Education’s Answer: Questions About Athletic Practices During COVID-19

Each year, United Educators (UE) responds to hundreds of questions submitted to risk@ue.org, as members seek to understand how best to manage risks specific to their situation. Often, these situations are common across all UE member institutions. Here, we share with you a recent Q&A to help inform your thinking about student-athlete activities during COVID-19.

Q: Our athletics season is cancelled due to COVID-19. How should we ensure that our student-athletes who want to train together do so safely?

A: With the cancellation of fall sports around the country, many athletes will want to practice and play outside of the bounds of organized competition. Consider these precautions to keep your athletes safe.

Supervised Activities

Consult with your athletic conference or association to see how much organized programming is allowed. Although many conferences and associations are canceling games, virtual or in-person meetings with coaches and trainers may be permitted. Both the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) and the NCAA released recommendations for schools that conduct in-person athletics.

If your institution holds practices, coaches and trainers may be able to design small group sessions to help limit potential transmission. Once assigned to a group, athletes should not switch, allowing containment of COVID-19 within the group. Multiple groups can practice simultaneously in a large space with only one coach or trainer, but the groups should keep distance from each other, and the advisor should maintain a safe distance from all groups.

The same standards for supervision should apply as any other season, despite the circumstances of the pandemic. If a trainer was required to be present in any group practices in prior seasons, then the trainer should be available now, too. 

Independent Activities

Some athletic conferences and associations may allow coaches or trainers to advise off-season training. Carefully designed training programs that emphasize solitary activities may encourage athletes to train alone rather than joining unofficial groups that may ignore physical distancing practices. A pledge to train safely may be appropriate in this setting. For example, the United States Soccer Federation’s (USSF's) “Play On Pledge” models safe behaviors for athletes and asks them to commit to safe participation.

Finally, be careful with “captain’s practices,” or practices hosted by the team captain. These are often only pseudo-voluntary and the coach encourages attendance. As a result, the institution can be deemed a de facto sponsor if a claim arises from an injury or other incident at a captain’s practice. The risk increases if the athletes are using institutional resources or space for the practice.