As coaches across Northern Ireland prepare to get sport back up and running in the coming weeks, what will youth football’s ‘new normal’ look like?
The coronavirus outbreak and subsequent lockdown brought football to a halt at all levels back in March, but as restrictions gradually ease, coaches are beginning to put measures in place for a safe return to play.
So what will be different?
Tim Wareing, academy director at TW Braga, feels that clubs and teams at all levels will have to be flexible.
“We train for two hours each session, three times a week, but we imagine that is probably going to be halved,” he said.
“We have a two-hour slot when the facility that we sublet opens back up again, and we’re looking at maybe bringing in half of each squad for an hour, and then the other half will come in.”
As well as shorter training sessions and less face time with players, the extra hygiene measures which have become part of daily life will become routine at training.
“The procedures that we’re having to consider and look at are things like the kids coming to and from training – the car park, how they come into the facility. We’re going to have to create a one-way system of kids coming in and trying to scatter that period, so that they don’t all arrive at the one time,” adds Wareing, who coaches three sessions a week on top of a match.
“That timescale is going to be very important, so that we don’t have groups arriving as some are leaving. It’s crazy that it’s coming down to that, but that’s the fine detail that we’re having to look at.
“Obviously we have anti-bacterial gel on arrival and we’ll have someone to marshal that, to help the kids get into the facility safely and into the right areas.
“We also have to make sure that we have the equipment appropriately cleaned and that there’s sufficient space between each age group, so they don’t come into too close contact. That’s probably going to be the most challenging aspect, especially with the younger age groups.”
While the logistics around training will be impacted, Wareing says coaches will have to alter the sessions to cater for the new regulations.
“We are trying to reduce contact as much as possible, so myself and the coaching team are adapting the sessions and it’s going to have to be all set up so that they’re not going to come into contact, which will be quite strange, as football is obviously a contact sport,” he said.
“There’s also the social side of it. A lot of parents love to stay and watch their kids and pre Covid-19, we encouraged that.
“As a club we love to see the social aspect of bringing everyone together, but we’re going to have to really address that and perhaps ask parents to maybe just drop off and pick up.
“In addition to that, at our club, the first thing we always do, and this is something that we have drilled into kids, is that on arrival and departure, they shake hands or high five with their teammates and their coaches.
“So it’s also all these little life skills and good manners that we really encourage, that we’re really going to have to try and adapt.”
Using technology to adapt
Despite not stepping on to the grass for the last 12 weeks, Wareing and his coaching team have found new ways of delivering sessions and maintaining contact with both kids and parents during lockdown.
As a result, he feels the future of training could look different going forward.
“We wanted to keep in regular contact with the parents and kids that come to our programmes,” he said.
“We have the WhatsApp groups, which are great for keeping in touch and sharing ideas of games that they can play in the back garden.
“We also did a series on our YouTube channel called The Isolation Games. We gave the kids ideas of things they could do at home and we kept it fun for them.
“It kept them involved with the club and I think the connection of the kids continuing to see us was really important too.”
Wareing’s last physical session as a coach was on 18 March, however since lockdown, he has found his sessions going further than his native Northern Ireland.
“We’ve been delivering Zoom classes to our toddler soccer kids as well as sessions to all our players at the club, from my back garden,” he said.
“Through a friend, I also coached a Scottish ladies side via Zoom. I never thought I’d be sitting in my back garden in Belfast, coaching over 30 Scottish ladies in Forfar in Scotland.”
“We always have an end of season dinner at Braga and Covid-19 is not going to stop us. We’re going to record it all on Zoom and we’ll get everyone along watching some Friday or Saturday evening.
“I think these situations give us opportunities to see how to figure out different ways of doing things, and I have no doubt that training will be different going forward.
“Nothing beats training on the pitch, but using digital platforms to enhance and supplement training – especially with things like strength and conditioning and nutrition etc – will definitely become a bigger part of what we do in the future.”