DORCHESTER — Playing sports and keeping active during the pandemic has been tricky for 14-year-old Owen Urquhart. Before COVID-19, the Grade 9 student at Lord Dorchester Secondary School, near London, played soccer and volleyball at school and basketball through a community program. After the pandemic began, his main outlet became shooting hoops in his driveway — when weather permitted. “I’m a pretty good shooter,” he says, crediting help from others “and practising a lot.”
Although exercise is known to boost mental and physical health, opportunities to play sports have disappeared over the past year — leaving youth such as Urquhart largely without organized activities. That’s why, last fall, Michelle Lange, coordinator of athletics for the Thames Valley Regional Athletics, which manages team sports for five local school boards, and her counterpart in Thunder Bay, Dave Pineau, developed a series of online training videos called the Red Shirt Effect.
The program is named after Kelly Olynyk, a Canadian who plays for the NBA’s Miami Heat. “Red shirt” refers to a year that a college- or university-level athlete sits out of competition. Olynyk sat out his third year on his university team to train and learn about other facets of the game. When he returned, he was playing a higher level, says Pineau, the activities director at Lakehead Public Schools and the coordinator for Superior Secondary Schools Athletic Association in Thunder Bay: “He got bigger, faster, stronger.” Olynyk’s experience inspired Pineau and Lange to look at the pandemic year differently — “to think of this year as the red-shirt year for all of our students and try to provide the coaches and students with all the supports that they need to be able to train virtually,” Pineau explains.
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Each works with local partners to develop programs tailored to their communities. In Thunder Bay, where the program launched in February, Pineau asked a Sudbury firm to develop an easy-to-use virtual-training platform that coaches can use to interact with their students. He’s identified ambassadors —athletes and coaches — and recruited an Indigenous fitness trainer to connect with Indigenous students.
In London, Lange worked with local athletes and coaches to coordinate a series of high-performance videos that tackle basics including speed, agility, and strength and conditioning. They're done in real time so that kids can watch and follow along.
Launched in January, each week of the eight-week program features a range of videos for different skill levels and intensities. “Students can follow along from their mobile device,” Lange says. “They can follow along on their computer at any time of the day that they want to. They can choose which trainer they want to work with, or they can choose to mix it up if they want.”
Lange and Pineau are also working collaboratively to develop other components, such as an interview series with coaches to provide development resources for volunteer team coaches. They plan to share elements between the regions; a three-part series on sports psychology, for example, is being developed in Thunder Bay. Most of the funding has come from local school boards, the two say.
Teachers say that the program fills a gap in the delivery of fitness instruction during the pandemic. Pre-COVID-19, Keith Heard, a phys-ed teacher at A.B. Lucas Secondary School, in London, taught students five days a week for an entire semester, a pace that allowed for the steady progression of instruction and skill development. Now, under the quadmester system adopted to protect against the spread of COVID-19, courses run 10 weeks, students alternate between in-class and online attendance, and individual classes run for a longer period of time. “This has been very difficult,” he says, adding that teachers have concerns about delivering fitness activities remotely “when we can't monitor and ensure that those are being done regularly” and properly.
Urquhart’s phys-ed teacher, Kerri Lehouillier, says the program is boosting her students’ mental health: “A lot of them would wake up in the morning, and they would play their video games and things like that that were actually detrimental,” she says. “And now that they've got an actual workout, they're actually doing it ... and feeling a little bit better.”
Stephanie Grozelle, athletic director at A.B. Lucas and coach of the school’s junior-boys basketball team, says she appreciates that resources for coaches have been included. Normally, coach development, when available, involves scheduled events, she says: “I’m a mother of three, I am a full-time teacher, I coach, and I’m an athletic director; it’s really hard to find time in my day for those [scheduled] one-offs."
Kari Schneider, a London trainer who was tapped to provide conditioning and warmup videos, says online programming is not as effective as in-person training, which allows youth to also develop team participation and leadership skills. But, she adds, the approach “is one that can at least help kids when they can’t have the hands-on they’re accustomed to.”
The social dimension is important, says Molly Driediger, an assistant professor in the school of kinesiology at Western University; it adds “that extra element of engagement, especially if you're into fitness and performance-level athletics.” But online programs, she notes, do come with benefits: they’re easier to fit into a busy schedule and allow kids to work out at home. Overall, she says, exercise “is important for their emotional and mental health as well as their physical well-being.”
Since finding out about the Red Shirt Effect in February through his phys-ed class, Urquhart has been doing guided half-hour workouts three times a week in his basement or bedroom. He’s also learned strategies for how to up his basketball game. “Some of them help with explosiveness, stuff like that, and being able to jump more and get faster,” he says. The only drawback, he notes, is that he can’t take his questions directly to the trainer — “but you could probably email your teacher.”
All students can access the program, regardless of whether they’re involved in team sports, Lange and Pineau say — and they want to see the program continue after the pandemic. “I feel like I’ve reached a lot of underserved populations,” says Lange. “It just really opens up doors for more opportunity for kids that you otherwise wouldn't have even seen in a traditional high-school sports year.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
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