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The COVID-19 Crisis: Diljeet Taylor on Coping as a Coach

Diljeet Taylor would have been leading the BYU women’s team to go for an NCAA cross-country title. Instead, she’s teaching her runners about resilience.

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Editor’s note: This is part four of a six-part series about how the running industry is coping with the COVID-19 pandemic. We’re investigating several aspects of the sport through the experiences of the women who are navigating and leading the industry.

Part One: How Racing Will Rebound
Part Two: Helping Running Clubs Get Back on Track
Part Three: A Running Brand Leans on Community Building

The NCAA announced on Thursday that yet another season of championship competition has been canceled. And while football may garner the most outcry and media attention, it’s the collegiate sports like cross-country and track and field that have shouldered the brunt of COVID-19 fallout since March.

This time, Diljeet Taylor, associate director of cross-country and track and field at Brigham Young University, was already resigned to the reality, though it didn’t sting any less. In March, she and her athletes were in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for the NCAA indoor track and field championships, where five of the women had a shot at making school history. The meet was abruptly canceled hours before it was scheduled to begin.

Like most of the coaches standing track-side that day, Taylor huddled with her squad and offered empathy, while trying to stoke positivity.

“I’m proud of you guys,” she said that day. “You fought, you were here for each other. And I believe you were going to do it.”

But since then, the outdoor track season was canned in the spring. Then the 2020 Olympic Track & Field Trials and the Olympics were postponed until next summer. And now cross-country won’t happen this fall.

“You see the writing on the wall, but until the decision comes down and is finalized, you still hang on to some hope,” Taylor says. “It’s been tough.”

For the NCAA cross-country runner-up women’s team, it would have been a meaningful, electrifying autumn at BYU. And Taylor maintains that it’s OK to grieve the loss of that opportunity. In fact, during the pandemic, she’s tried to heed her own advice.

“I think sometimes it’s hard as a coach. We always have to put the needs of our student-athletes and the emotions of our student-athletes first,” she says. “And then later you feel the effect yourself and it’s disheartening. I’d use the words ‘devastating’ and ‘heartbroken.’ That’s what I was feeling for not just myself, but for our program and the women who built it.”

The implications for canceling NCAA sports are complex and wide-ranging. When football and basketball teams can’t play, university athletics departments stand to lose millions of dollars in ticket revenues and television deals. The University of Oregon, for example, set to open a newly renovated Hayward Field (which has cost a reported $200 million) told the Wall Street Journal that it projects a $50 million loss in its projected athletics budget, or up to $80 million if football doesn’t play in the spring.

Those kinds of financial losses are suffered in staff cuts, salary reductions, and furloughs across all sports, some of which are axed altogether. Stanford University has discontinued 11 programs. According to Mattalkonline, a website tracking cuts to collegiate athletic programs since the COVID-19 pandemic began, 159 women’s and co-ed teams across all divisions have been slashed since March (the site stopped tracking individual programs in July because the volume was too high, but had counted 148 men’s teams that have also been cut).

To be sure, track and field and cross-country are in no position to lose coaches like Taylor. In the most recent “report card” of female head coaches of Division I sports, conducted by the Tucker Center for Girls and Women in Sport, both sports still receive an “F” for the percentage of women in the lead position. Among Division I programs, 17.4 percent of cross-country teams and 15.7 percent of track and field teams have women in head coaching roles.

What’s more is that the NCAA is the feeder system for the Olympics in the U.S. The potential loss of sports like track and field could limit the opportunities for future Team USA members to develop. And national championship meets are often the last chance for seniors to showcase their talent to agents and sponsors, the lack of which can result in reduction in the value of their contracts or the chances to pursue a pro career at all.

As such, the repercussions of COVID-19 can quickly mount and overwhelm collegiate coaches and athletes, which is why Taylor has asked her team members to focus on other aspects of their lives while they can. As they worked their way through those initial weeks, for example, they took on activities like trying new recipes or organizing their drawers and reporting back the before-and-after results.

“Oftentimes when you are focused on a sport from August until June, you are completely consumed by the scheduling and the demands and the requirements of being an elite, D-I student-athlete,” Taylor says. “As all that shifted in March, I wanted them to appreciate some of the other things outside of running. We still connected and I had motivational speakers join our Zoom meetings, which were important messages for us to hear.”

Right before summer began, Taylor organized a virtual graduation ceremony not just for the athletes departing BYU, but also for the incoming high school seniors who are joining the program.

“I gave the commencement speech and talked about all we’ve gone through these past few months, which has been more than just the pandemic,” Taylor says. “It was a good time for us to reflect, figure out who we want to be, and how to better ourselves in running and in life.”

Since then, Taylor asked that her athletes return to what a “normal” summer program looks like, to start consistent training and get back into the rhythm of an athletic lifestyle. She had hoped it would result in a refreshed team, ready to compete when a new semester began. But as it became clear that the cross-country season would also fall victim to COVID-19, Taylor has started once again rethinking her strategy.

The good news? The student-athletes return to campus on Monday and with safety measures implemented, they can meet for practices. Primarily, they’ll wear masks everywhere it’s appropriate, whether it’s a requirement in places like the weight room or not, Taylor says, adding that she’ll ask them to keep as much of a bubble-like atmosphere as they can, given how difficult limiting social interactions can be for their age demographic.

“I’m looking forward to being able to see them every day and have the direct, human connection, which I think we have all missed in these last five months,” she says. “It’s going to look a little different. We will take all the safety precautions that we need to while we continue to perfect our craft.”

Taylor and the women on her team have been especially inspired by some of the elite competitions that have gone off over the summer, some of them resulting in impressive performances, like Shelby Houlihan’s American record in the 5,000 meters (14:23.92) during an intrasquad Bowerman Track Club meet. It just proves that spectators and crowded fields aren’t necessary to reach specific goals.

In that spirit, Taylor is going to create a fall series of races, the details of which she’s not ready to announce. Not all of the competition will look traditional—some of the women, for example, want to go after a world record in the basketball mile (running a mile while dribbling a basketball—unofficially 5:08.6, set by Sydney Masciarelli). Their coach knows they need structure and goals in whatever form she can provide.

“I know that they’re going to be excited. They need something and I know that,” Taylor says. “They’re the same women that were standing in Albuquerque who were told they don’t get to race for a national championship the next day. These are the same women who came home and didn’t get to have an outdoor track championship season. These are the same women who qualified for the Olympic Trials that didn’t get to run in the Trials. These are the same women who’ve now been told cross country isn’t happening.

“I have to be extremely sensitive to the emotions that come with that. So I’m going to create something that they can feel proud of this fall.”

Aside from strategizing and re-strategizing training and racing for her squad, as well as reimagining recruiting practices (it entails a lot of FaceTime—the NCAA is not permitting campus visits until at least October), Taylor has tried to embrace the additional time she’s gotten to spend with her sons, ages 9 and 11. It’s been a joy, as well as a challenge, which most parents can relate to while trying to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, help with online schooling, and juggle all the other personal and professional demands.

Diljeet Taylor coaches the 2019 NCAA champion cross-country team
Diljeet Taylor coaches the BYU 2019 NCAA runner-up cross-country team. Photo: Courtesy of BYU

“It’s a work-life compromise,” she says. “Before, I could compartmentalize if I was on the road or in my office making recruiting calls, I was at work. Now everything is in the home and while I’ve loved and enjoyed every minute of the amount of time we’ve gotten together, when you’re home and you’re working, it almost feels like you’re neglecting your children. I don’t feel that way when I’m in the office working. It’s been an adjustment.”

But resilience and adaptation are the lessons most are learning during this era. It’s never been more important to Taylor to emphasize that to her athletes—and advice she’s taken to heart. No blueprint exists for coaching young adults during a pandemic. She’s part of a generation of coaches figuring it out as they go and she’s found that in the uncertainty, she needs to keep pointing out one sure thing to her team.

“One thing we know about this pandemic is that it will not last forever. We will get through this,” she says. “I said that to one of my student-athletes and she said, ‘Thank you for saying that. I need to hear you say that.’ I’m reminded that when we’re in positions of authority, that it’s really important to verbalize that there are better days ahead and this will get better.”

As the women of BYU return to campus, Taylor says they’re all going to live like coffee beans. Like many people, when the pandemic hit, Taylor ordered a bunch of motivational books. As they arrived, she found she didn’t have the attention span to get through 300 pages of inspiration. One of the books, however, looked smaller, so she picked it up—The Coffee Bean, by Damon West. It’s an illustrated fable about overcoming adversity.

The simple message spoke to Taylor and she invited West to speak to the team on Zoom.

“Life is a pot of boiling water. It can weaken us or harden us, but it’s going to test who we really are,” Taylor says. “The carrot softens. The egg hardens. But the coffee bean transforms the environment around it. We’re going to try to change the environment around us instead of letting the environment change us. I want to make people around me better and make positive change. I want to be the coffee bean in the pandemic.”

And when the opportunity to go for that national title finally presents itself, Taylor hopes she’s guided the women through this COVID-19 crisis in such a way that they’ll be ready to meet that moment.

“I think people have learned different things about themselves through this,” she says. “What I have learned is that while I’ve enjoyed all the extra things I’ve gotten to do these last five months, I would give it all up in a heartbeat to be standing on the track with those women. This time has proven to me that my passion is my profession. It’s my calling in life and I’m excited to get back to it.”