'It's been a real challenge' - Coaching elite basketball during a pandemic

After a year like no other, Derby Trailblazers' head coach Matt Shaw believes he has learned a lot during the past 12 months.

With the majority of basketball still on hold across the country, only the elite end of the game has managed to continue amid a difficult landscape for both sport and life in general.

But what has basketball during the Covid-19 pandemic meant for those involved? For Shaw, there are always positives, no matter how difficult things have been.

He said: "It's been a real challenge, but we do what we can. We're trying to make the best of a pretty poor situation.

"I’m certainly not complaining, though, I’m one of the lucky ones that’s been able to keep on coaching. There’s a lot of people that can’t wait to get out there and be involved in the sport they love and they’ve not been able to do that right now."

Shaw has been coaching Derby since 2014 (Image: Alan Mousley)

Finding motivation

As Covid looms over every aspect of daily life, Derby and Shaw could easily be forgiven for shutting up shop and taking a pass on the 2020/21 season. Instead, the former England U17 head coach has found his players receptive and motivated no matter what they have faced.

"I think the first thing we’ve always tried to do, for the youngsters in particular as well as the D1 guys, is that what we do it's fun," said the former D1M Coach of the Year.

"We haven’t pushed too hard, too soon getting back into basketball. That’s been the main focus as a club, it's something to enjoy.

"Getting guys up for games that tip at an earlier time, not having the usual routine for matches both home and away, the game day set up, that is a challenge of course. The guys have been great though, I can't fault them.

"We try to take the approach that every practice and every game could be our last for the season. I think on the whole the guys have responded really well, very professional.

"We have also had a couple of players who have had Covid. That obviously creates it’s own challenges, but the lads have been brilliant."

Those positive cases certainly brought the pandemic firmly into focus for all involved, and while everyone wants to keep playing basketball, to stay active, for distraction, or just for the social interaction, the immediate future is uncertain and safety must remain the priority.

That's something Derby have made sure is at the front of their thinking.

"No matter what we're doing, we need to follow all the Basketball England RTP guidance, and be aware that everyone has a different take on Covid," said the Derby signal caller.

"As a club, we need to be aware of the people who have the most challenging circumstances. Those who are apprehensive, how can we put their minds at ease so they can train and play in a safe environment? That’s been a big focus."

Shaw is also a three-time EABL Coach of the Year (Image: Alan Mousley)

Home support

It's unlikely that anyone would say the current situation is one to be embraced and the newly-announced Government lockdown makes for more uncertainty, but that hasn't stopped Derby and other clubs from taking some positive steps in 2020. Not everything is a negative, just different.

Unable to access their usual venue at Noel Baker Academy, that left the Trailblazers scrambling for a temporary home this season. That hasn't been ideal, but it hasn't been all bad news.

"I don’t think changing venue has been a problem," confessed Shaw.

"The reality is, our biggest advantage playing on our own court is always our supporters. We’ve definitely missed that support and we're lucky that we get good, vocal crowds.

"I think that’s the bit we’ve missed, but everyone has missed it.

"In terms of the venues we have been able to use while Noel Baker is unavailable, we’ve got no complaints at all. We’ve used two great facilities in Repton Sports Centre and Wildcats Arena in Nottingham, I think it’s been nice to have the games streamed there as well and we can still be seen by our fans.

"The hardest thing has been getting guys to practice and games, finding a way to get there in terms of transport. That's been more of a challenge, but on the court we really can’t complain."

Derby are currently 5-1 and occupy 1st place in D1M (Image: Alan Mousley)

Man in the mask

For Shaw, who first took charge of the Trailblazers in 2014, there are other ways Covid has changed the sport.

It’s definitely harder to communicate!" said Shaw when discussing coaching with a mask on.

"It’s amazing how much communication is done using body language and facial expressions and how that can get lost behind a mask. That’s been really interesting.

"Getting up close and personal with people is a big difference to. Just being able to say something, have a quiet word with a player, being a hands on coach, it’s difficult.

"The ability to get in training sessions to use mats and pads, move people around, demonstrate things, that’s all a lot tougher.

"I’ve been using a squeezy whistle though, that's quite nice, an easier way. I think I’ll keep that going forward!

"I also like fewer people at practice. Smaller numbers means people can focus a bit better, cancelling out some of those distractions from a big group. That's been a positive to."

Looking forward

After playing a league-high six games before December's mid-season break, Derby have been fortunate to find a way to keep their team on court and continue doing what they love. Having that elite outlet is still important for the club no matter what the future holds.

"We want the D1 team to be as competitive as possible, to try and get some sense of normality and for the rest of the club that can't play to cheer about," Shaw added..

"On the whole, I think when we stop and look back on this period there will always be things we want to keep somewhere or another, and then there are things that we’ll look forward to getting back once it’s safe to do so."

*Images used, apart from the first one, are from 2019/20 or earlier, before the Covid pandemic began.

*This article was first published on 6/01/2021.