Coaching during the Pandemic

Lakaito Barr-Miller
12 min readMay 10, 2021

It was the 4a Kansas High School state basketball quarter finals at Tony’s Event Center in Salina, Ks. My pregnant wife, my 2 year old, Mack, and I had made the trip from Parsons to watch our boys make their run through the bracket. A year before we had fallen short of those dreams and lost to Kansas City Piper who went on to win the championship. This year we had high hopes of reaching the finals and winning state, but we did lose our best ball handler the game before to a knee injury, so we expected some of the bench players to step up to the task.

It was March 12th, 2020. My wife and I had taken off that Friday and reserved a room for Thursday and Friday in Salina, planning to watch Parsons High School do their thing in the tournament. It was during this week that we had really started paying attention to what was really happening outside of the sports world. We had heard about this new virus that had developed in China and how it had spread across that country, but living in southeast Kansas, we never thought about it making its way to us. The Monday before the tournament, we watched Rudy Gobert jokingly wipe his hands all over the equipment after a press conference, making a joke out of what was going on. A couple days later he tested positive and then an NBA game was cancelled. We all thought this was crazy! How did this virus stop a national basketball association game!? Hell, what was this virus!?

Even with the cancellation of the NBA, we still were naive to the power of this virus and how easily it could be spread, how fast it could move. That Thursday we hopped in the car and made our way to Salina. We had a good few hours of road time, so we listened to the radio, talked about how my wife was handling her pregnancy, talked about our PHS boys, and had some funny conversations with our 2 year old riding in the back. Earlier that day, we heard that the NBA was cancelling their season and then on the radio, we heard that the Big 12 tournament had been cancelled after one night of playing. We were in shock and jokingly started talking about what happens if we drove all this way just for the State basketball tournament for it to get cancelled. In our minds there was no way!

We arrived and sat with our sea of blue and gold, ready to cheer on our boys. We found an isle seat for the convenience of the continuous bathroom breaks that we may have to make between a 2 year old and mama who was three months into her pregnancy. Instantly, we heard everyone talking about the cancellations of the NBA and the Big 12 tournament and how NCAA might be cancelling the rest of their season. These talks with other friends and fans of Parsons were quickly shrugged off as the game was about to start against Rose Hill.

Rose Hill was a team that we were pretty confident going in that we would be able to run past despite our star player being out with his injury. We started off hot and lead against Rose Hill the whole first half. Second half was a waaaay different story. Their bench players that didn’t usually get a lot of time, came in and scored a lot of meaningful baskets. Rose Hill’s top player also made us pay, hitting contested, off balanced shots from every where on the court. Rebounds weren’t going our way and easy put backs weren’t going down. We ended up falling to Rose Hill and having to comfort our boys from the stands. Down by the concessions, we met up with the coaches and players and told them how proud we were of them for the season that they had and to hold their heads up. The room that we reserved was at the same hotel as the team so we met them there and the coaches invited us to go eat with them. As we were leaving the hotel, we got word that the state tournament had been cancelled due to concerns about the coronavirus.

This seemed to spiral out of control. At the time, I was the Sports Director at Parsons Recreation Commission and was about to start my first year as an assistant middle school track coach for Parsons. I also had applied for the opening at the high school for a coaching position for football. Not long after the cancellation of the boys state basketball tournament, I was notified about the cancellation of the rest of spring sports and that the area schools were going to remote learning till the end of the school year. As the sports director of the PRC, I had to put on hold youth soccer, t-ball, blast-ball, and adult softball due to the concerns of Covid-19. There was little known about the virus and how it was spreading and to be safe we had to completely shut down our facility. We had a meeting with full time staff and had to let part time help go until we knew the direction we were about to go.

In our meeting we talked about ways to provide for the community without any risk of catching this virus. We brained stormed about different programs we could offer remotely. As the sports guy, I felt like my legs were taken from me. What could I offer to the community that is somewhat related to what I had always done? I talked about posting at home workouts for people of all levels of fitness and trying to do virtual camps. At the same time, we pushed our in person programs back until we received a green light to resume. Personally, I was hoping that was going to happen a lot sooner than later, because I felt like I was drawing blanks and my worth as the sports director was slowly diminishing.

Weeks went by, and I had begun helping our field maintenance supervisor with work around the rec and ball fields that we maintained. I had also taken up the cleaning roll of our newly expanded weight room. Then the green light came, but not with out its own obstacles. I had to rewrite my sports programs in compliance with the CDC and the state. We had to develop signs for our ball fields stressing social distancing and mask wearing. Any of our participants had to wear mask and have their temperatures taken. We dotted and lined our fields in lanes to ensure distance from each other. Needless to say, we had to create a new way to play sports. During this time, I was interviewed and earned the assistant football coach’s position. My first task as the assistant coach was to help with summer weights.

The first week of summer weights was a great experience. We had up to 50–60 kids show up and they were pumped about seeing each other and ready to put work in. At this time, the virus had begun to make its way around the US and we had heard of cases rising up north in the KC area. To combat this and ensure the safety of our kids and coaches, we broke down our whole group into four groups and rotated our kids through the weight room, gymnasium, wrestling room, and the track. We took temps as they arrived, sanitized their hands, and sanitized equipment between groups. After week 1, the mask mandate had started. We required everyone to wear a mask and to my surprise, there wasn’t much hesitation. The kids were bought in and they were willing to do whatever they needed to do to make sure they could compete when the season began. We heard about surrounding schools having to shut down their summer programs because of positive cases, but we made it through June and July without any incident. 7 on 7 wasn’t so fortunate. We made it a few weeks competing in Independence against surrounding schools before it was shut down. This definitely made us worry about the upcoming season.

The school board voted to start school after labor day. Even though classes were pushed back, we were allowed to start practices. A week and a half before school was supposed to start I was told about an opening at the high school for the business department and freshmen pe/health. I applied and was hired on. We went over Covid protocol and I had to quickly figure out my plan for the semester. Talk about being thrown into the fire! This was probably best case scenario, because this was a pandemic and this was a new situation to everyone, so I wouldn’t stick out too much.

We practiced with mask and then we progressed to pads. We were told that during competition, mask didn’t have to be worn, but as soon as they hit the sideline or any other down time, we had to maintain distance and or put on mask. This wasn’t anything new to our team and we praised them for being so compliant and preached that we need to treat everyday like it could be our last day, because we could get shut down at any moment. That was our mantra throughout the season. “TREAT EVERYDAY LIKE IT’S YOUR LAST!!”. We didn’t have the season we had hoped to have with some injuries to a few key players and moving kids around to different positions to hide our missing parts. Also we did have a couple kids get quarantined for household contacts or contacts with other students and during one point in the season, we had several JV players get quarantined due to contact with a positive from another team. Our season came to an end first round of play offs against Burlington, who played a damn good game and exploited us on defense. After that game, we lined up on our side of the field and waived to the other team telling them good game and then licked our wounds, shared some tears, and thanked them for staying strong while we navigated the season through some dark waters. Several of the players were grateful to even have a season, so that was the light that was shed on a not so great finish.

School wasn’t too bad besides kids being randomly pulled out of class for quarantine and put on remote. That was so tough, watching these kids being pulled out of class and told they had to stay home for two weeks and zoom into class. It’s as if they love a day off from school, but when they are told they have to stay home and can’t leave, they look and some told me they feel as if they were sitting in a cell. I felt bad for these kids because I felt we were doing everything right. We wore mask, distanced kids in class, had one way markers down the halls, no locker use, and the importance of hygiene, mask, and distance painted the hallways.

I had been offered the assistant wrestling coaches position for middle school and high school towards the end of football season. I was really skeptical about it, thinking how in the hell is this going to work especially since basketball won’t even be allowing a jump ball to start the games? Middle school season started, the safety protocols were followed, but it came to a premature end. We had a small team and kids were getting quarantined left and right at the middle school. Numbers in Labette County were on the rise and moving onto high school wrestling, I thought there was no way this will be a full season.

High school wrestling practices started and we divided up our kids during practice. We had half in the weight room and half in the wrestling room and made our switch during the mid point of practice. This seemed to work well. Mask were to be worn unless you were able to maintain distance and/or unless you were live wrestling. Kids on the winter sports teams were also told to stay away from participants that weren’t on their teams to further make sure we weren’t putting each other in harms way. Our first tournament was in Caney, so we made the trip.

The Caney wrestling tournament ended up being a decent sized tournament even with no fans being allowed to attend. I believe there were 150 or more wrestlers not to mention coaches and other staff and they were divided between two gyms. You were instructed to sit with your team in the main gym and if you weren’t supposed to follow your teammate to the other gym to cheer them on. Of course mask were required unless you had a match and you had to sanitize every time you moved, or at least that’s what it seemed. We had several new kids, including our foreign exchange student, wrestling that day who didn’t have the day that they wanted. We had a couple guys do really well and were runners up in their weight division. It was a successful tournament and we were stoked as coaches, thinking that this season is going to work. After the weekend and we got back to practice. Towards the end of the week, we got wind that a couple kids from the tournament had tested positive and they had wrestled a couple of our kids. These same kids were developing symptoms, one of which I wrestled with daily, but I practiced with my mask on. Our guys were sick and missed practice. They then went and got tested and were positive. Then a couple more guys on the team began to develop symptoms and they too were positive. Our whole team was quarantined through the end of break. Meanwhile men and women’s basketball were experiencing the same thing. Their teams were mostly quarantined, games cancelled, gyms, weight room, locker rooms, and wrestling room were off limits through the end of the break. There was no way that our season would resume or at least that’s what it looked like.

Break was spent at home with my family and we didn’t dare go out of house without a mask or sanitizer and tried to make trips to get groceries or gas or anything outside of the house a one person affair. Numbers of positive cases were extremely high and there had been a few deaths. We kept in contact with our wrestlers and urged them to stay in, stay away from other people, and stay safe. The school board voted then voted that the first couple weeks back from break be remote to end the first semester. The second semester came and we were back in the wrestling room, but our numbers were cut in half. Parents and kids were afraid of catching the virus or they didn’t want to go through another quarantine. Our foreign exchange student was one of those who decided to walk away along with our best wrestler, who was a new father and didn’t want to put his family at risk. I wasn’t upset nor did I beg them to come back, but I understood and felt bad because my wife and I had our little baby girl on labor day, the day before school started, and I felt like I put my family at risk daily because I was exposed to everyone that walked into my classroom, those who were at practice, and those people at games or tournaments.

Despite the rough start to the wrestling season, we had a strong finish. Our kids took all necessary precautions at school, during practices, tournaments, and outside of those settings. It seemed like we finally had gotten on the same page and numbers were declining. As numbers declined, fans were slowly allowed to come watch, but they were required to wear mask, take temps, sanitize, and were kept separate from the wrestlers. Mats were sprayed more frequently and teams were mostly kept separate unless they were in a match. Things ran smoothly through regionals and thats where we ended the season. We had a couple guys wrestle a couple tough matches, one of those guys, ending his career with Parsons. Now it was onto the next sport….track.

My first season as a middle school track coach was stopped before it even started. I was going to be the throwers coach and I was a state champ in Javelin back in 2002 for Paola High School. Middle school didn’t have javelin so I had to start figuring out how to throw the shot and discus. It was right before middle school was supposed to start that I was bumped to the high school throwers coach and here we are now. Track has been a lot more lax than the other sports. Yes, we are still masking up and sanitizing and keeping our distance, but we are spread out, outdoors and it feels a little safer. I see kids from different teams intermingling and think that we are getting too lax and that we are still in a pandemic. I believe most of the competitors are doing what they are supposed to, to stay safe. We have a few weeks until the end of the season and I’m starting to see some sense of normalcy or maybe the new normal.

Since wrestling season, all the staff that were willing, were vaccinated, and yes, that includes me. I was quarantined during wrestling, but had no sickness and had negative test results when I got tested. So to me, it was a no brainer, I’m getting vaccinated to keep me and my family safe. I also am one of those guys who believe in the mask especially since I was in very close contact with a positive and the difference being I wore my mask and he didn’t. For me that strengthens that belief. I am constantly washing my hands or spraying sanitizer and as a family, we pretty much keep our distance from others that we aren’t normally around. To me that’s what you have to do to keep yourself safe. I do not like the mask, but I think that if there is any slight chance of it protecting me from others or others from me, then I’m going to mask up until we are told otherwise. That was the same thought process with the vaccine. Practicing good hygiene should have been a thing that we should do automatically, but I’m assuming it is nothing that’s overlooked nowadays. I guess what I want to end with is this. Sports, school, or a little bit of normal is possible as long as we are responsible and take those necessary precautions, even if it is the slightest chance to stay out of harms way. Stay safe y’all!