The Alexandria track and field programs are as much about culture as they are about competition. That’s part of what makes them so successful each season.

The focus on building a healthy mind, healthy body and staying connected, as girls head coach Meghan Orgeman said, is as important now as it ever has been for a lot of kids.

The Cardinals have themes throughout each season that coaches implement as a way to get their athletes to focus on the here and now while building up to long-term goals. This year’s theme for the track and field program is the image of an arrow.

“We were going to talk in our season about how the only way to get launched forward is to be pulled back,” Orgeman said on March 19. “We talked to kids about how we’re getting pulled back right now, but it’s going to launch us forward.”

Before the Minnesota State High School League put a mandatory halt on the spring activities season from March 18-27, coaches were allowed to meet with their students one last time.

The MSHSL updated its policy to make things clear on how those coaches and athletes could proceed while school is not in session for at least through Friday in order to take all necessary precautions to limit the spread of COVID-19. There are no practices or competitions. Participants cannot get together in groups, and coaches cannot place undue pressure on kids to take part in any individual workouts or skills training. Coaches can, however, find ways to help students get through what is unchartered territory for everyone involved.

“The big thing for us was about building community, keeping kids connected,” Osakis track and field coach Lee VanNyhuis said. “It’s kind of tough. The biggest thing is not necessarily staying in shape, but having the kids feel like they’re still a part of something even though they’re socially apart from each other.”

Block out the negatives

Coaches in programs all over the area used their last meeting with their students to address a number of topics. Themes that emerged were talking about the uncertainty surrounding this spring season and whether or not it will take place at all. The emphasis for many was controlling what they all could control and staying a part of a community as a team as much as they can.

“I think athletes were having parallel feelings of, ‘Let’s stay together and let’s get some work in and remain optimistic,’ but also a lot of tears,” Orgeman said. “I had trouble holding it together when I was addressing the seniors. The seniors were very emotional, yet they still have hope. I really feel like there’s two equally-strong emotions going on with hope and then this isn’t what I was expecting with my senior season.”

Alexandria's Braeden Sladek hits from just off the green during a round at the Alexandria Golf Club last spring season. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)
Alexandria's Braeden Sladek hits from just off the green during a round at the Alexandria Golf Club last spring season. (Eric Morken / Echo Press)

As of the morning of March 23, competition for MSHSL members is allowed to resume on April 6, but that is very much up in the air with responses to the COVID-19 pandemic evolving rapidly. The uncertainty is hard on area athletes, but coaches are also trying to help them keep everything in perspective when wondering if the season will ever resume.

“Each one of us as players, parents, coaches, and the community of Alexandria is impacted from this in multiple different ways,” Alexandria baseball coach Jake Munsch said. “We obviously have an interest in baseball and focus some on how that is affected, but in the grand scheme of things, some people are facing problems that are much more significant than playing baseball right now, and we need to be aware and empathetic to those things.”

Staying connected

Athletes for many area programs are taking advantage of technology to stay connected. VanNyhuis and Orgeman said they send optional workouts through a group text-messaging app to parents and students. Some might be workouts related to track and field. Some are just general ways to keep them busy or a chance to see how kids are doing.

“I’ve heard from some parents who said their kids are just glad to have something to do, something to look forward to throughout the day,” VanNyhuis said. “Something to maybe get them outside if it’s nice out so they don’t get stuck in a rut...not being out in public, but jogging on a road or getting some fresh air is a big part of that.”

Athletes are using tools like Facetime or other video-chatting apps to see each other and do virtual workouts together from their own homes.

Those optional workouts can be different for each sport. Munsch said their options include everything from drills his players can do at home to work on basic fundamentals of baseball to conditioning exercises like yoga.

Alexandria boys golf coach Brady Swedberg said there are putting drills that can be done indoors. That comes with limitations, but the basic fundamentals of alignment, ball position and posture can be worked on.

“I recommended a couple golf books that focus on the mental approach to the game,” Swedberg said. “They are going to have plenty of time on their hands, and I think this might be the single best thing they can do to prepare for the season. I also suggested they follow a couple golf specific trainers on Instagram and Twitter. A lot of these trainers with a big social media presence are offering daily workouts and stretching plans that can be done from home with no equipment needed.”

Continuing a culture

Many coaches in the area just want to find ways to help their athletes stay positive.

Osakis softball coach John Stigman offered some simple ideas that his players could do to remain active like playing catch with a family member or one other person, but his message to his players has been more focused on cohesion.

“I think my biggest concern was more for connection,” Stigman said. “Each day we are trying to get players to connect with each other or check in. Teammates need each other at this time, so we have started a communication tree so we can continue to interact with each other. The mental connection is as important if not more important than the physical skills. Our players have been having discussions on successes, failure, wishes, and memorable moments. Sharing highs and lows of their journey together.”

It is easy in sports to focus on wins and losses, but winning teams often have strong cultures within their programs. With so much uncertainty surrounding whether or not students will even get a spring season in this year, the focus for many is doing everything they can to maintain a sense of togetherness that comes with being part of a team.

“It’s one of the biggest pushes,” Orgeman said. “There's going to be kids who don’t do well with the social distancing. It’s not about competition at this point. Above all, it’s about maintaining a healthy mind, a healthy body and staying connected.”