Training plans delivered by email, fitness sessions over Skype and food parcels delivered on a daily basis. Welcome to the new normal for professional footballers in the midst of the coronavirus crisis.
At some point soon, you may even see a footballer jogging down your street or doing shuttle runs on a field nearby. Due to the wide-scale shutdown of society, it’s not just schoolchildren or office workers who are facing the physical and psychological challenge of working from home.
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“Lots of top players have pretty well-stocked gyms at home nowadays,” an agent of a Premier League player told ESPN. “But the next few weeks will be tough for them, especially while training grounds are closed, because they are going to have to get used to training alone and motivating themselves to do so.
“I’m just waiting for the first player to post something on social media like the scene from ‘Rocky,’ with kids joining him on a run through the streets. That probably wouldn’t be good for social distancing, but some players will need to break out from behind four walls to keep themselves fit and mentally stimulated.”
We have seen elite players such as Sergio Ramos and Paul Pogba posting videos on social media, showing how they are keeping fit during the coronavirus shutdown. But without the daily monitoring that takes places at a club, how will footballers, at any level, maintain their fitness levels throughout an indefinite period without competitive action?
Liverpool are one of many top clubs to give their players detailed, individual training plans, initially covering the next two weeks with work underway on longer-term instruction. West Ham, meanwhile, are preparing to send some of the fitness equipment from the team’s training ground to each member of David Moyes’ squad, including spin bikes and weights to maintain their fitness.
An agent of a leading Manchester United player has told ESPN that his client has hired a personal trainer for sessions over Skype. The player has a running machine and weights in his personal gym and also is training on his own with a ball in the yard, but the Skype sessions are crucial because they enable him to train with intensity from a cardiovascular perspective.
Eating well while stuck at home
In addition to the fitness demands, clubs are also checking in daily on players regarding their nutrition. Given that many footballers employ personal chefs, clubs are ensuring their players get regular deliveries of fresh fruit, vegetables and high-protein ingredients like fish and chicken. But it’s not quite so simple as giving a player a plan and leaving him to follow it. Some players will do too much, while others will find it tough to do the bare minimum — after all, working from home requires a certain mindset.
Scott Davis, a personal trainer who has worked with athletes in a variety of sports and now offers counseling services having earned a degree in psychology, has told ESPN that the players will have to overcome many challenges.
“Primarily, running on a treadmill will get you fitter. The same goes for cycling and rowing,” Davis said. “But the only way to stay match fit for football is to be playing football.
“The big issue will be motivation, because nobody knows when the start date will be again. Usually, you have the season opener [a fixed start date] or a particular match to be ready for, but it is all very open-ended right now. Lack of motivation is only one of a number of responses: others could be sadness, irritation, frustration at not being able to play. It’s all down to the personality of the player. But it is interesting to see players like Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden, even Lionel Messi, doing the toilet roll kick-up challenge and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain doing the stair-dance challenge. Keeping occupied is a coping strategy.
“A worst-case scenario is depression, and clubs should be helping players who may be falling into a downward spiral with psychological help. Developing coping strategies and routine will help. Now more than ever, the whole team — not just the players, but the back-room staff and support staff — become very important.”
Premier League clubs employ player liaison officers, who serve as the first point of contact for players when problems arise, regardless of whether they’re trivial or significant. One player liaison officer told ESPN that his job ranges from care worker to maintenance man but these days, his focus is on ensuring single and/or foreign players are contacted daily.
“The majority of our foreign lads are married or live with their families,” he told ESPN. “But it is still important to make sure they are OK, especially if they are new to the country and everything is unfamiliar.”
Making the best of the layoff
Despite the specific difficulties that lie ahead, the prolonged layoff can provide a positive opportunity. For those players whose usual workload is “play-train-play” from game to game, Davis says that the next six to eight weeks could be used to help them overcome long-standing fitness issues.
“With an enforced break, players may be able to work on weaknesses that just cannot [get addressed] during a season,” he said. “For example, strengthening hamstrings to be less prone to injury. This kind of strength work could only be done in the offseason, or if the player is injured.
“Another example would be a player trying to improve power and therefore become quicker. This type of training would leave players fatigued for match days, with a minimum of six weeks before you’d start to see an improvement. Which manager would allow a player to be out of the matchday squad for six weeks during the season, just so they can better his or her physical and athletic ability? If a player is smart, this is a time that could be used to work on that kind of thing.”
With football locked down until the end of April at the earliest, maintaining high levels of fitness during this period could be one of the toughest challenges of most players’ careers.