Fall collegiate sports were canceled. Professional teams joined “bubbles” to ensure athletes’ safety during a global pandemic. But what would happen for Butler University students whose classes involved hands-on physical activity?

Since 2018, Assistant Professor of Education Dr. Fritz Ettl has been teaching physical education courses for future teachers, coaches, health education professionals, and recreation professionals (among others). The students learn sport-specific skills, and courses include tournaments in which students design all aspects of their own league and physically compete against one another while also fulfilling supportive roles such as coach, referee, and statistician. But with the need for social distancing this fall, contact sports wouldn’t be so easy.

Ettl says his first concern going into the semester was how he would teach physical activity virtually during the first two weeks, when Butler temporarily moved classes online.

“We had to start with the cognitive aspects of soccer, like rules of the game, key sport-specific vocabulary, and some tactical concepts,” Ettl says. “I used images and video to help bring it to life, since our opportunities to physically experience everything would be delayed. I really just had to commit to a couple of ways of trying to make it work. I had to learn to trust myself and my students that once it all started, we could make it meaningful by communicating with one another and being flexible.”

Once classes were back in person, Ettl adapted his soccer and basketball courses to be COVID-friendly by adding pool noodles into game play situations. He came up with the idea based on a Buzzfeed article about a restaurant that encouraged social distancing by having guests wear hats with pool noodles sticking out from all sides.

Ettl remembers thinking, “You know what? I can’t make a bunch of pool noodle hats, but I can order a bunch of pool noodles, and we’ll figure out how to use that.”

The pool noodles were used to keep the students six feet apart from one another. In soccer, they were also used to knock at the ball on defense instead of putting one’s body in the way of the shot or pass.

Ettl says carrying the noodles did make the game awkward and changed how the class experienced soccer. However, there were positives. Students had to think more about space, which helped them improve their skills, including being more accurate with passing or creating more space in order to receive a pass without it getting deflected by a noodle.

Adaptations also had to be made when the class went indoors for basketball. The noodles were used to knock at passes or shots, and to box out or screen other players from a distance. To remove the need for close proximity to other players, Ettl also made basketball a possessions-based game. Teams were given five possessions, and scoring was based on how many points they could get in their allotted possessions. This eliminated the need for rebounding and the physical contact that inherently happens after someone shoots.

“It’s not an ideal or a traditional way of experiencing basketball,” Ettl says, “but since the noodles are so large in a small space, it made people more aware of certain aspects of skills like dribbling and passing. I also saw students having to make quick decisions to shoot when they were open, since the long noodles helped defenders close down the space to shoot faster.  I liked that this encouraged students to not only keep the ball moving with quick passes, but also to shoot without hesitating. There were some interesting opportunities to learn by having that added challenge.”