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Silent spring — for college coach, a canceled season means ‘loss of identity’

Coronavirus impact: Kirk Walker expected to be helping UCLA softball defend its title, but then everything ground to a halt.

Kirk Walker has never seen a season end so abruptly like it did in 2020.

Outsports is asking LGBTQ people in sports how they are impacted by the coronavirus crisis and its effects on all aspects of daily life. Today: Softball coach Kirk Walker. He identifies as gay.

The 2020 softball season at UCLA was all set to be epic.

The team’s motto was “A Storm is a Bruin” and it really was. We are the defending NCAA Champions but were competing without seven seniors and two Olympians, including the National Player of the Year. Losing all of that talent and experience created a lot of questions for our team’s ability to repeat.

The student-athletes on this year’s team were determined to prove the country and the pundits wrong that UCLA could not repeat as the NCAA Champion. We exploded into the season and quickly rose to No. 1 in the country in all the polls within a few weeks. We remained the lone undefeated team until early March and prepared to start the Pac-12 conference season with a 25-1 record.

As we prepared for our opening conference weekend against Arizona State, the coronavirus crisis emerged in the U.S. and proved to be bigger and stronger than anyone could realize. It ultimately was our greatest competitor of the season.

In my 38 years of coaching NCAA Division I athletics, I have never seen something of this magnitude and so impactful on the lives of so many including the sports world. Student-athletes and coaches experience a unique phenomenon during the season, which is difficult to put into words.

The time, energy and focus for the season become so all-consuming that it affects the families, spouses and children of coaches. If you were to ask any of them, they would be in consensus that life at home changes during the season. When the season is underway, you no longer operate with a traditional calendar or clock. Your schedule, the days of the weeks, even the hours in the day become inconsequential. Instead, there are just practice, weights, travel, hotel, team meals and games.

We plan all of our daily business around the sport and team activities. The hours in the day just disappear. Everything becomes about the team goals and the commitment to the team demands to execute those goals. There are no vacations, no days off, no missing of any team function.

For Kirk Walker, the 2019 title winning season was special.

I have spent my entire adult life in this routine. During the months of January thru June, every Division I softball coach is completely immersed in the season. We prepare for practices, games, team travel, mental training, team bonding, academics, compliance and on and on. What is not on the agenda is regular life, personal life, even family time for the most part. Scheduling mundane tasks — a haircut, teeth cleaning, oil change, or doctor’s appointment — is virtually impossible for those six months. Everything is secondary and is often left undone.

The season is a very distinct way of life. If that is taken away, it creates a massive void. A void that is quite overwhelming and also unsettling. Along with the incredible challenges that everyone has had to deal with in the COVID-19 pandemic, the loss of the identity and life as a coach or athlete is difficult in its own way.

The void goes beyond just the schedule and time demands. We as coaches rely heavily on the relationships and support of our coaching peers, our athletes, support staff, medical staff and sports performance staff. Those people become your human connection both professionally and personally. We often spend more time with these people daily than we do our own friends and family.

The season-ending storm that hit also took away the deeply personal relationships that are meant to sustain us during the season. This is a devastating loss in our human interaction for the coaches and athletes. This has been incredibly surreal. However, there are many more important things to consider and it is humbling to count our blessings.

There is something else very profound that happens when a young season ends. Athletes and coaches have been working for months and months, grinding through tough challenges and working together to build a close-knit group of individuals. This creates a team identity.

That identity is greater than just individual goals and personalities. It feels like a new living organism that has emerged. In team sports, that identity is the sense of purpose and motivation that drives competitive individuals on a daily basis. The reason you get up and grind away. It is not like losing a game at the end of your season. When your season normally ends, it is after a team has had the opportunity to be tested and challenged and they have given everything they had to attain their goals on the field.

When your season ends before it has ever really begun to happen is unsettling. Everything about that new team identity is lost. For this 2020 team, the second half of the season, and the championship season were wiped away without the opportunity to compete. It’s uncharted territory for myself or this team. We were not beaten on the field. We did not fail in our talents or ability. It was just gone. There is a sense of loss that feels deeply personal. While it isn’t the same losing a loved one, it is still a very deeply personal loss that requires grieving.

My greatest concern is the loss that each student athlete has experienced. As a team, we are losing the ability to work, train, compete and live alongside our sport’s family in pursuit of that common goal. Not only do you lose the identity of the team, we also lose accessibility to all the relationships that sustained and support each individual.

I do believe there is opportunity for individuals in this loss. Individuals can grow and find strength from inside when their support structure has been taken away. Those things that are out of our control help to mold those things that are in our control. Athletes and coaches live by this creed. This unique and challenging loss is our latest challenge that is out of our control.

What is great about sports is that athletes and coaches have the ability to accept these challenges and rise up and respond. This crisis has provided the opportunity for us as athletes and coaches to appreciate what we have often taken for granted. Gratitude and appreciation are certainly challenging skills for athletes and coaches to access. They are often not practiced daily like the athletic skills that we train to compete with. If athletes and coaches are able to train both their athletic skills, and their mental talents while still exercising their gratitude and appreciation skills then they will undoubtedly succeed, on the field and in life.

Grieving the loss of a special season and the loss of the team identity that was created is new challenge. Finding the new normal thru the COVID-19 storm is important for any of us that are experiencing it.

I know for me, sports are huge part of my life not just my profession. My hope for us all in the sports community, and society in general, is that we can appreciate how special and precious each moment we have is.

Kirk Walker loves the rhythm of the season and interaction with the players.

Appreciating the wins, the gains, the successes and the rewards is easier. But to truly appreciate and have gratitude for the loses, the failures and the challenges is a special skill. We also need to appreciate the fans, the field crew, the managers, the umpires, the game management staff, the weather, the facilities and our opponents.

Being a champion is not defined solely by the last one standing but by the ability of anyone competing to get up and continue on.

Kirk Walker is an assistant softball coach at UCLA, which won the College Softball World Series in 2019. He also runs two Facebook groups for LGBTQ people in sports: GOSPACE, for high schoo and collegiate student athletes, and Equality Coaching Alliance for Olympic, international and professional athletes and coaches and sports professionals also at any level of athletics. To join the groups, message Kirk on Facebook or Instagram. He can also be reached via email (Kwalker@athletics.ucla.edu).

If you are an out LGBTQ person in sports and want to tell us how the coronavirus crisis has affected your life, email Jim Buzinski (kandreeky@gmail.com).