St. Thomas basketball coach and psychology professor John Tauer recently discussed keeping athletes mentally and physically healthy during the COVID-19 shutdown with WCCO Radio’s Cory Hepola.

Read their conversation below.

Hepola: Four Minnesota men were taken in the NBA draft recently. Is Minnesota a basketball state and not a hockey state?

Tauer: I don’t know if it has to be an ‘either-or,’ I think it can be an ‘and.’ I do think both the talents with the way kids have been developed in the last couple of decades has been pretty remarkable. To have four guys taken is certainly a reflection of not only the outcome of high school sports producing professionals, but it certainly tells you that there is a really high level of basketball going on in the state and it’s really fun to be a part of it.

Hepola: Is there anything you attribute this high level of play to?

Tauer: It’s like anything. There are a lot of variables that go into it and a lot of it is just cultural. I think basketball, for a number of reasons, in the state has really gained a lot of momentum from there being some top-level AAU teams, [giving] chances for kids to probably play more nationally and get exposure. There was a time 20-25 years ago where things were much more regional and local. It was more likely a kid could slip through the cracks and not be noticed by people and today that rarely, rarely happens. This combined with some really good high school programs, and then you just have some special kids.

I remember probably 20 years ago at our summer basketball camps we would give kids sort of the realism speech about what are the odds you are going to play in high school; what are the odds you’re going to play in college and in the NBA. The NBA is really astronomical and at the time there were no guys, I think, from Minnesota who were under 6’6″. It was giving guys perspective and getting kids to see (that) if you’re not 6-foot-6, you better be a good student and you better have some other things that you are interested in and love basketball, by all means. To see two posts and two guards taken the other night, I think that is remarkable because you see the depth and versatility of the players in the state.

Hepola: What is happening in January? Are you going to have a winter sports season?

Tauer: Well, we certainly hope so. We are all in the same boat, quite frankly. We are waiting to see. It is much the same with family and sports teams. I have two boys at Cretin-Derham Hall. I don’t care what level you’re at, you are dealing with a lot of different things. Players and coaches are handling it differently and right now we are in that wait-and-see mode where we hope we have a chance to play. The earliest I think [we could play] would be in late January. There are a lot of unknowns right now. As a coach you try to support your players in the best way you can knowing each one of them has different needs at this time.

Hepola: What is it like for you in practice and open gym? Do you have any of that going on?

Tauer: Well, we won’t with the governor’s orders and you are right, the testing and the different regulations are key variables in determining that. What we have been able to do and what we’ve done is we’ve practiced with masks on and socially distanced. It is certainly nonconventional practices [and] different from anything we’ve done. We’ve tried to be on the safe side and get kids as good of a workout as they can while also trying to build out a practice schedule and a season which coincides with public health. Every day you get more information. You walk into our practice and you would’ve seen guys with masks on, doing a lot of shooting and who are socially distanced.

Through all of it I think the thing I have been most proud of is our guys. Whether it was having our season end last year due to COVID-19 or now this fall. Through all of it they have really stuck together and I have been so impressed by their resilience and understanding that this is bigger than all of us. While it might not be what we individually want in this moment, how we continue to persevere and stick together is what, as a coach, is really gratifying to see.

Hepola: What would be your message to some parents on how to deal with this particular time?

Tauer: It is challenging, I am glad you brought that up. I have seen it from both the angles. That was probably a tougher meeting room last year than any loss we’ve had in the national tournament at the end of seasons – and we’ve had some really tough ones. There you felt like you lost on the court. I have a son at Cretin who was going to the state tournament where it got canceled. He’s a senior now (and I have) another one who is a sophomore. Everyone handles it differently. If you are a senior in high school, it is going to feel differently than a sophomore. The conversations I have with my senior are different than my sophomore and they aren’t easy ones because there is an element of loss, sadness and grief. COVID-19 is life or death, but playing games is not life or death and I think it is important we put it in perspective.

As much as I love sports, I think it does provide us a really unique platform to gain perspective and to step back. Like we tell our athletes all the time, every day you get an opportunity to utilize the time the best way possible and I think we’re going to have that opportunity over the next month. It is another one of those learning experiences where athletes can figure out how to use this time best. It might be working out on their own, it might also be developing new hobbies and skills or spending more time with family playing board games.

There are ways to turn this into a blessing and that takes some work. It is not always easy but I think we would all be remiss if we didn’t try to do that. One of the old cliches is, “Control what we can control.” Certain things are out of our control right now and others aren’t. I think just like a coach tries to do with his or her team, as a family we are trying to do the same things. What can we control and how can we best live during this really challenging time.

Hepola: There is a lot of basketball talent here in Minnesota and to be another D-I basketball program here, I think you have a really strong window to compete right away.

Tauer: We are really proud of what our program has done. We’re incredibly excited about this transition. It hasn’t been done before, D-III to D-I, so there are going to be a lot of challenges along the way. With the excitement among the state you know, young people, the fans, etc., we think the future can be really bright. There are so many great high school kids around the state and I think that is going to be a really fun thing. Our fans are going to have the chance to see a lot of local kids and some out of state, certainly, but a lot of local kids who play a really fun brand of basketball. We are excited for the challenge. It is going to be a great journey and it’s not going to happen in a day or a year, but we are really looking forward to it.

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