Editor's note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive, formerly the chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He has worked as a scout and sporting director for several clubs across Europe and will write regularly for ESPN on the business of soccer. In his latest column, he looks at how clubs and players are dealing with the coronavirus shutdown.
With football grinding to a halt across the globe and little prospect of even being able to pinpoint a date when things might be able to restart, players have been left in limbo.
More clubs and leagues are entering lockdown mode every day. While the situation varies from country to country, many -- including nearly all the major European league nations -- have banned large gatherings, including collective training. Public gyms have also been forced to close, and in the instances where players are in self-isolation or in quarantine, the club's own fitness facilities are also off-limits. Even personal fitness coaches can't be effectively used in places like Italy, where people are told to stay indoors, let alone keep a safe distance apart.
So how do clubs make sure their players stay fit?
The concept of sticking to an individual training program for a short period is nothing new for professional footballers. Nowadays, high-profile players are more likely to be rigorously sweating it out to a personally developed workout routine during the offseason than sightseeing or sipping cocktails by the pool. This time, though, the break comes at a peak time of activity as the European season would typically reach its conclusion.
In a normal season, April and May are full of the most critical games, those deciding championships, cups and promotion and relegation. With the general feeling across the sport that these issues need to be eventually decided by fulfilling the remaining fixtures to preserve the game's integrity, players will need to maintain their fitness levels for as long as it takes for this to happen. But ensuring it happens remotely is posing serious challenges to both the performance and fitness staff.
Andrea Azzalin, who currently works as the head of performance for the Ukrainian FA and has held similar positions with clubs like AS Monaco, Leicester City, Fulham and Nantes, understands the challenges his colleagues at club level are facing now.
"The uncertainty at club level presents some new scenarios to manage. Not having access to the athlete is obviously a major inconvenience."
Managers and head coaches, while being restricted by the obvious disadvantages of not having the players on site for technical and tactical sessions on the training ground, are acknowledging the precautions. It's now up to the fitness staff to find a way to keep the players activated and prepared, albeit in a setting that's unprecedented for most European football clubs.
"Now, players are having to work with whatever equipment they have at their disposal at home or in their own private gym facilities," Azzalin said. "This will vary from the most basic level of using their own body weight for their exercises or simple dumbbells, to the most privileged [players] who are in possession of more sophisticated equipment."
Therefore, clubs are devising creative approaches to keep squads motivated. I spoke to an assistant coach at one European top league outfit who told me how they're coping.
"We started off by handing out individual programs that were followed up daily by the fitness coach. It emerged quickly, though, that some of the guys found it quite boring, and so some of them joined forces to do their programs at the same time via their smartphones. That gave us the idea: Why don't we get the whole group together and hook up via video conference for the fitness sessions?
"The initiative was well-received by the group. Sometimes the players have questions about the exercises and they can be explained online by our fitness coaches in real time. It's definitely a lot more engaging than just going through the motions with a sheet of paper with the instructions next to you."
The club is also taking the opportunity to get its players thinking more about the game in general.
"Aside from the physical exercises, we're also using video conferencing to do theoretical and tactical work. We divide the players into groups according to positions and give them homework to study. This could be the usual work, like studying details from the player's own performances or -- as an example -- I might ask my centre-backs to study the top 10 defenders in the world and ask them to list their strengths, weaknesses and what sets them apart. It's already resulted in a lot of good discussions. I guess it's a bit like returning to school."
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Teams are also keeping the welfare of the players at the heart of their plans.
"For us, it's about using the time as best as we possibly can and to turn an unpleasant situation into something positive," the assistant coach said. "Understandably the guys worry a lot about the present and the future. Don't forget that they have been part of a very close-knit sporting environment since childhood; for many of them, the group and the club is their No. 1 social arena. Being able to do something together, if only via smartphones or computers, helps them feeling a little bit closer to the club and maybe it stops them from overthinking about the frightening stuff that's going in the world now."
Technology is also proving crucial in monitoring the effects of these sessions, with a range of apps already in use at the majority of clubs to measure everything from players' diets and exercise regimes to their moods and sleep patterns.
"In this situation, most clubs would use tailor-made apps to communicate with the players and to monitor their training remotely," Azzalin said. "The apps will give the fitness and performance team detailed information on how the bodies have recovered from the previous day's session, and how much load can be applied to the following day's training sessions.
"Those who are free to roam outside would also be given GPS and heart rate monitoring equipment, which feed back precise data that in turn can be used towards the creation of even more individually tailor-made training programs. Also, it can help track the physical output of the player over a longer period of time to anticipate the spikes in fitness and to determine the right training load in order to prevent injuries."
In these challenging circumstances, clubs will also be extra vigilant in monitoring their players' mental well-being, with data from apps that register when and how much they are sleeping, plus how they are feeling at certain points in the day, being fed back to their sports psychologists and scientists.
Of course these apps are effective only when the data collected is accurate, but from my own experience working with players I've found that the majority of them are actively interested in participating as they are keen to understand how they can improve their performance. So while the common perception is that footballers seem wedded to their mobile phones these days, it's not just for posting on social media.
While there is much that clubs and players can do even at arm's length to provide effective training programs, there's no substitute for playing matches. The longer the blanket postponement of matches goes on, the less likely teams are to be properly ready to resume if and when competitions get the green light to restart. It's yet another factor to throw into the mix when considering all the options for how to resolve the outstanding issues of the season.