Pandemic practices: How 2 U of T women's basketball coaches are navigating a season without games

Tamara Tatham has yet to call a timeout or set a starting lineup in her first season as the University of Toronto women's basketball head coach. Instead, she and assistant Miah-Marie Langlois have pivoted to video-chat practices while learning the off-court aspect of coaching during the pandemic.

National team veterans Tamara Tatham, Miah-Marie Langlois in 1st year on sidelines

Members of the University of Toronto women's basketball team dribble during one of their few on-court practices this season. (Submitted by Tamara Tatham)

It's been an on-and-off season for the University of Toronto women's basketball team.

Players were on the court in September practising mostly in groups of five — with the exception of one full team practice — until Thanksgiving, when lockdown in Ontario forced them off.

"Practices" from home lasted four more weeks until the team was cleared to return to the court for another seven days. That's when the latest provincial lockdown took effect, forcing the team back off the court.

Now, as coronavirus cases surge across the province, and specifically in Toronto, a return to the hardwood is nowhere in sight.

"It's been a tough time, obviously not being on the court as much, really trying to make your team essentially become a team — not necessarily on the court. That's been tough. But there are a lot of things that you can do off the court, [where] I find are there are opportunities to really make themselves better not just as a basketball player, but as a person," said interim head coach and two-time Olympian Tamara Tatham.

Tatham took over the role July 1 after the retirement of Michele Belanger, who spent 41 seasons guiding the Varsity Blues.

But Tatham has yet to call a timeout or set a starting lineup. She retired as a player in 2017 before becoming an assistant on Belanger's bench. In September, the 35-year-old brought on Rio Olympic teammate and current national team player Miah-Marie Langlois, 29, to the staff.

One month later, USports announced all winter championships, including women's basketball, would be called off due to the pandemic. The team has not and will not play a single game.

"We're just making sure they're still staying connected somehow. We did a lot during the summer, but we kind of dialed it down since the school year started by because they're in school 24/7 online," said Tatham.

Zoom practices

The team is meeting regularly over Zoom, though basketball is often not the main focus. Instead, Tatham and Langlois choose to zero in on social activity.

"It's really important to not get on the girls or expect a lot from them when they're going through a bigger problem than being denied just basketball. We still have to worry about them, especially their mental health. So we're just trying to be very conscious about everyone's screen time and just try to support the girls as much as we can to get through this," said Langlois.

There's been sessions built for the players to just get to know each other. Another meeting had a Christmas theme, and a pair of Zoom workout calls even had '80s and Halloween dress codes.

Three times a week, the strength and conditioning coach sends out a program and the players lift together over video. Langlois managed to put together a ball-handling session when it was warmer out, too.

"Basketball is a team sport. I think girls like [that part of] sports, the whole connection and bonding. So we want to keep that aspect of basketball in it and try to use the same sessions to allow the girls to connect with each other, even if they can't physically," said Langlois.

While practices are fine, everyone is itching to get back on the court. (Submitted by Tamara Tatham)

Tatham and Langlois said it's still been tough for the players riding the roller-coaster of the non-existent season.

"But it's also been a bit of a blessing because you're getting to realize what basketball is and how important it is to you personally," said Tatham.

The pandemic hasn't eased the new coaches' transition to the bench either. There are no game plans to prepare, no rotations to manage, no progression to see over the eight-month season.

Instead, the lack of competition has helped Tatham and Langlois learn the behind-the-scenes of coaching, like recruiting, fundraising and off-court team-building.

Learning curve for coaches

Tatham said the biggest things she learned about coaching was how it can be like a CEO's role, with the need to marry all the non-basketball stuff with on-court activity.

But that hasn't stopped the head coach from watching the NBA — specifically Nick Nurse's Toronto Raptors and Erik Spoelstra's Miami Heat — to pick up new strategy every single night. 

"The way they manage, not necessarily whether they manage timeouts, it's more so what they're doing at the timeout, why they're taking timeouts. … And just some of the way that they're running different offences, how is it slowing? What's your transition look like? What does your defensive transition like?"

Langlois, still more used to being coached as opposed to coaching, relished the opportunity to improve her relationships with players, like knowing when to push and when to hold back.

Seven months out of the Tokyo Olympics, Langlois also has her playing career to worry about. She's currently rehabbing a sciatic nerve injury with an eye on full recovery for July, though that process is made even harder with gyms shut down.

But the task at hand remains the Varsity Blues. While Zoom practices are fine, everyone is itching to get back on the court.

"We get told a date and then it comes near and then it gets pushed back again. So we are not in the know just like everyone else," she said.

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