Athletes, like most people across the world, are adjusting to the COVID-19 pandemic flipping life as they know it upside-down. Daily routines that were once ruled by hours of sweat-filled training sessions have been replaced by video games, TikTok dances and makeshift home gyms — if their living space permits it.
Mandated stay-at-home orders, paired with the removal of rims from outdoor basketball courts, and closures of gyms and facilities across the country along with NCAA bans on virtual workouts, have left everyone from NBA stars like Milwaukee Bucks reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo to college and high school players without a place to hone their skills and work on their bodies — which could have a drastic impact on their performance.
Atlanta Falcons second-year safety Chris Cooper had to learn to transition from the plush 165,000-square-foot Falcons practice facility — which sits on over 50-acres of Flowery Branch, GA land, equipped with “oversized showers, saunas and steam rooms; complete training, strength training and weightlifting rooms; whirlpools and a hydrotherapy pool; and a full kitchen and dining facility for team meals” — to much humbler quarters.
“The only adjustment is working out in my cousin’s garage,” Cooper, who is in his second season with the Falcons, said. “I usually work out at his gym so he decided to move some weights to his house so we can still lift. The field work is still normal, just going to the park on the grass and hills.”
But Cooper said weightlifting is only part of his preparation for the NFL season.
“Getting in football shape is different from just working out every day,” he said. “I can’t really say how long it will take, but my body will adjust when I start doing scrimmages and actual football movements every day.”
But that day is yet to be determined. There have been rumblings that the NFL season will start without any delays on Sept. 5, but the organized team activities (OTAs) that usually take place from late May until June for mandatory minicamps will presumably have to be delayed due to the pandemic, ultimately pushing the league’s start date back even further.
For college athletes who plan on playing professionally, these delays could have a severe impact on their potential careers. Senior wide receiver Shea Holebrook, who most recently played at New Mexico State University and plans on transferring for the upcoming season, doubts his final season will happen at all.
“I don’t think the season will start on time — if we even have one this year,” Holebrook said. “I don’t really think it would even be smart to have one. Even if the outbreak has started to calm down, I don’t think it would be smart to have a contact sport start right after all of this.”
This extended time off could have some serious implications on athletes’ ability to perform at a high level, according to Dr. Michael Tevald, an associate professor of physical therapy at Arcadia University.
In an April 6 Sports Illustrated article, Tevald said, “During athletes’ time away from rigorous training, their muscular and cardiovascular systems are likely to diminish. In the near term, resting heart rates could rise and their heart’s ability to pump oxygen through the bloodstream could abate.”
While football players can still work on speed and agility training on open grass fields, basketball players rely on hoops to perfect their craft. As parks across the country have begun removing rims in an effort to enforce stricter social distancing policies, their ability to work out at their normal rates has diminished.
“I was probably playing basketball roughly five to six hours a day,” Akwasi Yeboah, a graduate transfer forward for the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, said. “Now it’s pretty much zero. I’ll do some ball-handling for 20 to 30 minutes, but that’s it.”
Like other athletes around the world, Yeboah had his season — one that was filled with promise and could’ve helped him accomplish his ultimate goal of playing professionally — cut short. Now with the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and NBA-hosted draft workouts, that possibility hangs in uncertainty.
“The NCAA Tournament would have helped me significantly in terms of getting exposure from the NBA,” Yeboah, who averaged nearly 10 points and five rebounds per game, said. “Playing professionally is my next step and, obviously, the pandemic affected that. Now, people have resorted to Skype calls and phone calls [to contact professional teams] and stuff like that, especially within the NBA.”
The shutdown triggered by the spread of COVID-19 has forced teams and organizations to get creative with their workout regiments. Many institutions are offering a variety of exercises via PDF sheets that require little to no equipment.
George Greene, the head strength and conditioning coach for the Stony Brook men’s basketball team, has already gotten started.
“There’s really a lot of ways you can challenge yourself without equipment,” Greene, who also worked as a tactical strength and conditioning specialist for the U.S. Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, said. “Simple things like filling up a backpack with some books, or things like weighted push-ups and squats, can make your workouts a little harder. Getting online on YouTube or on social media, there are so many free resources out there now, whether you’re really into running or strength training, you could really find anything that you’re looking for.”
Greene had been holding workouts with the Seawolves players via Zoom since shortly after the season ended, but NCAA restrictions have placed a halt on teams across the country to continue doing so.
The Pac-12 Conference released their “Pandemic Policy” on March 30, which states “Virtual or on-line supervised voluntary workouts and skill instruction, regardless of location, are not permitted.”
One can suspect that the reasoning behind the restrictions is due to the NCAA’s inability to prove if the workouts were voluntary and in accordance with the NCAA’s 20/8-hour rule, which was implemented in 1991 to preserve student athletes’ amateur status and to hinder colleges and universities from overworking their athletes. The rule allows for no more than 20 hours per week of optional in-season trainings and practice, and eight hours during the off-season (during the academic year).
This has forced Greene to make even more changes.
“The biggest challenge is really just the communication piece,” Greene, who is used to seeing his players on a daily basis around campus, said. “Most of the work as a strength coach that you typically do is spent on the floor coaching. The biggest change is really just how we’re sending our programming to our athletes, which are going through in PDF. We’ve been researching different training apps and other tools to be able to better effectively send out our programming.”
For St. John’s University sophomore forward Marcellus Earlington, playing basketball isn’t so much about the physical aspect but much more about the mind.
“The gym kind of was somewhere I could go to clear my mind or somewhere I could go just to feel good,” Earlington said. “I love the game, so not having an opportunity to just go to the gym whenever I want to has definitely been hard. But I still try to get to parks as much as I can. And I still try to do the little things like dribbling drills, you can do that outside the house. So [I] just find little things to do and not [make] as many excuses.”
Despite the difficulties, finding ways to be optimistic in these trying times is what keeps all of these athletes going.
“Even though things may be uncertain, you still have to prepare,” Yeboah said. “Because at the end of the day, life goes on. And when things get back to normal, you need to be ready for whatever the outcome is.”