May 28, 2020
Virtual rehab presenting different challenges for strength training
Nick Friar, contributing writer

Learning how to train an athlete during a pandemic isn’t exactly part of the process of becoming a strength and conditioning coach. Though that could change given what’s gone on in the United States since the COVID-19 outbreak shut down sports, separating professional athletes and student-athletes from their strength coaches and athletic trainers.

But while they face similar obstacles, strength coaches and athletic trainers do face different issues as well.

“So if it’s a patient care thing and it’s something that needs to be done by video call, we’re supposed to use WebEx or Microsoft Teams because those are HIPAA compliant,” Northwestern University associate athletic trainer Natalie Bumpas said. “Zoom is not HIPAA compliant.”

Photo: KA Sports / Creative Commons

The issue athletic trainers like Bumpas face with Zoom is now known “Zoombombing.” This is when someone enters a virtual meeting without being invited. Strength coaches, however, are able to use whichever virtual chat service they see fit because there isn’t the issue of HIPAA compliance.

“With the addition of things like Zoom and other FaceTime-like applications, we’re able to actually see them go through particular exercises or entire workouts that they may have questions on or if there’s a safety concern,” Saint Leo University Assistant Athletic Director for Strength and Conditioning Joe Nudo said. 

He added that St. Leo’s is far from the only athletic program shifting to an online platform, forcing some conferences to release guidelines for how much work an athlete can do in a given period. 

“It seems like the majority of the coaches across the country are typically using something like Zoom, something with FaceTime adaptability. Or there’s programs like TeamBuildr. But now, kind of coinciding with that, the NCAA has released — or at least conference-wide — they’ve released CARA (countable athletically related activity) standards based on what the athletes can and can’t report or how many hours a week you’re able to do such things and they put limits on how many Zoom exercise sessions you can do with athletes.”

Now that college sports are heading into the non-competitive season, strength coaches might lose the option of Zoom, as well. Furthermore, Spectrum News Syracuse reporting the NCAA has ruled teams cannot host online workouts any longer.

For Nudo, this isn’t as much of an issue. He’s already had to get creative with most student-athletes not having access to gyms and weights. At this stage, he’s handling this like a typical offseason for his athletes — while also trying to utilize YouTube and Instagram.

“We’re forced to get creative and these are all things that we’re able to use before this COVID shutdown happened,” Nudo said. “I think just like much to do with my coaching philosophy, I try to keep things as simple as possible. I think you can get too cute and overcomplicate things at this point in time. And the last thing we want to do is add undue stress to an already stressful situation for our student-athletes.”

For those strength coaches who can’t come up with alternative options on their own, applications like TeamBuildr are available. TeamBuildr, specifically, can be used as a tool to help develop workout plans from scratch or simply an extra resource for ideas. Furthermore, the app is used by many larger NCAA Division 1 schools and can be used to help train athletes from all ages, amateurs to the pros. It can also help make data collecting more efficient, allowing athletes to plug their workloads in and coaches can provide exercises directly to them through the system. 

There are also applications for coaches who know what to write for plans but need assistance with delivering programs efficiently.

“We had already been using TrainHeroic as a way to distribute our workouts to all of our athletes, so we kind of already had a virtual component in place,” Rod Richard, Director of Athletic Performance for all four EM Speed and Power locations in southern California, said. 

“We were able to take that and then unroll our whole program onto the TrainHeroic app. It was initially just for the lifting parts of it, or any of the specific prehab, rehab stuff per athlete. But then with this happening, no one can come in now, so we took our normal training sessions and put them onto the app.”

TrainHeroic is functional for strength coaches who train athletes in one-on-one sessions, as well as those who do so in groups. In addition to video uploaded by coaches, the app allows clients to track reps and communicate with coaches.\

There are also similar options for athletic trainers who are working athletes through rehab. Bumpas, for instance, uses HEP2go (home exercise program). And these applications are crucial for athletic trainers even more so because they’re typically used to running through exercises with their rehabbing athletes. Some also require the help of physical therapists, but with the country’s emphasis on social distancing, that’s become an issue, as well.

“With the current state of affairs, I’ve only had one person that’s been able to set up physical therapy at home,” Bumpas said. “Because most of the clinics are not currently reading patients. So I use the same service that our physical therapist on staff at Northwestern uses. And it’s a free online thing. And you can look up exercises and put programs together and I can email it to the athlete, and there are instructions and pictures of the exercises.

“I was able to do that for a few people, and then there were some people that wanted new exercises from what they were doing that they were able to do on their own. So I could change that around and change those up and send those out. And then as a couple weeks go by, I’m just kind of following up like, ‘How are the exercises working for you? Do you need something new? Are you bored with this?’ There’s always that idea of burnout of doing the same thing for too long. So I like to try and stick with a program for about two weeks and then revisit it.”

Bumpas has been fortunate enough that the free version of HEP2go has been sufficient. Even though society continued to become more and more tech-savvy, some still struggle with learning the new software.

“I do some online personal training and have for a year and a half or so now, so I was ready for this when it came,” Richard said. “But then a lot of my athletes had trouble. Even just downloading the app and figuring out how to work it because it’s not Instagram, TikTok, or Twitter. They had trouble figuring it out and we had to have a group town hall meeting to talk about how to even get on the app. I think that’s a barrier that a lot of people don’t expect. … It’s really great one you get it going, but there’s that hurdle at the beginning. Even with Zoom, people have trouble signing on.

“It’s interesting. You think you have all of this tech-savvy, but when it’s not familiar it causes problems. Then, if I’m a high-performer as an athlete and I get things done, and that’s my job, when I run into something like that, that gives me hurdles, I don’t want to do it. Then I got to try to reel them back in and get them to understand this is where we’re at. This is what we have to deal with right now. These are the cards that we were dealt.”

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