Why this matters
As players return to the field, their health is a primary concern. What was once considered routine, is now a series of choreographed steps to mitigate the risks and control the spread of COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic has without a doubt caused lasting changes throughout the global sports landscape. Leagues have been suspended or canceled, and some of the largest sporting spectacles that fans look forward to, such as the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, have been pushed back a year to 2021. However, we have seen evidence of the ability to safely and cautiously start leagues up again in countries like Germany, where the Bundesliga has recently started playing matches again without any fans present and with strict physical distancing guidelines among the athletes, staff, and officials who work the matches. As a current player for Phoenix Rising, this is a welcome sign as we begin our slow and methodical journey back to having the USL season resume. In the last two weeks, we have begun training in groups of 4, with no contact between the players. One thing I can say for certain is that the training process looks very different.
For those of you wondering just how different it really is, I’ll give some specifics. The USL had a training moratorium in effect until May 15th, which means no team in the league was allowed to hold training sessions in any capacity. As of the 15th, the 35 clubs in the USL Championship were allowed to hold voluntary training sessions in groups no larger than four players and with zero physical contact between the players. That is where we currently stand.
Now let me take you through our new normal when it comes to training protocol. The first step in the process is filling out a questionnaire on our TeamWorks app when we wake up. This questionnaire asks us whether or not we are having symptoms of COVID-19, whether we have had a high temperature and if we have come in contact with anyone who has tested positive recently.
We are not allowed to use any of the locker room facilities, so we get changed and ready to go home. As a professional, I can’t help the feelings of nostalgia creeping in as I remember the days of my parents driving me to practice in my playing gear.
Next, we grab a face covering and head to the stadium. Upon arriving we are told to park at least one car space away from other cars and wear our mask as we enter the stadium. Once we step into the grounds the changes continue. Hand sanitizers are set up all over the stadium.
Upon entering we each get our temperature taken. Anybody with an unusually high temperature would be sent home and not allowed to train. After all of these precautionary steps, we head over to our four-player group tent. All the tents are separated from one another to ensure social distancing.
Finally, the actual training can begin. We go through warmups in our small groups and without any contact. Our normal training sessions since coming back have been structured to have three main phases. Warmup, followed by fitness exercises and ending with ball/technical work. All the while we must continue to stay 6 feet away from each other. I can say for myself personally, it is definitely great being back in any capacity but there is an eerie feeling at the same time. A feeling of uncertainty coupled with immense excitement for being able to be back on the pitch doing what we love and have missed over these last couple months.
Not only do these training conditions create unique challenges to the players, but they have made the job of the coaching and training staff much more difficult as well. One of the main challenges is designing training sessions without a specific start date set, and finding creative ways to get their players as close to 90-minute match-fit as possible without the ability to have them play intrasquad scrimmages. According to the director of sports performance Steve Fell, “simulating demands of competition is very unlikely when the elements of decision-making and specific patterns of movement are reduced to artificial exercises in closed activities.” The staff and players are all attempting to make these training sessions as intense as possible such that they can build their fitness levels up as much as possible before the potential resumption of the season.
As a player, I can vouch for the fact that there have been plenty of wind-sprints and box-to-box runs (which, of course, is every player’s favorite type of session) but it certainly is a different type of fitness compared to the fitness you would gain from playing actual matches. “Players should focus on controlling what they can so that when the time comes, a foundation has been preserved so game demands can be tolerated and progressed without setbacks,” Fell went on to add.
As the weeks progress, we are hoping we can start to build up our sessions toward full squad training. However, the part that gives me comfort as a player is that our club is taking every health precaution they can to ensure our safety as players and staff. Time will only tell what the future holds. Playing in one of the most exciting and intimidating home environments in our league is certainly a useful advantage we hold, and I know all our club is hoping we can welcome our fans back safely this year. To sum it up, we as players are dealing with the same uncertainty and anxiousness as the rest of the general public. We just hope that at some point in the future it will be safe for us to provide the welcome distraction that sports can provide to its communities.
Our training protocols :
- Arrive by parking one car space away from other cars
- Fill out a questionnaire about your health and if you are feeling sick
- Wear a mask into the stadium
- Get temperature taken when you arrive
- Walk over to tent set up for your specific group
- No locker room available so you must come dressed for training
- Bring your own water jug to avoid sharing bottles
- Your group is on one section of the field, and move to another section for warm-up, fitness and ball work
- After training is over there is no stretching or hanging around as there normally would be
- Have to get in your car, sanitize your hands and head home
Joey Calistri is an American soccer player who currently plays for Phoenix Rising FC in the USL Championship.
COVID-19 is the rival no one in sport could game plan for. As many live events remain at a standstill and the world keeps adapting, how is sport resetting upon its staggered returns?