Wichita State Strength Coaches Fill Vital Role for Athletes

Wichita State’s Garrett Bayliff demonstrates body-weight exercises (Screenshot)

Inside every strength coach is someone who improvised on a road trip, dreamed up exercises in a hotel ballroom or conducted weights with nothing more than a few dumbbells in a fitness room.

“You’re always sort of MacGyvering the workout,” said Kerry Rosenboom, Wichita State’s head strength and conditioning coach.

Wichita State coaches and athletes are at their improvisational best during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Most Shocker athletes are at home under orders to avoid contact with people. Gyms are closed. Tracks are closed. Their old school – with its hoops, batting cages and barbells – is closed.

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That sends Shockers to the backyards, parks, woods, garages and basements in search of workout space and equipment. The improv can be as simple as using a backpack as resistance training or as creative as using a tree branch as a lifting bar.

College athletics began to shut down in mid-March with the cancellation of conference basketball tournaments. Spring sports soon followed.

Wichita State baseball missed its chance to grab the spring spotlight with a home series against Nebraska beginning March 12. The Shockers, under new coach Eric Wedge, won 12 straight games before the season ended. Wichita State’s softball team didn’t play a home game. Track and field started preparing for outdoor meets. Golf and tennis ended well into their spring schedules.

“The first couple of first couple weeks I was in a little bit of denial,” junior thrower Michael Bryan said. “Then I sat down with a piece of paper and a pen to figure out workouts I could do without weights.”

Shocker strength coaches jumped in to help. They send their athletes workout plans, offer advice and answer questions. They can’t make the workouts mandatory or check on progress.

“It’s so hard, because there’s so much unknown,” said associate head strength and conditioning coach Hannah Wilkinson. “These kids are so used to really defined rules and deadlines.”

Now they are largely on their own and nobody knows when they might return to school or when they might compete again. A sprinter, for example, won’t compete again until the indoor season resumes in January, forcing coaches to organize a nine-month training plan. Baseball, assuming summer leagues are canceled, and softball could fall into a similar timetable.

“It’s hard to just sit and wait,” softball pitcher Caitlin Bingham said. “We can’t even go to the gym.”

There are plenty of ways to stay active. The strength and conditioning coaches want their athletes to be creative, while using common sense to avoid injury.

“Keep them moving, keep them active,” said Garrett Bayliff, assistant strength and conditioning coach. “When we do get back together, then we’re not starting from ground zero.”

The strength coaches are using body-weight exercises as a starting point for almost all of their athletes. Some athletes own basic weight sets. Some can go to a nearby park to sprint up a hill. Filling a backpack with books or milk jugs with water are popular substitutes for weights and cardio work.

“A lot of my kids are just bored to tears,” Wilkinson said. “So we’re adding stretching and mobility. That can really pay dividends down the road.”

Rosenboom, who often FaceTimes his athletes to check on them, said basketball player Dexter Dennis owns two 25-pound and two 12-pound dumbbells, helpful in these times when combined with stretching and body-weight exercises. Shuffle drills and stairs are also exercises most athletes can do at home.

“The biggest thing is just working on conditioning,” Rosenboom said. “Let’s keep moving. Let’s keep stretching. This a good time the guys can heal.”

Sadie Boos, a freshman on the track and field team, lives near the woods in Broken Arrow, Okla. She and her 14-year-old brother improvised with branches, shopping bags and rocks to fashion weights and running workouts.

“Our coaches challenged us to be creative, share ideas,” she said. “So, we were brainstorming ideas. We took two bags and filled with rocks. We didn’t know how heavy they were. They definitely worked.”

Social media and video can help motivate. Wilkinson loves it when her athletes share video or pictures of them running up a hill or playing catch with mom.

“We’re trying to think of creative ways to get the kids a little more jazzed about this,” she said. “It’s Cute to see them out in a field with mom or the family dog. Them sharing gets the creative juices going.”

Strength coaches are crucial for improving an athlete’s body. Their work with an athlete’s mind and mood is also important. Strength coaches often spend more time with athletes than sport coaches, especially in the off-season. They can become a sounding board, a confidant and a go-between for athletes and coaches.

Maintaining that communication is crucial during the pandemic. All Shocker coaches are staying in touch with athletes through texts, calls and video conferences. Strength coaches build relationships in a different way from a sport coach.

“It goes back to trying to stay in touch with them,” Bayliff said. “There’s nothing restricting us from reaching out and catching up with them. It’s the side conversations in between sets and reps that are important – not talking about baseball or tennis. Talking about how their family is doing. Getting through this crazy time.”

Due to ongoing concerns with the COVID-19 virus the American Athletic Conference has suspended all spring sporting events until further notice.