Monica Abbott speaks with coach Ken Eriksen and teammate Aubree Munro during a game on Jun. 25, 2019 in Tokyo, Japan.
Ken Eriksen had a simple analogy when asked a complicated question.
“The biggest concern that our team has right now is dinner at 5 p.m. tonight,” said Eriksen, coach of the U.S. softball team that was to compete at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 this summer.
That is not to belittle any situation. After all, the world has been turned sideways due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead, Eriksen was trying to reflect the attitude of his team during this trying time filled with so much uncertainty - get through the day, and see what tomorrow brings.
Eriksen — who has won 66 percent of his games in 23 seasons as coach at the University of South Florida — doesn’t know when he will be able to get his players and coaches together again, which was the question that prompted the response about dinner. Since the Tokyo Games were pushed back from 2020 to 2021 due to the pandemic, it means one more year to wait for softball to return to the grandest stage. Softball was last part of the Olympic program at the 2008 Beijing Games. The U.S. has won three of the four gold medals in Olympic history.
Team USA was in the early stages of its Stand Beside Her Tour when training for Tokyo was halted and players went back to their families across the country. But that doesn’t mean they haven’t been keeping in touch.
“We have been staying connected via virtual calls just as players, and then we have team calls as well, so I think we’re doing a really good job of staying connected,” said first baseman Valerie Arioto, who is with her fiancé in Walnut Creek, California. “Even with so much uncertainty, we can still be getting better, we can still be growing our bonds, trying to see the positive in some of this.”
Arioto called the team video chats “TED Talk Tuesdays.” The 2012 Pac-12 Conference Player of the Year at Cal said a different player usually leads the conversation on a subject of their choosing, some more serious (strength and conditioning), others light-hearted (a TikTok dance). Arioto chose to address personal health during her session.
“I’m really big on self-care for high performance,” said Arioto, a two-time WBSC World Championship gold medalist and two-time silver medalist. “In order to compete at the highest level, in order to just show up every day as your best self, you need to be able to take care of yourself in order to be better for other people and to put yourself in the best situation for your team.”
The leadership from players including Arioto and pitchers Cat Osterman and Monica Abbott — the two returning Olympians on the roster — has helped Eriksen guide the team through these troubled waters, he said. This leadership also played a role in USA Softball deciding to keep the original 2020 Olympic team together for 2021.
“The older players on the team, obviously the elephant in the room for them is the clock,” Eriksen said. “You know, the clock keeps ticking and Father Time and Mother Nature are still undefeated. I think ’21 is a very feasible year to keep up with the level of play that our older players have gotten. Past ’22, I can’t tell you that, that’s a tough one right now.”
This isn’t the first unusual circumstance Eriksen has had to deal with as a member of USA Softball. He was an assistant coach for the U.S. team that won gold at the 2002 world championship. Training for the event was disrupted by the 9/11 attacks.
“Back then, we still can go outside and train with people,” said Eriksen, also an assistant on the winning 2004 U.S. Olympic Team, considered one of the most dominant in the sport’s history. “So right now, the difference is basically your limitations in the number of people that you can train with and places you can go. However, elite athletes in all sports are very, very self-oriented in respect to making themselves better each day. And so I think right now, the creativity part becomes the imagination, through cybernetics, Psycho‑Cybernetics in respect of: Am I actually seeing myself in this movie and, as I’m training today, am I seeing myself perform and make those plays as I’m training today? So a lot of those types of things right now are in what the athletes do, and then we’re really calling upon that to be part of their training methods.”
Eriksen said the team is working with the Titleist Performance Institute near San Diego to analyze each player’s biomechanics in hopes of improving their play even just a little bit more.
For the moment, that is about the extent of work Eriksen can do with his team, aside from the weekly video calls. And whenever the team is able to resume workouts, it likely will be a whole new ballgame, with social distancing and maybe groups of players in staggered practices.
“It's a bad deal, we get it,” Eriksen said. “But you know, we’re going to train mentally and physically to prepare to represent the country as soon as we’re allowed to. But at this point, we’re not designating, ‘You’ve got to be picking up a ball right now,’ you know, because I think the philosophy of our team has been, we understand (life) went from green to yellow to red. I’m not going back to green right away. We’re going to have to go through yellow, and whatever that yellow is and how long that is, we’re going to take advantage of the time given to us.”