It’s no secret that the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted daily life on a global scale. As the world pivots its strategies for a functional society, collegiate athletic programs and administrators have had to adjust to the unique set of circumstance placed upon the departments and the student-athletes they monitor.
Jennifer Saxon, Ole Miss’ Associate A.D. for Student-Athlete Enhancement, recently discussed with the NCAA about how her approach to student-athlete well-being has changed, particularly during the spring semester. Saxon’s responsibilities are broken into four primary categories: career development, community engagement, diversity & inclusion, and personal advancement.
“Gratitude has been my focus during this unique period in our history,” said Saxon.
In many ways, student-athletes have their time in college scheduled down to the minutes, especially in-season. The alarm clock goes off at the same time every day, strength training requires them to be in the facility at an exact time, class starts at a certain hour, meals are served in a specific time window, practice is a daily constant, and so on. With coronavirus forcing students to return home, closing facilities and moving regular practice to a digital sphere, it has forced Saxon to reprioritize how the university is programing student-athlete enhancement at Ole Miss.
The spring semester is filled with graduation preparation, internship and job searches. It took some time to deliberate, but Saxon and her team were able to finalize a plan of action for remote student-athlete enhancement events.
“It was vital for us to scale down our programming to ensure we were providing an alternative and not increasing anxiety among our target population,” she said. “We want our programming to be a complement to the student-athlete experience.”
Like so many of us, the student-athlete enhancement staff turned to FaceTime, Skype and Zoom and used virtual resources to schedule appointments and book calendars without over-scheduling or hindering the daily routines. The digital applications allowed them to continue career development sessions and meet virtually with the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and Rebels Invitational. Both student-run leadership groups are crucial in providing a platform to the athletes for input on their experience at Ole Miss.
“When considering how to deliver workshops online for student-athletes, it was important that they were accessible at any time of the day,” said Saxon. “We wanted to make sure we did not add stress to our student-athletes but provide added value and some normalcy to their lives. As a former athletic academic counselor, I am aware of the challenges moving to online classes can pose during a critical juncture in the semester, so we did not want to impede their work.”
Saxon believes that it takes a village to provide the proper guidance to her student-athletes and called Southeastern Conference colleagues to discuss their plans and ideate how best to execute a remote strategy.
As the world continues to change and the “New Normal” becomes more and more familiar, Saxon has walked away with four key points:
- Bring people to the table. Being in a silo will not yield the best product for your intended audience. Get everyone involved to make sure the plan will work for your student-athletes.
- Idea sharing is a must. While we are all at different institutions and have different focuses, ultimately there is no need to reinvent the wheel when in crisis.
- Adjustments are going to happen. You will need to take the pulse of your student-athletes, and if they are feeling the “heat” just like we are as professionals, we may need to take a break from the “plan” and just laugh. I check in with student-athletes daily. It helps me have some normalcy.
- Breathe. Go for a walk, listen to music, meditate or do something you enjoy. Boundaries are important. As work and home collide, it can seem like there is not an end, but it all will be OK.
With COVID-19 continuing to cast doubt over collegiate athletics and university life as a whole, the ‘uncertain times’ that we are living in force us to mold to ‘The New Normal’ Saxon discusses. She was poised with a problem and learned to try something new. If it doesn’t work, she reevaluates how to approach that situation and continues to focus her efforts on meeting the direct needs of her student-athletes.