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Coaching in the time of Covid

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By Gilbert R. Alvarado
Special to RDR Sports

Goddard coach Gilbert Alvarado during a game at the Launch Pad in 2018. (Daily Record File Photo)

The first nine weeks of the semester has ended. This marks the first time in school history that classes have started online and no sport will be played this semester. The latest trends in Covid cases make me tend to believe that this entire semester will continue online, especially for secondary students. Numerous people have asked how things were going in the classroom and on the athletic field. I will use this platform to describe my experiences and those of a few of my colleagues, players and students. This article is not meant to be a political commentary and in no way, shape or form am I attempting to place blame on any person, parent, teacher, administrator or elected official. My goal is to keep the stakeholders involved in public education abreast of the situation, in hopes that the more information people have, the better their decision will be in the future.

On March 12, 2020, at 8 a.m. I was informed that our baseball tournament was canceled. It is a moment that will be seared into my memory for the rest of my days. I walked out to the field and saw my team taking batting practice and the Ruidoso Warriors’ bus pulling in the parking lot for the game. Perhaps it was fitting that I gave both teams the news, seeing as one team I dedicated eight years of my life to help improve, and another I have dedicated the rest of my future days to improving. Two teams that will forever be a part of my life story. Upon receiving the news, a stunned silence permeated the locker room but their faces showed a serious understanding of the situation at hand, and to this day I truly believe they knew the season was over for good. I tell anyone who wishes to be a teacher or a coach, the students are smarter than people give them credit for. We all waited for weeks with hope that this would blow over, wouldn’t be that bad and that school and sports would resume like normal. We hopped into online learning and gave the last half of the spring semester our best shot.

The students, parents, my colleagues and I jumped head-first into a school format very few of us were familiar with. To be honest, it felt similar to diving into the pool only to realize you are in the shallow end. Students needed laptops, computers, internet access and a way to be supported at home. Parents needed help monitoring their children while still providing food, shelter, clothes and all the other necessities. Teachers had to learn how to use Zoom, Skype, Google Classroom and completely shift how they taught material. Some were very successful, but many were not. In the midst of this chaos I held hope in my heart that at some point we would be told we could finish the season. In my mind I kept saying, “We can skip to district and finish in May.” Then, “We can start in May and finish in June.” Eventually it became apparent that not even summer ball would be an option.

We would eventually be allowed to coach with restrictions in July. The boys were hesitant about all of the new rules and as coaches we racked our brains on how to accomplish as much as possible with the new guidelines and more importantly, how to motivate the boys. The monotony of drills can overwhelm even the most driven player and quite honestly, we all love playing the game, but not many of us feel the same affection for the practice that goes into it. Games are fun, practices can often feel like work.

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As we focused on our return to school in the Fall semester, sports and practices seemed to be on the back burner. The district went all in on Chromebooks, internet access, online teaching programs, safety protocols and we attempted to keep the education train rolling. Once again, some students are doing just fine, but many more are not. There is an element missing to education right now. A sense of fellowship, a feeling of belonging and a motivation to do the best you can. I hear often, especially during budget-cut years, that sports are not important. I understand the thought process, but I believe that sports and all extracurricular programs can supplement and enhance a student’s education. We provide discipline, structure, motivation to keep grades up and show students how to work towards a goal, get along with people you might not like and belong to something bigger than yourself. At Ruidoso High School we looked at the grade point averages of students who played a competitive sport and those who didn’t. At all grade levels, athletes had higher GPAs. There was no other common factor, not race, religion, socioeconomic background — just the fact that the student played a sport. I bet if we included all extracurricular activities it would have gone even higher. Studies have shown that the biggest indicator of future success after high school is if a student is involved in something extracurricular.

I can’t speak for other sports, but I know many baseball players across the state have turned to club teams to provide the opportunity to keep playing the game they love. This opportunity is only available to those who can afford it. Ask any parent whose kid is on a travel team, just the travel expenses alone can become difficult to maintain. The fee to participate on a club is often thousands of dollars, not including the family travel expenses for weekend tournaments in Texas, Arizona, California and Colorado. This means that our lower income students are missing out on practice and playing opportunities. As a result, many of them will be behind skill- and experience-wise, making it that much harder for them to earn a spot on the varsity team. A fellow coach had a spot-on explanation for what was happening. He stated, “We are turning baseball into a country club sport, and removing the opportunity to enjoy the game of baseball for hundreds of students across the state.” I am in no means trying to disparage students from playing on club teams or cast them in a nefarious light. But as professional educators we are always striving for equal opportunity. Not every kid can make the baseball team, but I want to give every student the opportunity to work as hard as they can to try and make the team.

We have been practicing since September, with Clorox wipes and sanitizer in hand; we have been pushing through and working hard to become better. I have a steady group of 30 baseball players showing up, in two different sessions, every day we practice. They want to get better at their craft, they want to be around their friends and they want an escape from the troubles that surround them, even if it is only for an hour and a half. They are marching steadily towards the light on the horizon. The hope that they will be able to compete again in April. But a dark cloud often sits in the distance, which threatens to derail them. In the back of their minds, especially with the postponement of Fall sports, sits the thought that this season may not happen either. Most drive it from their minds and focus on the task at hand, but even I have to admit I see it out of the corner of my eye. I don’t know what the future holds, but I know that every weekday (except Wednesday) you can find us at the field, albeit 6 feet apart. My coaches and I are checking temperatures, asking about grades, checking in on their home life and trying to provide them some sense of normalcy and belonging. I tell them not to complain, not to bellyache and only focus on what they can control, and that is how they go through practice today. I don’t talk of the upcoming season and focus only on daily tasks. I desperately want to make them feel safe, secure and tell them that their season is coming and to be patient. But sadly, I can’t promise them anything right now. In spite of all this they show up every day. When people speak negatively about this younger generation, I simply tell them, “Well, you must not have been to my practice then.” They come because we all share one common feeling, hope. We hope to return to school, we hope to return to normal practice, and we hope one day to play the game of baseball again. Hope can be a dangerous thing. But I believe as Andy Dufresne put it, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” I get up every day and work hard with the hope that I will be in my classroom again, teaching, telling stories and jokes. I hope to coach my players on game day again and watch them compete for a state title and become the best people they can be. I hope. 

Gilbert R. Alvarado is the Goddard baseball coach.