Ray's Theory: IHSA Introduces Return To Play

Coaches and athletes all over the state of Illinois, desperate for the good news regarding getting back to training for their sports, finally, have a reason for joy with the Illinois High School Association release of the 'Return to Play' Phase 1 Guidelines, effective Monday, June 8th for certain regions in the state. This was a long time coming, with various bureaucratic barriers delaying the approval and release of the guidelines. IHSA's guidelines are a large step forward, but athletes and coaches must be careful to note the activities they do NOT allow yet, so we will discuss briefly what the guidelines mean for fall sports, especially cross country and offseason track training.

What are IHSA's Return to Play Phase 1 Guidelines?

Many of IHSA's press releases have links to the PDF document with the guidelines. You can find these guidelines on the link provided here: https://www.ihsa.org/documents/board/2019-20/Stage%201%20RTP.pdf

The primary task of IHSA when forming the guidelines was to take current directives from Governor Pritzker and translate them to safe procedures for team meetings. IHSA did not have to make any decisions about group size or social distancing because the state has already outlined these. There are no surprises in the guidelines since we already knew that groups of less than ten, social distancing, and other health-based procedures would be a part of summer life.

Whether your specific school is able to get back to workouts on Monday depends on your individual school district approving the plan. Not everybody will start on Monday so many teams will need to be patient as their school district makes decisions based on their specific situation. We may expect Chicago-area schools to take even more careful approaches than these guidelines.

Some of the sport-specific points included are: coaches must keep a record of which athlete's workout and whether they show any COVID-19-related symptoms. Some exercises that require a spotter cannot be performed. While there may be multiple groups of ten, they cannot interact with each other. No locker rooms or personal equipment may be shared.

Here is the key point: since summer contact days are not currently permitted per IHSA's ruling in March, Phase 1 allows only for voluntary strength and conditioning sessions. Teams may not practice the specific skills of their sport.

How does this affect cross country summer training?

The age-old question of 'What counts as a non-sport specific skill?' is revisited here, since running is specifically stated in the permitted activities but is also the most specific skill to cross country. Based on what has been historically enforced, as well as 'the letter of the law', teams will be allowed to run together provided they are in groups of ten and social distance is maintained. Cross country is a great sport for acclimation during Restore Illinois. The size of groups allows for natural training groups, which is a big improvement over the solo running that so many have been doing for months now. Until further notice, athletes cannot switch the group they are in so they will need to get used to their training partners. Coaches may need to opt for body-weight strength sessions in most situations, although weightlifting can be considered if proper hygienic steps are taken.

How does this affect track off-season training?

Another keynote on the guidelines is that athletes cannot switch between groups based on the sport. For example, if an athlete is in a football summer training group, he cannot switch to a track training group even though he is expecting to run track in the spring. Therefore, he will be encouraged just to train in his football group. However, track-specific athletes may opt to be in a track training group during Phase 1.

What's next for Return to Play?

This plan will be in place until there are further updates on health guidelines from the state of Illinois. There is uncertainty about when this will be, but these guidelines may be in effect for the duration of the summer. Most regions of Illinois are in Phase 3 and will be looking to advance to Phase 4 sometime later in the summer. Phase 4 allows for gatherings of up to 50, so this would allow normal-sized practices for most cross county teams.

A major challenge for the IHSA in the future will be to determine guidelines that allow cross country meets to be held. Even in Phase 4, the gathering limit prevents most cross country meets in their current state from happening. The IHSA must decide how to categorize the 'gathering' of athletes in a race, as well as the 'gathering' of separate team camps. There has been much creativity so far in keeping all people involved protected from the transmission of the virus, but we have a long way to go.

Still, this first phase is great news for the state as a whole. Now, the teams separated by the walls of their houses can start to be unified in-person once again, and this is a big change for the better.