Kids, coaching and COVID


Curtesy of Justin Robertiello

The master and the student ready for training to being.

Each day, I wake up feeling like someone placed a bowling ball on my chest. I know I am not alone. The current situation with COVID-19 has everyone adjusting and possibly re-thinking how their life is going. I am lucky because I have employment, and I am in school, but it still leaves me with unanswered questions that haunt my conscious.
Am I making the right choices? Is working the right in a state where hundreds of new COVID-19 cases pop up every day a good idea? New Jersey has started up youth sports and I am a goalkeeping coach for children between 8 and 15 years. I can’t help but think what I am doing might be irresponsible. I don’t have a specific handbook to follow other than the basics — washing my hands, wearing a mask and keeping a distance. I often think after a training session, did I follow all these rules correctly, efficiently, and importantly, did they? Is that my responsibility? A year ago, none of these questions would have crossed my mind.
When I wake up each morning I say my routine out loud: “shirt, socks, pants, cleats, mask, don’t forget the mask.”
I get into my car packed with soccer balls and cones and set off to the job that causes me to think so much. When I arrive, I can’t help but wonder how different it is for these kids to wake up than it was for me as a kid.
When I was younger washing my hands, and even bathroom visits in general were optional to me. Bushing my teeth or taking that shower, I often took the short route. Why not? There are so many other fun things I would rather be doing like wrestling with my friends or sharing a bowl of popcorn. Now kids are expected to wash their hands and cover their mouth just to speak to someone else. It makes being a coach more taxing than it was to begin with.
Then I think there are no more hugs and kisses from friends and family outside the homes. I think physical expressions of admiration or love, healthy of course, are important to children. It really wasn’t that long ago when they lost this type of environment around them. Less than a year? And now it’s gone. I wonder how it’s affecting them. I can’t even think of my childhood without remembering physical interaction. I also remember the freedom to play for hours outside in the dirt, in the woods, ride my bike to stores and spend endless hours at friends’ houses.
Many of my kids probably had the same freedoms and memories but it has been so quickly taken away. I wonder what confused thoughts might go through their minds, I get to see them laugh and play and they look happy for the few hours they are with me. Then I wonder how temporary these feelings might be. Especially when I know we have to make a huddle and mask up again. The smiles often disappear as they strap them to their small faces. So as quickly as I invited these thoughts into my mind, I make them leave.
My routine starts on a wide-open field that holds five to six soccer practices at a time. There are eight nets placed to create half-fields. I am located in the corner where I use one net or two if I really need to. My pockets are loaded with small bottles of Purell sanitizers and I am masked up. To my left, is a temperature testing station. I reference the station as the “parental band-aid.” This is because it’s common knowledge that a high temperature is only one symptom of COVID-19. It’s not a full-proof method. I do believe that everyone wants normalcy back in their lives, and returning to team sports is at least one way. So if adding the temperature station to the routine of masks, sanitizers and distance make it all a little more comforting, I guess I go along with it.
My soccer club mandates that I keep my mask on, another layered attempt to limit any potential contact with an infected athlete or parent. I journey across the field to my goalkeeping net and I see a new set facial expressions and awkward gestures. I see the laughs and joy, which makes me happy but my feelings change when I see a short, half-wave from a parent who really wants to shake my hand. Then I see the common, worried glare accompanied by a head nod. This is code for, “I am a worried parent, but I know you’ve got this.” Lastly, the day would not be complete without a forced elbow-shake. I fearfully try to dodge these. It’s contact, yes? These are all simply signs and gestures that resemble what 2020 has become, a place of nervousness and uncertainty.
I have reached my spot on the field and I rip my mask off before the children get there. I will have one last solid breath of air because for the next four hours I will be breathing through what feels like a straw. Thanks to my mask, excessive breathing, sweating, and lightheadedness are all things I have become accustomed to over the past few months. My kids arrive, I mask back up, knock out any negative thoughts, and for a few hours, I feel I’ve made a positive difference in their day.
The week usually ends finding out where we will play our games over the weekend. I wish every game was played in suburbia, but in New Jersey, that’s not how it works. I take a peek at the schedule and see the 12-year-olds have their first game in one of New Jersey’s most populated cities, Newark. It will guarantee tight quarters and as much as I want to be wearing a NASA spacesuit, it’s supposed to be 85 degrees.
Another set of worried thoughts descend on me. I plot and strategize how best to keep myself and others safe for another day. Another day with a heavy heart.