While some of our teams had the opportunity to compete in the fall, others did not. We asked three of our coaches — Volleyball’s Danijela Tomic, Men’s Soccer’s Eric Nichols, and Women’s Soccer’s Jimmy Walker — to talk about missing out on a fall season and how their teams coped with this change.
What has been the biggest challenge of leading your team during COVID-19?
Danijela Tomic: The biggest challenge was during the time when we could only communicate with our team virtually. Relationships and connections are the foundation of our program, so we had to find new ways to continue building both. Also, not having team travel and game-day experiences where a lot of team bonding happens was something that we had to be aware of and find different ways to build strong connections.
Eric Nichols: We certainly miss the competitions, but practice has filled much of the soccer void. The biggest challenge had been finding ways to continue to move our team culture forward, particularly developing those deep and meaningful relationships within the team. Things like team meals, meetings and even travel have always been really beneficial for our cohesion.
Jimmy Walker: Dealing with the disappointment, initially, that the season was cancelled and the amount of time our student-athletes had to wait to play the game they loved. On top of that, navigating through everything to ensure a safe environment for our players and staff.
What have you been most surprised to learn about your team during these challenging times?
Danijela Tomic: I cannot say that I was surprised but more that these challenging times confirmed what I already knew — we have a 100 percent committed, disciplined and resilient team. Their positive attitude, discipline and resiliency were on display every day and it allowed us to have a successful fall.
Eric Nichols: How incredibly resilient our players are. There are many reasons for each one of us to start feeling sorry for ourselves, but the guys have remained grateful through this entire ordeal.
Jimmy Walker: I am not really surprised, but amazed, at how competitive this group has been over the last 16 weeks. You would not have thought we were in a global pandemic when you watch our team’s attitude toward training, school, etc. I am extremely proud of how resilient our group has been.
How did you keep your student-athletes engaged through the fall semester without a competitive schedule?
Danijela Tomic: One of our goals is to develop great learners, so learning and competition are an integral part of our practices. This fall was different. Our athletes missed wearing their BGSU jerseys and competing against someone other than their teammates every week. As coaches, we also missed coaching on a game day. There was nothing we could do to change not having a fall season, but we found a way to recreate a game-day atmosphere the best way we could. Almost every Friday, we had an intrasquad scrimmage that we treated like a real match. We also streamed it, so our families and fans could watch our team compete hard against each other. The teams were drafted every week by two different players which was a valuable learning experience.
Eric Nichols: Practice has been our savior. We lost the ability to practice this spring, so from the moment we were able to get back on the field in August until our last practice before the break, the guys took full advantage of every practice. They worked, learned, and most importantly, appreciated the opportunity to play.
Jimmy Walker: We made practices extremely competitive, kept track of wins/losses during training sessions, and kept points individually with training sessions each week. We also scrimmaged to try and keep some normalcy to what a typical week in-season looks like. We had a nice variation of sessions as well as a good balance in pushing our players hard then having some time off.
In what way did your team grow the most during fall 2020?
Danijela Tomic: We often talk to our athletes about controlling the controllables, and this year gave a master class in that for everyone. We also learned not to take anything for granted and that we have to care, not just for ourselves, but also for others. The precious times that we have with each other in the gym is something that I think we cherish much more than before.
Eric Nichols: Perspective. We have seen again how much this sport and this team means in our personal lives. We must see beyond ourselves. We remain grateful for the opportunities we have to play here at BGSU, but we also need to keep perspective about what is going on outside of our daily lives in the world as a whole.
Jimmy Walker: As a new coaching staff, we were able to get to know our players much better, as well as allow them to get to know us. I think the fact that our student-athletes have had to navigate through these uncertain times will undoubtedly make them stronger, more resilient and better prepared for life after college.
What silver linings have you and your team/staff found during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Danijela Tomic: The pandemic forced us to think outside of the box even more than usual and made us more creative with how we teach and stay connected with our team when we could not be in the gym. We also got an opportunity to develop our six freshmen and give them more time to adjust to our team culture and system of play before our competitive season. That is a luxury for us when we usually have just a few weeks to do that in the fall.
Eric Nichols: In a typical fall, we only have a couple weeks to prepare for the first game, so we often have to throw the new guys into the deep end and hope they survive. This year we have been able to bring our new guys along in a much more methodical and effective manner.
Jimmy Walker: The 16 weeks over the fall allowed us to implement our ideas and philosophies to our players. We feel individually and collectively that this time has been beneficial to express our expectations for player’s roles and responsibilities on and off the field.
Has the pandemic and season without competition changed you as a coach in any way? As a person?
Danijela Tomic: The pandemic gave me more time to reflect on what is important in life and reinforced my belief that life is a team sport. It made me appreciate my profession even more because coaches have a privilege to work with young people and a responsibility to use sports to teach life skills, not just X’s & O’s.
Eric Nichols: The pandemic has certainly humbled me as a person and a coach. It has also been encouraging to see our players and the leaders of our University stay true to who we are. We did not back down, we did not let the pandemic change who we are or what we stand for. Rather, we have been resourceful, responsible and resolute about continuing on our mission. As humbling as it has been, it has also been inspirational.
Jimmy Walker: Yes, it’s certainly been different times and has allowed for growth as a staff, but in a different way. We have had numerous coaching education opportunities that were provided to us within the department with podcasts, seminars, online courses, etc. We also have a fantastic network of coaches and administrators here at BGSU and we have been able to use each other as resources. As a person, the extra family time has been awesome. It opened the door to a bit of a different work-life balance that we would not normally have in the fall.
What are you most looking forward to when your team is able to compete during the spring semester?
Danijela Tomic: The game day is always special. I love coaching
during games and cannot wait to see our team play the game they love and
to compete for another championship. Our players have worked hard and
smart this fall, and we hope to see the results of that work this
spring. Also, we hope we will be able to see our families and Falcon
fans in the bleachers.
Eric Nichols: This seems counterintuitive, but I am looking forward to losing a game — which I hope does not come early or often — because we have not experienced on-field adversity since late in 2019. We have a talented and driven group, but to get where we want to go, we will need to experience adversity. We have a plan, and I am eager to see how we respond when we get “punched in the face”.
Jimmy Walker: Watching our team compete in games. I am so excited for this group to go against someone other than themselves. I am also excited to keep building relationships with our student-athletes during a season. Traveling together, celebrating the highs, and building on the lows are experiences a season presents.
Anything else you would want Falcon fans to know about your team (COVID-19 related or in general)?
Danijela Tomic: I think this is the most talented team since I have been at BGSU. Our athletes are also great students and citizens, and I cannot wait for our fans to watch us play.
Eric Nichols: We look forward to competing in what will be an incredibly challenging spring schedule, but more so, we are looking forward to the day that this is all behind us and we see you all out at Cochrane Stadium again. Soon enough! Until then, please stay safe!
Jimmy Walker: As the old saying goes, “It’s what you do when no one is watching”. It is amazing to see how hard this group has worked day-in and day-out this fall. It has been really cool to see their attitude, focus and professionalism towards getting on with things as if it is business as usual.