This summer, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) passed a new proposal that redefined the way Division III teams count their practice days. Previously, the 114 days that coaching staff were allotted to meet with their teams in a season had to be used within a period of 18 or 19 weeks, depending on the season. Using a single day of practice exhausted a full week of practice eligibility, which meant that practicing one day a week was the same as practicing seven days a week – either way, it used up one of the 19 weeks available to teams. To maximize the days available to them, coaches consolidated their practices to largely consecutive weeks of six or seven day practices.
Now, because of an amendment to the NCAA’s Division III manual passed in July, practice days will be limited to the 114-day maximum, with no requirement for the number of weeks. Coaches are given the flexibility to use 8 of these days before or after the traditional season start and end dates. Excluding football, this affects all Wheaton sports teams, but especially winter sports, which will now begin practicing several weeks before the traditional start time of Oct. 15. This year, men’s and women’s basketball begin practicing Sept. 13 and 26, respectively, and men’s and women’s swimming began their season on September 19.
The new regulation allows more contact between coaches and athletes earlier on in the season, or later, depending on when a coach decides to use the days. Each team can also now use eight practice days outside of their traditional season, known as “flex days.”
Mike Schauer, athletic director and head coach of men’s basketball, said he advocated strongly for this proposal, noting the potential for relationships between athletes and coaches to start a little earlier.
“These flex days are designed to add more opportunities to build team chemistry, team relationships and team community,” said Schauer. “You get to know your team sooner.”
Adjusting the season schedule also allows athletes to have more breaks in their practice schedule.
Captain of the men’s basketball team, senior Nick Schiavello, said he sees the flex days as a positive for the early start it will give his team.
“It helps us to get to know the new guys and how they play a little bit more,” he said. “It also helps guys learn the offense, learn our plays, learn our philosophies.”
Other sports teams at Wheaton College, including the swim and dive team, are choosing to use the flex days to start practices earlier. Jacob Ayers, head coach of the men’s swim team, said he sees the season schedule flexibility as an opportunity for coaches to understand and accommodate athletes’ needs before the season becomes a stressful race to the championships.
“It gives us a good opportunity to start the season appropriately without thinking about how many weeks we have left,” said Ayers. “These days will reduce stress so that coaches and athletes can dive into each practice with purpose.”
For sports that compete in championships in the spring but begin practicing in the fall, like softball, the new rule allows athletes to have more time to practice with coaches between the ends of the fall and spring seasons. Paige Andrews, a senior and captain of softball, said she is looking forward to having more time to work on the fundamentals with coaches before games begin, typically after spring break.
“The hardest thing about softball is that we’re in the spring,” she said. “It’s hard to adjust back to the regular season after winter. It’ll be nice to have a little more consistency with our coaches.”
Schauer said he’s aware that the flex days could create more work for athletics staff like office coordinators and trainers as they juggle the beginning of winter sports practices in the middle of the fall season. Men’s basketball, for example, began practice on Sept. 13.
“It’s right in the middle of the fall sports season,” said Schauer. “That can become a burden to your support staff.”
Once student athletes, coaches and staff get comfortable with the new schedule, Schauer said, he hopes they will benefit from the increased time off and breaks between practices.
“I think the change is really healthy, but I guess time will tell,” he said.