Strategies to Connect During the Pandemic

with Nicole Brinker, by Chris Dertz

Nine months after first emerging in the United States, it is clear that the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic are both unprecedented and wide-ranging. The raw data is grim. Currently, 22,000,000 Americans have been infected with the virus and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is projecting more than 400,000 US deaths from Covid-19 by the end of January 2021. Looking beyond these stark numbers, the social and economic dislocation caused by the pandemic has touched virtually every American. 

Of the many groups of Americans who have been affected by the pandemic, one of particular importance to educators are high school students who have not been able to participate in sports. High school coaches preparing for a season are usually concerned with equipment inventory, weight room attendance, depth charts, game planning, and writing practice plans. The pandemic has put much of that on hold. Many high school students who play sports have had their seasons taken away and are struggling socially and emotionally. As a result, coaches have been encouraged to develop methods, on the fly, to help their athletes deal with the disappointment that has arisen from postponed or cancelled sports seasons. Beyond Strength sat down with Eastland High School Head Girls Basketball Coach Nicole Brinker for a discussion about how she and her staff have helped their players get through this tough time.

The Brinker File

Nicole Brinker is an accomplished high school basketball coach. A standout 3-sport athlete at Eastland High School in Lanark, Illinois, Brinker attended Highland Community College in Freeport where she played volleyball, basketball, and softball. Transferring to the University of Illinois-Springfield (UIS), she played basketball and contributed to the Prairie Stars’ selection to the NAIA National Tournament during her junior year. A social studies teacher, Brinker has coached a wide variety of sports including both boys and girls basketball, volleyball, softball, and baseball. She has been a head basketball coach at both Forreston High School and, since 2015, Eastland High School. Brinker, a 2-time Illinois Basketball Coaches Association (IBCA) Coach of the Year, led teams to numerous conference, regional, sectional, and super sectional championships. In 2019, her Eastland basketball team was the runner up in the state tournament and in 2020, the Cougars closed out a magical 34-3 season by defeating Lewistown High School in the state finals, earning the Class 1a State Championship.

Interview with Coach Brinker

Beyond Strength: Entering the summer of 2020, how did you and your staff plan for practices and pre-season activities, given the Covid-19 restrictions?

Coach Brinker: We assumed that there would be restrictions to the things we normally did but we did think that we would be able to do some one-on-one instruction. We also thought that we would have access to the weight room with some limitations.


Beyond Strength:  What scenarios emerged for which you were not prepared? How did you address those challenges? Knowing what you know now, what things would you have done differently?

Coach Brinker: Twice we were allowed to start practicing, with severe limitations. In both cases, two days after starting, practices were shut down. I was heartbroken. The kids were heartbroken. We had to navigate more through emotions than anything else. We did conference meetings to discuss this as a whole group. The first time we were shut down there was really nothing we could have done. We were blindsided. The second time, we knew there was a potential that we could be shut down again. Had we simply waited a few days before scheduling practices, that could have alleviated some of the yo-yo emotions that resulted. However, at the time, we wanted to play and we were hoping for the best. The decision was so far out of our control and that was frustrating.


Beyond Strength: How did the unpredictability during the fall affect the social-emotional health of your athletes? What kinds of things were they saying? What were they feeling? Do you think that depression is a serious issue with your players as a result of Covid shutdowns and re-starts? Why do you think that some kids handled the frustrations and disappointments better than others?

Coach Brinker: The girls have definitely been through the gamut of emotions, from ending our basketball  season last year on such a  high note just before having the 2020 spring sports season cancelled was hard. And there has always  been this carrot dangling out there…We will be able to do summer stuff…we will be able to play fall sports. The kids get their hopes up and then each sport/activity gets yanked away from them. 

I have had numerous one on one conversations with kids who have felt defeated. They don’t understand why they can’t sign a piece of paper saying they know there are risks and they are willing to still participate. They are frustrated because they are following the rules of wearing masks and doing whatever the state or school tells them to do and they still are not allowed to participate in athletics. 

Yes, depression is a serious issue. We have tried to keep the kids doing something during the shutdowns. The kids had groups in the spring that they were accountable to and they communicated with each other what they were doing. Currently, we are having the kids design workouts and share them with the whole team. I think kids are handling things as best as they can but we have been as open with them as possible. 


Beyond Strength: How about parents? How did they handle the possibility of having basketball cancelled compared to how the players felt?

Coach Brinker: Honestly, I think the parents are taking it harder than the kids, especially the senior parents. Again, they continue to be willing to do whatever the state and the school says for the students to be able to play. It just seems that every time we step up and do what is asked, the goalposts are moved.


Beyond Strength: How are you doing, emotionally? Basketball season has been a huge part of your winters for a long time. What are you doing to deal with not having basketball? How about your assistant coaches?

Coach Brinker: It’s hard. I really miss being around the girls. We have such a bond that it is like a part of me is missing. I try to text the girls or set up meetings or workouts (that are allowed) just to be around them. It has been nice to be around my daughters so much but even they miss the gym. My oldest asks about ball games and the gym a lot.  I would say my assistant coaches feel the same way.


Beyond Strength: Did you try to maintain contact with your players during the times when you were not able to hold practices? If so, what methods did you use? What kinds of support networks are available to your players who are really struggling with not being able to play? Do you think it was helpful for you and your players to remain in contact during this time? Why or why not?

Coach Brinker: We have used the online conferencing to just meet and chat.  I have texted, called and facetimed many of the kids…especially when I know they are struggling. I think our kids have adjusted as well as can be expected and I think this connection is the reason for it. 


Beyond Strength: If we end up not being able to have a basketball season, or, if the basketball season is severely limited, what are you going to tell your players, especially your seniors, many of whom have had a basketball in their hands before they could even walk?

Coach Brinker:  I don’t know if there is really anything I can tell them.  I have cried in front of them and they have cried in front of me.  We all know the devastation is mutual.  Last season was such a blessing for us ending with a championship that it makes it a little less painful than for some other teams.  But in the end, our goal for our program is to help shape successful young women (not just basketball players) and together we have navigated through this terrible scenario and they are becoming strong young women. That’s all I can ask for. 


For more coaching and culture strategies, or to schedule a workshop with the Good Athlete Project, reach out to us!