s playing Kahoot or some other interactive game to keep the mood light.
We’ve also focused a lot on the mental side, which we split into two parts. There’s the mental health side with coping skills and resilience skills. We, as a staff, believe that these are skills you can acquire and work at. Then, there’s the sport performance mental side where we focus on how players can be their best in tough moments and how they can persevere in high pressure situations.
We’ve tried to balance all of this information with time for small groups. That’s an opportunity for those who maybe don’t have the personality to jump out and engage with everyone, or don’t want to show as much vulnerability in the large group to connect with different coaches in smaller groups.
How have you continued to motivate your players?
I got an email recently saying, “Win the wait.” It really stuck with me. We’re not competing against anybody else. We’re not thinking about the other teams that we’re going to play. We’re trying to put ourselves in the best position for when we come out of this. We’re just focusing on getting 1% better every day.
This situation poses challenges because players can’t go and train in groups. They can’t do whatever they want to do. So we decided to focus on mental training as it tends to be put on the back burner in normal times because physical training takes precedence. Ultimately, we want to stay connected as a team, working towards our goals.
What needs to change in the current situation for sports to come back? Who makes that decision for you guys?
I’m proud to be a part of this community at the University of Washington. On the medical side, they’re at the forefront globally with everything that’s happening. We trust them. We are following their lead from a health and safety standpoint. We know that everyone here values sports and what athletics are able to do for the student athletes and for the whole community.
There are so many moving pieces that the uncertainty remains the biggest challenge. Can we come back in the summer? Are we going to have summer school? We are just trying to control what we can control. The intention is to have a season, and we want to be ready. But “ready” is relative, because people have different circumstances.
Some of our players have home gyms. Some are allowed to go on the beach and run. We don’t want players to feel pressure to go outside and work out right now if there’s a risk they could get sick or compromise someone at home. So there’s going to be a transition process where everyone returns and we have to take into account each player’s situation. It’s not going to be like, “Come in and let’s go hard immediately.”
College athletics are usually team-focused, but you’re talking about breaking this model and focusing on the individual. Is that a fair summary?
Yes, because the circumstances are so different. Right now, the players are doing voluntary workouts. We’re not able to mandate what they do, and rightfully so because everyone is confined to their city and state regulations — to their own circumstances and situations with their families.
We have to really think outside the box. Yes, we all want our student athletes fit and ready to go, but we also have to take a step back and recognize what is really important. There is a silver lining to all of this. We have to continue to control what we can control and help the players through certain obstacles. I look at some of our student athletes and they’re at home with their parents again. They have chores. When we say, “Hey, jump on a Zoom call,” that might not work for their parents and their work schedules. So, we’re trying to be open and nimble in everything that we’re doing.
You’ve talked about controlling what you can control and refining the mental side of the game. How are you staying positive for your players?
We talk a lot about celebrating the small victories and reflecting on your change from week to week. Where did you grow as a person? It doesn’t change the circumstances. Yes, it sucks. You can’t be with your teammates. You’re not in college. But, we try to reflect on how much we’ve grown and what opportunities have come from this. Being optimistic doesn’t mean that everything is positive, though. It’s important to find the silver lining and realize that this might just be part of the process.
How has the COVID-19 crisis impacted college recruiting?
Recruiting is almost on a massive pause, but given the virtual world, there are so many other ways to do things. We’re being versed in new areas and having to think outside the box. If there is one nice thing about this pandemic, it’s that you get to reset and you get time to think. You have different conversations with players, you become a little less rigid, you focus on developing deeper relationships. At the same time, though, not being able to go out and watch tournaments or evaluate players poses its own set of problems.
As a team, we’re in a different place because we’re a new staff. We’re working together to develop our own processes and procedures moving forward. Having this time to develop our own plan has been a positive.
I do also think that the new NCAA rules that are coming forward are important because we have to protect the recruits and our own student athletes in terms of official visits and the traveling component.
You’ve talked about building relationships with players. How do you approach these relationships and do you see any of it changing given the current situation?
When it comes to coaches and players, building trust and respect for one another is at the forefront of everything. The women that we coach are well rounded — they’re not just soccer players. Some will go and play professionally, and some will be CEOs. How one defines success is different for every student athlete. It’s important to connect with them at a deeper level and get to know them. More so, it’s important to understand what motivates them. How do they want to be communicated with?
Ultimately, players and coaches drive in the same direction. We want to be successful and we want to win games. That’s the direction, but how you get there doesn’t always look the same — it can vary player to player. When I look back at some of the teams I’ve coached, the closer the players are, the more successful the teams are. Players begin to play for each other — they work for each other and they have mutual respect for each other. I believe that the more you can focus on building relationships as a coach, the more your players will do the same. Everything is relationship-based.
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