Seemingly no part of life remains unchanged or unaltered amidst the COVID-19 pandemic as people find themselves laid off or furloughed, businesses are closing, and in the interest of public health people everywhere are maintaining social distancing practices and staying in their homes. For sports teams the challenge - beyond questions of paying staff and providing support for staff left without work - is to maintain fitness and the mental sharpness necessary to be able return to training and competition when such activities are able to be resumed. While return dates may be announced, training moratoriums for leagues keep being pushed back on a weekly basis in some cases, meaning that teams are in a position of needing to maintain their fitness and effectively tread water indefinitely with no clear end in sight.
Tacoma Defiance find themselves with a unique challenge amidst those circumstances because of the team’s role in the Seattle Sounders development system.
“Obviously we’re working with young players,” said Defiance coach Chris Little, “and so we knew we couldn’t lose any development time with them. Although we’re not together we knew very quickly, and decided very quickly as a staff, this can’t affect our development time with them. We have to still maximize our time and their learning and development.”
Still, coach Little and his staff have to manage the same sporting challenges that face any professional team during the USL Championship’s suspension, but how are they managing that while everyone’s on their own?
At the start of the shutdown, coach Little and his staff asked the leadership group within the team what they needed or wanted moving forward.
“We just miss being together. We want to do as much stuff together as possible,” was the refrain that the coaches heard, so they put together a daily schedule to try to replicate what a week looks like under normal circumstances. To address what might be the most obvious challenge for a bunch of professional athletes, the team meets Monday, Wednesday and Friday for a performance workout over Zoom.
“The whole team logs on at the same time and the performance staff do a strength core workout with them,” says Little.
The physical work doesn’t end when they leave that Zoom call. Players also have individual conditioning work that they do on their own, as well as technical work. Defiance and the Sounders Academy have partnered with an app that the players all use which provides them with exercises to do with the ball on their own.
Soccer is more than just being able to run and control a ball, though. On Tuesdays and Thursdays the team does tactical work, focusing on the organization’s curriculum, as well as video presentations, including game footage and discussions. On Fridays, separate from the group workout, the team breaks into position-specific meetings.
The smaller groups are discussion-based, they watch video and do projects, with players occasionally giving presentations. This part of the week looks a little bit different for players who are new to the team — Chino Pérez, Collin Fernandez and Taylor Mueller all joined Tacoma during the off-season or in preseason, while Abdoulaye Cissoko signed with the team in September of last year, but didn’t join the team until this preseason - -as the current situation has provided them with additional time to learn the specific positional requirements within the Tacoma Defiance, and the Sounders more broadly, system of play.
“We’re going through their positional profile,” explains Little. “What are the demands that we look for in your position? How does that relate to our identity, our style of play, you know, our way of playing? So for a lot of the returning guys, it’s kind of getting into the details of that. For some of the newer players it’s more of the introduction. OK, these are kind of experienced players, so they pick it up pretty quickly. There’s just little variations and tweaks on things.”
With a leader like Little, who is as much a teacher as he is a coach, the flow of information is a two-way street.
“We show the players clips and they’ll give feedback and it’s really interesting. They might see something completely different from what the other players see, or see something that’s a really good solution to a problem, so that’s great that you get to learn from each other as well.”
There’s more to contend with for players in isolation than just the matters of staying fit or improving their tactical understanding.
“There’s also the human aspect of this, because they’re going to miss the interaction as well, and the engagement and being around each other,” as Little puts it. That’s part of why the team is meeting via video conference Monday through Friday, but the Defiance coach knows that players need more than just work. “We try to have conversations with every player each week just to check in, see how they’re doing.”
Little and his staff are working to make sure that all of the players have a support network.
“We have a spectrum of players; some are here with family and are local, and ... there are some that are here to play and are away from family, and their families are in different areas of the country, so that can make it even more difficult,” Little said. “So [we’re] just kind of checking in to make sure they’re OK. Asking how they are, how their families are. Those things are important, it’s not easy for anybody.”
For Little himself, the situation has provided him with time to “look at some bigger picture projects. You know, bigger, philosophical projects, professional development projects. And also always trying to continue to learn from the game.”
In trying to make the best of a bad situation, Little has turned to his connections from within the game in an effort to grow.
“I’ve been trying to, at least twice a week, have a kind of discussion, video meetings with different coaches in the MLS and the USL and sharing ideas, really,” he said. “Talking about different things and that’s been great. It’s just something we don’t normally have time to do so it’s been a really good process to connect with people that you don’t always have time to do that to share information, so it’s been really good.”
While working, exercising, talking with friends, family or co-workers can all be helpful ways to pass the time, to fill what, at times, can seem like endless days that blur into one another, it’s important to be able to find activities that aren’t necessarily productive. You know, fun, hobbies. For some of us, like coach Little, that might be baking.
“I’m making a cake this weekend, which is probably going to be a tragic mess, but we’ll give it a go,” explained Little.
For others it might mean playing video games, like Collin Fernandez representing Defiance against other USL players in FIFA, or Josh Atencio playing on behalf of the team in the Rocket League USL eCup. For others it may just involve having fun with their roommates on social media, and no one seems to be doing a better job of that than Collin Fernandez, Jesse Daley and Justin Dhillon.
Maybe we’ll have some TikTok stars on the squad when we get back? pic.twitter.com/F8LgRljE0v— Sounder At Heart (@sounderatheart) March 30, 2020
As Little advises, “if you have this time, you know, make use of it. Maybe there’s some things that you don’t normally have to do. Our lives are normally so hectic, so getting the time to do stuff with our kids. And, you know, maybe catch up with people that you haven’t had the time in our lives to talk to in a while. You know, I haven’t talked to that person lately, I need to reach out, now I have the time to do it.”