High school coaches are quitting, unsatisfied by how the coronavirus pandemic has changed their jobs

This moment is what Spruill had envisioned when only a dozen teenagers appeared at his first Northwood indoor track practice four years ...

This moment is what Spruill had envisioned when only a dozen teenagers appeared at his first Northwood indoor track practice four years earlier. With this regional championship victory, Northwood solidified itself as one of Montgomery County’s top teams.

“It’s almost like when you see your kid walk for the first time or when you get to see them start speaking,” said Spruill, 54. “It’s just one of those things that, when it happens, you’re in awe.”

But in October, Spruill gave up that jubilation when he stepped down as Northwood’s indoor and outdoor track and field coach.

His priorities shifted when the coronavirus pandemic hit in March, the last time Montgomery County held in-person activities. Spruill wanted to spend more time with his children, and coaching in front of a computer drained the enjoyment that usually comes with the job.

Spruill is one of many high school coaches across the country who have stepped down from their roles during the pandemic as they’ve been sidelined and required to take extra measures to facilitate workouts.

“It takes all the fun out of it,” Spruill said of virtual coaching. “You don’t get a chance to joke with the kids, to really see what’s going on with them. The one thing about coaching that’s a lot different from other things is you get to be almost like that surrogate parent to the kids. Sometimes you got to reassure them how things are going in their life, and I think this pandemic has totally taken away the level or the bonds that you may have.”

Kellie Redmond might still be coaching the Wootton cross-country and track and field teams if not for the pandemic. Though she planned to step down once her daughter, Ava, began high school this past fall, Redmond said quitting is hard when she’s around her athletes every day, watching them progress over four years.

Even as Ava, 15, began at Walter Johnson in August, Redmond returned, hoping a cross-country season would occur. When it didn’t, and she lost in-person connections with her athletes, her decision to step down in November became easier.

In the past 15 years, Redmond wore sunglasses at meets because she didn’t want others to know she sometimes cried when an athlete set a personal record. Some days, her athletes showed up to practice with sunglasses, a baseball cap, multiple layers and chewing gum to mimic their coach.

When her girls’ 4×800-meter relay team broke the state record in 2010, Redmond ran crying from the bleachers to her athletes. She hugged them and was incomprehensible speaking with her husband, Terry, over the phone.

Redmond, 51, doesn’t know when those moments will return.

“You’re not a high school coach for the money,” Redmond said. “You do it because you love the sport. My reason I did it for so long is that progress that you see amongst the team and amongst the individual athletes. And you don’t get to see that progress.”

Other coaches gained a new perspective with the free time they gained without coaching. Northwest football’s Mike Neubeiser has enjoyed the time he has spent with his daughters — Zoe, 14, and Cara, 10 — helping them with their homework and soccer practice for the first time. Neubeiser realized he wouldn’t have as much time with them once in-person coaching returned, so he stepped down Dec. 11.

“Being home this fall kind of opened my eyes to how much I’ve missed the last 10 years while I’ve been a head coach,” Neubeiser, 48, said the day he quit. “That kind of opened my eyes a little bit, like, ‘Wow, I’m not going to be able to do this forever.’ Not many people understand how much of a commitment it is, but it’s a year-round job. I didn’t want to miss my kids growing up.”

Other coaches are concerned about their health. One of Louisiana’s most successful high school football coaches, Paul Trosclair, retired in June amid cancer concerns. At least 30 high school coaches have died after contracting the coronavirus, according to an online obituary search, including Northwestern boys’ basketball coach Terrance Burke.

John Seydel, who was the boys’ basketball coach at Arlington High in Riverside, Calif., planned on coaching until the summer of 2022. But when he learned the tasks he would need to perform during the pandemic — taking his players’ temperatures, cleaning the balls and working out only in small groups — he stepped down in August. Seydel, 60, said he would’ve continued coaching if he were younger.

Many coaches are also teachers, another occupation in which people considered quitting their jobs at a higher rate during the pandemic. Seydel said he plans to retire from his physical education teaching job soon.

“I’ve had a great career, and I want to look back on it fondly,” he said. “I didn’t want to end my career with the negative taste in my mouth.”

The same is true for Spruill, who began coaching in 2008 to connect with his son, Cody Gilje, who ran at Green River College in Washington state. Spruill long had a passion for running, competing as a sprinter at the University of Pittsburgh and Huron University in South Dakota. But when he obtained his first head coaching job at Northwood in November 2012, the team was small and undisciplined. He told his assistant coaches he would need three years to turn it into a county contender.

To accomplish that, Spruill focused on showing interest in his athletes’ lives. He walked around practice asking athletes about their families. He provided rides home to athletes and helped some find their next meal.

There were days at practice when he could tell an athlete was upset by their body language, and when he saw those signs, he raised their spirits. When a younger athlete lacked confidence, Spruill encouraged them.

In a few years, Spruill realized his goal of shaping his team into a contender and later produced the 2019 All-Met indoor and outdoor track athlete of the year, Eldad Mulugeta. Spruill is an attorney at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, but at parties, he introduced himself as a coach.

Spruill was prepared for another strong outdoor season before sports came to a halt in mid-March. Instead of those conversations with athletes on the school’s track, he created weekly workouts for various training groups, such as sprinters and jumpers, and posted them in a team group chat.

But talking with athletes through a screen wasn’t enjoyable. He rarely had a chance to speak with athletes one-on-one or assess their body language because many turned off their cameras during Zoom meetings. Some athletes didn’t own a cellphone.

Spruill wanted to spend more time with his daughters Aspen, 7, and Ainsley, 2. He had been considering stepping down soon, but he said he probably would’ve coached another year if the pandemic hadn’t happened.

“I wanted the kids to know that, regardless of what they did with track and field, they were being supported, just what they were doing in life,” Spruill said. “The pandemic takes all of that stuff away.”

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Newsrust: High school coaches are quitting, unsatisfied by how the coronavirus pandemic has changed their jobs
High school coaches are quitting, unsatisfied by how the coronavirus pandemic has changed their jobs
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