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Coaches who are counselors worry about youth with pandemic ongoing

Legacy’s Anthony Romano and Niwot’s Kelly Christensen are also school counselors

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The reach of the microscopic coronavirus has stretched deep into the lives of children, including their sports haven, ripping out all those normalities once taken for granted.

The ripple effect from the virus’ destructive path as well as the spotlight centered over the country’s divided political climate and fight for racial equality seems to still have no bounds in youth athletics and beyond as the calendar flips to 2021. And where that has left many adolescents, and the young athletes who once could use sports as an escape, is seen by many as a growing concern.

Legacy soccer coach Tony Romano (Photo courtesy Tony Romano)

“Anxiety levels are super high, student anxiety levels are super high right now,” said Legacy boys soccer coach Anthony Romano, who also serves as a school counselor. “They’re having a real hard time adjusting to this new way of learning, new expectations. Whether they’re ‘A’ students who are suddenly getting Bs. Or they’re students who used to just pass with Cs and Ds and now are failing. Or all the millions of other nonacademic things … there’s just anxieties coming from a lot of different angles relative to the pandemic.”

Romano is part of a relatively small percentage of school counselors who are also head of a high school sports program.

At Legacy since 2005 and a counselor at the school for the last 13 years, Romano is well trained in finding solutions for youth dealing with the everyday struggles of a teenager and student, to those in emotional and mental turmoil.

His ability to connect with those facing adversity is part of what has made him a decorated soccer coach with the Lightning for the last 12 years. It was something he was rewarded for this past year as he won the United Soccer Coaches’ prestigious High School Coach of Significance Award, an acclaim presented to just one coach from each state who best exemplifies a teacher of character and life lessons on the soccer field.

“As a counselor I’m trying to help our kids make good decisions,” Romano said. “You want to encourage, help and support them. A lot of times, part of my role is to encourage them — encourage them to realize they can be successful, and to have faith in themselves and to work hard, etc. And a lot of those things overlap into the coaching world.”

But now the role of counselor and coach are even tougher during a pandemic, which has shaken the livelihoods for many and taken the lives of others.

Around the country, school counselors who help kids with ‘the now’ and their futures are getting less in-person time with them due to remote learning. High school coaches, meanwhile, are often left to lead in the dark.

“I’m going to have to completely change everything I do for this upcoming season — if we have a season,” said Romano, whose team is slated to play in March, albeit far from certain. “The way I run practices, the expectations I have with kids, it’s all going to be totally different than it’s been for the last 25 years I’ve been doing this.”

In Colorado, athletes have been on edge whether they’ll get the chance to play their sport for their schools. And if so, for how long.

Football players were left dizzied by the fate of their season in the fall. Their ability to play was swayed back and forth in front of them before the season was finally approved and finished last month. And even with it, it still ended unexpectedly for some as Mead’s team, for one, made the postseason only to have to forfeit because of exposure inside the program.

Then last week, wrestlers in the area were shocked to hear that their season was called off because variances were not approved by Boulder County Public Health. Going in a reverse course, it was brought back this week — albeit tagged with strict regulations.

Niwot head cross country coach Kelly Christensen

“I do understand kids have situations at home whether they live with grandma or they want to see their grandparents or their parents have some autoimmune composition,” said Niwot cross country coach Kelly Christensen, also a counselor at his school. “But it’s definitely troublesome because there is a huge mental health component that is missing in these kids’ lives right now.”

Many like Christensen worry about the kids who are struggling to adjust. Concerns are kids aren’t getting what a healthy growing body and mind need — like social relationships, like exercise.

So when Christensen coached his powerhouse cross country team in the fall, he admitted to being more focused on his role as caregiver than coach.

“Even if it wasn’t in the direct communication that I had with kids, it was more the things I didn’t do,” Christensen said. “When I would have stepped in and corrected drills or redirected their focus, it was more of like, they’re here, they’re starving to see people, they’re excited to be outside.”

His Cougars won the Class 4A girls and boys state titles, anyway.

Next week, the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain school districts will offer in-person learning two days a week. Adams 12 School District, meanwhile, is remote learning for two more weeks before also going to a hybrid model.

CHSAA’s Season B also starts next week for basketball, ice hockey, skiing, girls swimming and wrestling.