With the spread of COVID-19 closing down team facilities across the country, remaining physically sharp has stayed a priority for many athletes. In addition, coaching staffs have tried to keep their teams emotionally connected during this remote offseason. Entering his 31st season at the helm for the North Carolina volleyball team, head coach Joe Sagula has enough experience to understand the importance of both of these aspects.
“Everybody has become an expert with using Zoom,” Sagula said.
In place of practicing on the court with one another, one way the team is hoping to improve is through optional weekly positional meetings on Zoom to break down film from last season. The assistant coaches have even incorporated footage from USA Volleyball to help players improve their technique. In addition to this group setting, Sagula and the coaching staff have created ways to give individual feedback to the players.
“Every day, one coach would call three people from the team as part of an individual check-in to see how they are doing. We broke up the team so every player would have a one-on-one conversation with a coach,” Sagula said.
To ensure the Tar Heels are physically prepared for a return to competition, the team has been in contact with the medical staff regarding physical programming that will help players progress. The strength coach and athletic trainers have even started to send optional workouts to the players in lieu of in-person practice.
Aside from the Xs-and-Os perspective of the game, the Tar Heels have created ways to maintain the bonds they've established in Chapel Hill. The team uses a weekly Zoom call to keep in contact and discuss how they are doing during this period of separation. Some Tar Heels participate in small-group FaceTime calls that have become known as “three-person pepper," a reference to a drill the team often practices.
During these calls, any point of discussion is a possibility. Sagula has invited UNC volleyball graduates to speak with the players, discuss what they've been up to during social distancing and talk about "what it means to be a Tar Heel.” Before Spring Break, the team started a book club. While it is now being held virtually, the club has not skipped a beat.
“We wanted to kind of say, ‘Hey, nothing has changed’ and help give us something specific to talk about during our weekly meetings,” Sagula said.
While the return of college athletics in the fall is still uncertain, Sagula has continued to focus on his players. When the team eventually returns to Chapel Hill, Sagula wants his team to come back in the safest way possible.
“Everyone is going to be so excited to get back on the court. We have to make sure that we are being very conscious of everybody on the team and how they are progressing to make sure there are no injuries because you don’t want to go too fast or too hard,” Sagula said.
After a 1-7 start to the 2019 season, the Tar Heels flipped the script by winning 12 of their final 16 games, creating momentum for the upcoming campaign, whenever it might be. Even in the midst of this unusual offseason, this tightly knit group is ready to handle whatever comes next.
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