In response to the challenging consequences of the coronavirus, we stand by our clubs, academies and staff now more than ever to help them optimize player potential even under these difficult circumstances.
While we cannot ignore the obvious threat of the virus, particularly in sports, we must also reckon with the threat of social isolation, especially amongst the youngest players. One of our goals is to help our players develop a healthy socio-emotional state of well-being through safe and positive social interactions. This will help reconnect the individual player with the football team and with the game in general.
How, in these challenging times, can we help players who struggle with insecurity to gradually return to play?
Take away the fear
Our first objective is to take away the fear that maintains the threshold that still paralyses many players and other involved parties. Seventy-eight percent (78%) of youth sport organizers are concerned that players and families won’t sign up for activities out of fear. Some 52% of parents say they are less likely to enroll their kids in sports in the wake of the pandemic. And 25% of all parents say they will not feel comfortable with their kids participating in youth sports before 2021. Needless to say, a protocol that raises awareness among these people is of major importance for football academies. We need to raise awareness and correctly inform people in order to re-activate Academy Operations. We can do this by offering a framework of clearly defined measures that create a comfortable and safe environment for all participants.
Besides providing people with correct and accessible information, using straightforward and clear-cut communication with clubs at all times is of the utmost importance in our efforts to rebuild trust.
Responsibilities of the corona coach
To ensure comprehensible communication for everyone, it is important to introduce one unambiguous source of information. That is the job of the Covid-19 Coordinator within the club or in an academy. It is the responsibility of this corona coach to follow all official communication from the government, federation, leagues and experts and to adjust or adapt the general protocol to the local rules and their specific context. It is necessary that the Coordinator then communicates this information through a variety of channels in order to inform all the parties involved about the general protocol. The Coordinator must also monitor the stock of disinfectant materials and ensure that the materials specified in the general protocol are (sufficiently) available before, during and after the sessions. To do this, he or she must maintain a direct line of communication with the Operations Manager.
Regular communication with the Health and Performance Manager regarding the need for (possible) tests to rule out contaminations is also of vital importance. The Covid-19 Coordinator must also be updated at all times with information concerning players who are at home due to signs of illness by themselves or their close relatives. The Coordinator must keep a record of that information and exchange his analysis of the information with the technical staff. It is also the Coordinator’s responsibility to monitor compliance with the regulations while respecting the protocol and see that they are implemented. If necessary, he must make clear that the well-being of everyone involved is the top priority and not open for discussion.
Return to play
Before they can return to play games, players must first return to training. This is not self-evident. By now players have missed team football for several months, so they need to find a healthy transition from lockdown to training to playing. It is important that they gradually build up to team- and game-related practice. Coaches and players must be aware of the current situation, but they also need a roadmap of the journey ahead, within the bounds of what is possible.
There are currently a number of challenges, such as the implications of social distancing, that must be tackled before a successful return to play. This requires a balanced approach. But as Lucien Favre says: “We have to be creative.” With the thoughtful planning of groups and exercises and a focus on individual skills and execution, it must be possible to reconnect players to the game.
Since there are several important things to take into account, like limited available space and the limited duration of a training session (starting at 60 to 75 minutes), a lot of meticulous planning and preparation is needed for this initiative. This will ensure a successful, gradual transition.
The players’ transition back to performing in a team and in a game calls for a phased process that respects the rules. This process takes into account both a personal perspective and a player-oriented perspective while prioritizing the mental and physical health of its participants.
Our step-by-step approach consists of three phases, each consisting of two different steps, that are completely in line with the respective countries’ Governmental Guidelines and legislation.
Phase One: Player and ball
The first step of Phase One focuses on the development of individual skills in reconnecting the player with the team and the game. It encourages him to concentrate on technical work during training, in opposed or unopposed situations. This allows the individual player to gradually move on to the second step: the specific techniques and (ball) skills required for his precise position in the team and linked to his positional profile and individual development plans. This will enable players to take ownership of their own development.
The challenge in this first phase is to make individual practice relevant, fun and engaging for all players. Fortunately, there is still room to focus on the key attacking, defending and transitioning skills such as recognizing, receiving, running, releasing and reacting. By creating small challenges, we can start introducing competition.
This first phase is therefore an ideal opportunity to re-establish the game element into practice, e.g. by creating ball manipulation circuits or stations and presenting fun games like head tennis and reaction games. On the other hand, extensive practice in the form of individual ball skills and execution techniques and challenges, with or without the use of targets, boxes or mini-goals, is an important step in refamiliarizing players with the ball and the (playing)field.
In this first phase there is no contact or duels, and the social distancing rules apply. The focus will be on individual or paired practice and isolated position-specific and partnership practice. The training will be mainly of a technical nature and allow for exercise within small groups at the most.
Phase Two: Playing in a group
Since the development of the individual player is always connected, on the one hand, to the team and, on the other, to the game, it is important in Phase Two to gradually introduce team practice. The first step consists of moving on to small group work and then gradually to unit and group-specific exercises within those small groups (step two). This will be linked to the specific team principles.
In this second phase, contact between players is limited and the focus remains on technical practice, in small groups only. There are no duels as yet, but this next phase does introduce a more football-specific context. Also, chemistry/partnership practice will continue. In this phase, the technical type of training gains a more tactical dimension related to the player’s role within the team.
Phase Three: Playing in a team and a game
In Phase Three, contact training is introduced and one-on-one duels are permitted. The first step in this phase is to move to small, sided games and then to full-pitch tactical games with the complete team on each side (step two). In the transition from 1-versus-1 to 11-versus-11 confrontations, directional possessions are reinstituted. Different game situations are established, including set plays. Moreover, small games with various pitch sizes and rules are launched (4 vs 4, 5 vs 5, 7 vs 7 and 9 vs 9) in order to gradually evolve to a ‘normal’ practice match. In this phase, the training is more tactical and team related. It is also possible for training sessions to last progressively longer in accordance with the prevailing official measures.
The health aspect
The phased structure explained above operates on the assumption that the players are in good health. We must therefore keep an eye on that aspect. Having a clear view of the players’ pre-corona statuses, the amount of physical training performed during the lockdown and knowing how the players coped with their individual program is important. A pre-participation screening can provide a starting point that helps the individual player return to regular training. We then need to set an objective and schedule the reinitiation program in manageable blocks if we want our players to be ready to return to play. It goes without saying that in order to reach that goal, input from the Health & Performance staff in this phased approach is required.
Phase One: Pre-participation screening
Knowing the current status of the players individually makes it easier to define an appropriate training program for them and to successfully prepare them for participation in team training sessions at first and subsequently official games.
Before players are re-introduced to an adjusted training schedule, it is important to assess their general condition. Crucial to this is checking a players’ physical performance using a practical test and asking several vital questions. Was the training load simulated at home? Did the player follow the program or engage in any football-specific drills? Then, the mental performance must be taken into account, as this may vary from individual to individual.
A casual conversation can provide significant insight into the specific situation and the mental state of the players. A questionnaire, on the other hand, may also be useful for answering some important questions. Has the player maintained a positive attitude? What were his coping strategies during the lockdown, and how are they dealing with this new reality? Also, what is the general state of their well-being and biorhythm? Do they have a healthy sleeping pattern or was it disturbed due to the corona circumstances?
Since all players have suffered to a greater or lesser extent from decreases in their energy expenditures, they must all be asked about their readiness to perform. Determining their body weight and fat percentage is a good place to start. What about their habits with regard to nutrition during lockdown?
Last but not least, it is important to review their health in general and check whether they were injured before or during the lockdown. A doctor will check on the progress of possible injuries. At this stage, the player may also be asked to undergo a Covid-19 test.
Phase Two: Return to training
Returning to a solid training schedule in a phased approach is critical for all players since we don’t know when and how competition will restart. Therefore, a normal preparation period l to ensure sufficient training is not the most appropriate approach. The lockdown has left players with lower fitness levels and a lack of rhythm and intensity. Although players received homework and individual programs, it can’t replace the load of a regular weekschedule. So, what players will benefit from most is to gradually build up the physical load from generic running drills to more football specific drills and sessions. The first and main goal is to bring the players back individually to a level that can be compared with their pre-corona status with avoiding injuries and without pushing them too much.
Depending on the results of the pre-participation screening, a step-by-step restart of training will be introduced. It will be a balanced mix of specific and general training that will steadily evolve from generic to more specific and gradually increase in intensity and volume while focusing on damage control. If necessary, an individual preparation period will be initiated before a player returns to training. To achieve this goal, performance staff should discuss with the coaches about the exercises and make sure that the physical parameters of the exercises and sessions are appropriate to the status of the players.
Phase Three: Return to play
Once the date of the start of competition is known, it will be possible to begin planning like in a normal preparation period so that when competition is resumed, the players will be able to face it in optimal condition. After a period of substantially reduced training during the lockdown, it is not our intention to make up for lost time by increasing the training load beyond what is acceptable. They must reckon with the individual circumstances of the players to prepare them to return to play. The three main approaches to this are to define the active weeks, to install a ‘pre-season program’ and to build up from general to specific at all times. Lack of proper follow-up will make it hard to catch up once competitions restart.
Proper guidance and coaching can prevent a great deal of damage and make the transition easier for players. That is where the value of Double Pass comes into play.
The value of Double Pass
Double Pass can help clubs to reconnect their players by introducing a number of successful and meticulously developed tools. These tools are ready to use but can be implemented depending on the individual status of the players, who have been coping with this crisis situation in different ways. As an experienced thought leader in protocols, we can provide the support necessary to reintroduce players to a regular training schedule, matches and the prospect of future competitions. We are familiar with the sector, possess the necessary know-how and have experience with different age groups. In particular, we have a close and real understanding of the impact of Covid-19 on clubs. Specifically, we can help in three ways:
We are a valuable and accessible contact, ready to answer all questions related to Covid-19 and its impact on football clubs. We are eager to help with all problems encountered during the transition to regular trainings and eventual competition.