Blackpool FC were on top of the old First division the last time English football saw its fixture programme suspended in 1939 during the outbreak of World War II. It was only in 1946 that football returned in the format that fans knew and loved.
The interruption to professional football in England that commenced in early March this year, while not unprecedented, is unique in modern times. Preventing teams from playing matches creates obvious problems for all those involved in the game. Delaying fixtures also has significant implications for the preparation strategies that teams use to ensure that their players are ready to compete. While the initial challenges were focussed around the disruption to normal training schedules the subsequent closure of training facilities and government imposed restrictions on movement prevented teams from operating in their normal way. The implications of such constraints are acutely felt by those that play as they rely on the exposure to football matches and training to maintain their ability to cope with the demands of the sport.
Football is a complex sport from a performance perspective. Successful players have to possess competence in a number of fitness attributes (endurance, speed, strength, flexibility) as well as technical skill and tactical game understanding. These game specific factors are underpinned by both appropriate motor skills and psychological abilities (e.g. performing under pressure). Removing (or changing) games and training prevents players from using these capabilities on a day to day basis. This failure to stimulate the body in suitable ways, even for relatively short time periods (7-10 days) leads to a loss of functional competence especially in those areas related to fitness. Reductions in more technically related skills are not as well supported by scientific evidence though it is likely that the fine motor skills required to perform highly technical actions effectively under time pressures are reduced over time without suitable exposures. When taken together these alterations would suggest that a player’s overall football performance would be negatively impacted under the situation that most have faced over the last 8 weeks or so.
Isolation measures have been the catalyst for great innovation in the working practices of staff in clubs especially those responsible for the health and fitness of players. These new strategies have attempted to create effective remote support systems to replace the day to day tasks that are usually completed through interactions with staff at the club. These involve things such as the planning, delivery and review of training sessions and the associated factors that usually accompany elite players training/playing football (e.g. injury prevention programmes, nutritional support etc). The remote strategies to support the training of players can be broadly fitted into 3 categories:
- The provision of equipment for home use (i.e. sending players key tools to enable them to do the required exercises).
- The provision of expert bespoke individual training programmes using virtual technologies (i.e. crafting exercise that is specific to both the needs of the individual player and their specific environment and/or organising team based sessions using on-line conference facilities).
- The evaluation of the demand of these training sessions (i.e. using remote systems to track both training outputs, such as distances and speed and the physical response these movements using things like heart rate) and the players general response to isolation.
These measures have clearly enabled staff to provide key information to players to enable them to inform their approaches to maintaining some fundamental aspects of their football performance. In some instance the increased availability of time has provided opportunity to do novel work to develop areas of performance that would normally be neglected thereby providing an unexpected positive of the situation. These additional gains may help support the long-term development of the player. On-going data collection provides some indication of the effectiveness of these training strategies for each player. This information around the chronic response to the training stimulus is vital as it will help support decisions on programming upon the return to more normal training structures once isolation measures are relaxed.
It’s clear that the approaches used to bridge the players experiences from the end of the games programme in March to resuming play in the future does not provide everything that goes with a usual match and training schedule. This “gap”, associated with the loss of the very specific physical and mental stimulus that football provides, clearly limits the preparedness of players to compete at an optimal level. Understanding the extent of this hole, from a fitness and skill perspective, is the key to the development of effective re-training strategies once the sport’s governing bodies have given the all clear to return to play. This programming of developmental exercises is far from simple for the staff at clubs and it therefore represents a significant challenge in getting the remaining fixtures completed.
The key to this successful return to play for teams will centre on balancing of training stresses that help promote performance while minimising the risk of injury. Such situations require the analysis of multiple types of data and highly co-ordinated team work across different sub-specialisms of the multi-disciplinary support team. The usual challenges of preparation are also further complicated by a number of specific issues that are a direct function of Covid-19. These additional considerations not only focus on the safety issues that are a fundamental part of returning to team activity (e.g. limited contact between players, operational restrictions around training grounds to reduce infection) but also on the uncertainty to what the sport looks like on its restart (e.g. what will the fixture schedule be? Will there be rule changes that might impact the demands placed on players?). This multi-dimensional context as a whole makes the planning, implementation and management of any club’s strategy difficult. When the challenges faced by the administrative organisations that govern the game are considered then the complexity of the decision-making process is even more daunting. Moral considerations around the appropriateness of footballs return when so many aspects of normal life are still restricted represent other issues that need careful navigation.
In short, the challenge posed to football from Covid-19 is far from over once teams can officially resume games. These problems will need to be overcome by all those involved in, or who love the game, before this year’s Premier League Champions can be crowned (hopefully not in an empty stadium).