Area football coaches hold spring practices virtually

There is no bell signaling school has ended. After all, students in the state  — and nation  — are learning from home via virtual classrooms. Still, the East Lake football players knew to immerse themselves in the sport once their online courses were finished on Monday. 

They took their seats, opened their laptops and logged into Zoom meetings with their coaches. They talked about team philosophies. They analyzed video. They discussed formations and plays. 

Monday was supposed to mark the start of spring practice in football. That did not happen. The Florida High School Athletic Association canceled the month-long training session, along with the other spring sports, because schools remained closed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Nothing changed for East Lake, at least with its practice schedule. On Monday, there was a team meeting for all players to kickoff the spring. That was followed by offensive, defensive and special teams sessions. 

East Lake virtual

There are no workouts on the field. No putting on the pads. No collisions. But the script remains the same for Eagles. There are two-hour weekday practices for the next month, only now everything is done in a virtual setting. 

“We wanted to get the players in a routine and create as much normalcy as possible,” East Lake coach Bob Hudson said. 

This is all new for Hudson, who is entering his 18th season.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I’m a text and email guy. I don’t even do anything with social media.”

The longtime coach took advice from others on getting acclimated to this new wave of technology. He talked to college coaches about what they were doing during the lockdown. He enlisted the help of assistants and family members to set up Zoom meetings. He got feedback from players once the online system was set up.

There were other adjustments, too. Hudson needed to make sure position coaches are teaching the same formations and plays on the same day. He had to figure out what meetings players who line up on both sides of the ball should attend. 

Another important detail is etiquette. Players must wear shirts during meetings. They have to mute any background noise or music. And they are required to raise hands before speaking to avoid any interruptions. 

“This is more than just football,” Hudson said. “This is about life lessons. When these guys get out into the real world and have jobs, they are likely to be in a lot of Zoom meetings. It’s the wave of the future. And they need to know what would be expected of them and how to behave in that type of setting.” 

For the players, the online classrooms are more than just teaching plays and formations. They also help them stay socially active and build camaraderie.   

“It was great to be able to see the whole team and hear from my coaches again,” said Eagles running back/defensive back Ryan Cunningham, who will be a rising senior. “I think that doing these virtual meetings is going to have a huge impact for our team on the mental aspect of things as we can still communicate and install ideas as if we were at school. With the spring season being canceled, it’s important that the whole team stays in communication because now is a very important time to get ahead of the curve.” 

East Lake might be the only area program sticking to the same spring schedule. Others, though, are still keeping contact with players this month on video chats. Mitchell already had its players doing home workouts for several weeks. And the Mustangs plan on holding position and coaches meetings via Zoom. Nature Coast sent daily cardio and bodyweight exercises for players to do Monday-Thursday. The Sharks’ staff also is constantly checking grades, contacting any player that falls below a C in any class. 

Jesuit coach Matt Thompson is not consumed in the virtual world. His players can watch game videos on their Hudl accounts. They can also work out on their own. But Thompson has no plans to hold mass online meetings. 

“It looks good. It sounds good, but there’s no real value in it for us,” Thompson said. “Plus, we already have kids taking final exams and spending their time with that.”

Clearwater Central Catholic, meanwhile, has been holding meetings since school was closed last month. The Marauders set up video conferences 3-4 times a week. On Mondays, the entire team gets together online. Sometimes there is even a special guest appearance. 

“It may be a waste of time, but kids need structure,” CCC coach Chris Harvey said. “I don’t know if it will make us a better team, but people come to CCC and get used to their time being used efficiently, and we didn’t want this to take that away. We don’t want to keep them for hours like we would with practice, but we do want them to understand what we are missing and try to minimize how that hurts us.”

The meetings with players are not the only virtual ones coaches are conducting this offseason. Many also are having video chats with college coaches to discuss potential recruits. Armwood coach Evan Davis said he was averaging about 4-6 a week, a number he expects to increase now that the NCAA has limited how much contact coaches can have with its own players while they are taking exams the next two weeks.

Armwood's Evan Davis
Armwood’s Evan Davis

“It’s a balancing act with all of this,” Davis said. “As coaches, we’re spending time with college guys and our players. And with the team, you want to keep them engaged but try not to overdo it with the online meetings.”

The conferences are not restricted to teams. Officials have been holding them, too. The Sunshine Football Officials Association, which covers mostly Pinellas and Pasco County schools, started conducting video sessions at the end of last season for officials to brush up on rules before the playoffs. They have had four more meetings this year.

Hudson knows there are still questions to be answered. How much football knowledge will the players retain?  Is there a risk of video burnout? That will require some tweaks to the system. 

“It’s all trial and error,” Hudson said. “What we want more than anything else is for the players to stay mentally focused and learn as much as possible so when we actually get back on the field we’re not starting from square one.”