Physical distancing

The Handley football team hits the field for a workout prior to the start of the 2019 season. This year more offseason workout activities could take place outdoors given the AHSAA's emphasis on keeping participants six apart at all times.

In the ever evolving aftermath of the coronavirus-induced sports shutdown, the resumption of high school sports activities – in an abridged form – appears to be at hand.

Last week the AHSAA announced that schools could return to off-season conditioning programs on campus starting June 1, and alongside that announcement, laid out a series of guidelines or “best practices” for precautionary steps that teams should take when returning to school-sanctioned activities.

It’s not a no-holds-barred return to normal, but it’s as big of a step towards that as we’ve seen since spring sports seasons were abruptly canceled in mid-March.

“With all the extra precautions and all the extra stuff we have to do, it’s just all going to be different,” said RCHS head softball and cheerleading coach Robyn Wortham-Thompson.

The AHSAA’s announcement came last Thursday, setting coaches into a mad dash to make sense of the workout guidelines and to customize their workouts and their facilities to fit those guidelines.

The key element to the suggested protocol is maintaining a six foot distance between participants “whenever possible.” As long as that distance is maintained there is no limit on the number of players who can workout at one time.

“You can have unlimited players as long as you put them on the field and everybody’s got six feet, which is 36 square feet of space,” said Handley head football coach Larry Strain.

Following that guideline becomes a little more problematic when the activities – such as weight lifting – take place indoors in relatively confined spaces.

“My weight room is not big,” said Wortham-Thompson. “I just don’t know that it’s going to be something that I can do this time because I don’t have the facilities for the distance they want us to spread out.”

Even at Handley, which boasts the largest weight room in the county, Strain and his staff are going to have to get creative with groups and rotations in order to get everyone through the weight training regimen.

Handley’s weight room has 22 weight racks that are six feet wide and six feet long, so anyone using that rack will be within the guidelines. But Strain normally has at least three players at a rack, something that will not be allowed under the new rules. That means he will have to develop a staggered rotation of 22-person groups in order to get all his players’ workouts done.

At places with more limited space you may see makeshift workout stations outside of weight rooms to allow athletes to continue their strength training.

“It will be a lot more outdoor stuff. I’m probably going to do the majority of my stuff outside,” said Wortham-Thompson.

There is a catch to all this, and it could end up being a saving grace for those with limited space.

“These are suggestions or guidelines to go by. It is not law,” Strain said. “In other words, you probably don’t have to abide by it if you don’t want to abide by it.”

And the AHSAA release that lays out those “best practices” is peppered with the phrases “whenever possible” or “to the greatest extent possible,” leaving plenty of wiggle room for coaches who want to interpret the guidelines loosely.

“There are some coaches that are not going to abide by any of this stuff,” Strain said. “They’re just going to go on with workouts like normal.”

Strain said he will not be one of those coaches, however.

“My thing is, what happens if somebody on my football team comes down with coronavirus,” Strain said. “In my opinion I’ve got to go by the guidelines as much as possibly practical. That way if a kid gets it, there’s no liability back on me. Plus, the team that’s going to be the most successful is who stays healthy. My opinion is I’ve got to do everything I can possibly do to keep my team healthy. Therefore I’m best to go by the guidelines.”

Strain said he may not start his workouts exactly on June 1, but that he will get his program started sometime next week to start working out the details of how to do it.

“The first week is going to be organization. That’s all it’s going to be,” he said.

Wortham-Thompson also plans to exhibit patience and wait until athletic director and head football coach Pat Prestridge works through some of the obstacles with the boys’ programs.

“I’ll give him a week to kind of work it out and then probably try to start the following week,” she said.

And Strain offered a prediction that all of these machinations may become a moot point in another month anyway.

“I think by mid-June or early July I think we’re going to be back to normal and do exactly how we’ve been doing [before the coronavirus],” he said. “I mean you can work out and condition, but you can’t practice football under these guidelines, not and get anything done, in my opinion.”

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