After an almost year-long hiatus, Emory spring sports teams resumed practices as early as Feb. 9. Now that coaches and athletes can pick up where they left off last spring, cross country and track and field head coach Linh Nguyen is eager for the upcoming season despite the uncertainties about competition.
Nguyen was appointed head coach of the teams in June 2018. During his first season, Nguyen saw three women Eagles earn All-America honors and 28 total athletes capture All-Region track and field selections. He also led the women’s track and field team to a No. 1 regional ranking, receiving the South/Southeast Region Coach of the Year title in the process.
The Wheel spoke with Nguyen about the current sports season amid the pandemic.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length.
Grace Reyer, The Emory Wheel: What are some of the biggest challenges that you have faced while coaching during COVID?
Linh Nguyen: Obviously it was a big challenge not being able to have talks about training. You have the NCAA saying to us, “Since you’re not practicing you can talk about life, and you can talk about school stuff but you can’t talk about training stuff.” That was very difficult. I think the really hard thing for me also was just not having answers. I feel like the athletes had a lot of questions about things in regards to athletics. Most of the time, I didn’t have the information, and I didn’t have an answer for them. As a coach, that’s a difficult thing to constantly get questions that are very legitimate and appropriate to the situation but not having answers.
TEW: Have you heard any news about being able to compete against other schools this spring?
LN: I have not. Once we were able to practice, our goal has just been, “Okay, let’s control all the ways we can mediate risk and do those things as well as we possibly can do them.” We try to have as few positive cases as possible and then just hope that if we do all that stuff well, it’ll lead toward us being able to compete.
TEW: How were you able to keep your team connected throughout the pandemic?
LN: Like everybody, we were trying to do Zooms and stuff like that. Toward the end of summer, a former athlete of mine that is an Olympic medalist talked to the team. Another former athlete that I coached had gone through a lot of unique adversity, and we had them come talk. We were trying to do stuff like that, but once school got started, we backed off that a little bit because the Zoom fatigue was real for the athletes. They’re in class all day on Zoom and didn’t really want to get on Zoom with the team. We knew there was a lot of stress going on, so we tried to back off that and it was more about trying to have one-on-one conversations when we could.
TEW: How have you been able to keep players engaged and motivated?
LN: It hasn’t been that hard. Everybody’s super excited to be out there. We’re right now in week three, so there’s still a lot of excitement that we finally get to participate. When you think about our distance athletes, they lost the outdoor season, they lost cross country, they lost indoor — so they’ve lost three seasons in a row now. So for them, they’re just pumped to be together and having practices. The other athletes and non-distance athletes lost their outdoor season and their indoor season, so they’ve lost the same thing. There’s excitement about being with your teammates, having your coaches there and being able to just be together and work hard together. I don’t think we’ve run into that need for motivation.
TEW: What has the pandemic taught you as a coach that you will continue to do after things return to normal?
LN: Something unique for me is this hit in the middle of my first year at Emory, so I had a semester and a quarter to get to know the athletes. It was kind of a difficult time, and whenever you change coaches — and most of our coaching staff changed, including me — there’s always a little bit of a paradigm shift in the culture. It takes a little while of being together and getting to know each other for the athletes to understand my expectations and for me to understand their goals to get the culture where we want it to be. Trying to build our culture without being together was very difficult for us because, it’s like, you have some things here that we’re dealing with that are best dealt with face to face, together in person.
TEW: What do you miss most as a coach from pre-COVID times?
LN: What I miss is trips. I found myself thinking about this recently because I stay connected with a lot of alumni that I’ve coached throughout the years from the various schools I’ve been to, and it seems like there’s always a group for each time period. You’re kind of connected to these groups that are there for their friends. They went through their four years together, and they’re in each other’s weddings and they’re godparents to each other’s kids. I’ve been thinking about them and talking to them through this time. I find that the memories we share and talk about are the trips and not even the competitions. I have missed the competition like everybody else, but more so I have just missed that connecting.
TEW: What are you most looking forward to in the future while coaching?
LN: It’s two things. I guess it’s just the time. Our office in the Woodruff Physical Education Center is kind of unique because we’re on the second floor and we’re right across from the student-athlete lounge. Our locker rooms are also right there. We have this huge office because there are five of us in there, so it’s a big office suite. Being close to the entrance and exit of the WoodPEC and close to the lounge means we always have athletes stopping in. They might put their lunch in our fridge and then come use our microwave to heat it up and maybe sit there and eat their lunch on a study break. The guys on the distance team call it “goon time.” They just come in and hang out like a bunch of goons and get to know each other. I enjoy the athletes dropping in the office just for 10 minutes in between classes and getting to know them and joking around. I’m looking forward to that again, and I’m looking forward to getting to know the kids that are new that I haven’t had a chance to get to know yet. And, honestly, I’m looking forward to getting recruits on campus. A big part of us building our program is recruiting, and a big part of recruiting is building relationships. It’s a lot different when you can get them on campus, be face to face and sit down with them and their parents, letting them get to know who you are and you get to know who they are.