The End of Athletics as We Know Them?
In a world transformed by the COVID-19 virus, it is only natural that something once thought of as so natural and simple as school sports would fundamentally change as well. The AJA 2021-2022 Playbook, which has no designated section for sports, provided the following guidelines for athletics during this school year: that participating athletes be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to play indoors, that unvaccinated students provide a medical exemption and be restricted to outdoor sports, and that masks will “likely” be necessary for indoor sports.
The mask rule was the most noticeable COVID-19 precaution to many student athletes. For instance, freshman basketball player Zac Agichtein said that, other than having to wear a mask, his “experience with sports [at AJA] has not changed due to COVID” that greatly. Other students agreed that masks make quite the difference in athletic performance, as masks can feel like they obstruct breathing.
Student leaders also feel that enforcing the wearing and proper positioning of masks can affect the overall team dynamic. For instance, as the sole captain of the volleyball team, senior Ella Goldstein had to both maintain her stamina (as she was required to play for the entire game every time, according to a rule for captain participation in volleyball) and remind her teammates to wear their masks. Her mask-enforcing responsibilities also added more stress to Ella’s game-day psyche. “Reminding players to wear their masks during games and practices — and to wear their masks correctly — was a new responsibility as a captain,” she said. Ella noted that a normal responsibility for a captain is to tell athletes in their charge to remove jewelry, but, as she put it, “To tell someone to put a mask over their nose is just a little awkward.” Ella added that overall, the team was very respectful, so that removed some of the added stress, but that it was never a pleasant job to police her peers.
Another change, which was not mentioned in the playbook, was that “there are less games than previously [scheduled] due to COVID [changes mid-season],” Zac noted. This often served as a hindrance to the team’s overall development and morale, especially for the seniors on the team, noted senior and basketball team captain Yered Wittenberg. “They felt that with cancellations, their senior year basketball season was rather disappointing,” said Yered. Yered has also “come to appreciate each game more” as a product of such unpredictability and sparseness of game scheduling due to COVID-19.
Ella, whose senior night was rescheduled due to the last-minute cancellation of the last volleyball game of the season, shared the same sentiment, saying, “I’m really glad that we were able to still play, still have fun, and still be a team,” despite the challenges.
Another blow to morale was the restriction of spectators at games. Yered said that he and many others on the basketball team were saddened by this fact. “I found that unfortunate because it’s a loss of opportunity to make money by selling tickets and snacks as well as the players love the support and it helps us play,” Yered pointed out. It can be discouraging not to feel support that one has become accustomed to throughout their athletic career, posits Yered.
In spite of many challenges that the COVID-19 pandemic has caused, students have still managed to learn from their experiences and continue to look towards the future. One of the most valuable lessons that Yered and Ella say that they have learned is resilience in the face of adversity. As Yered put it, “In life you’ll face road bumps that you can’t remove; you just have to push through the adversity.” Ella adds in this similar vein that the pandemic has taught her to be “thankful for any opportunity that arises,” no matter the challenges that accompany it. “Before COVID, it was a given that we were going to have games regularly and things like that, and once that was taken away, it taught me to be grateful for what was there before,” she said.
As for looking towards the future, Yered said he has “been very vocal and helped direct the younger teammates,” thus molding a future generation of AJA basketball players, even if not all of the team spirit can truly emerge due to COVID-19. Ella, too, is confident in the new ranks of student-athletes. Having played with mostly lowerclassmen this past volleyball season makes Ella “really proud of how far the volleyball team has come in terms of both volleyball abilities and teamwork.”
And, from the younger generation itself, Zac has high hopes for the future of AJA sports. “I think that in the future we will be able to return to the pre-COVID rules,” he said hopefully. For now, student-athletes are figuring out ways to still better themselves and enjoy their sports in a world that looks different from their former unmasked, consistently-scheduled world.