While no one would have ever been able to fully prepare for the challenges the COVID-19 pandemic has presented, especially when it comes to the shutdown of youth sports, Los Gatos United Soccer Club was better prepared than most.
According to Phil Gibson, the Director of Operations, the reason why started about a year and a half ago. The organization started focusing more on building close and meaningful relationships with their players and focusing on what's important to them.
“There’s been a real, refreshing change in our club. A focus around connecting better with players,” Gibson explained. “A lot of clubs talk about how soccer coaching is more what happens on the field. However, with the current quarantine and social distancing, we're both continuing our core values and having to live them out in new ways.”
This past fall, Gibson explained, the coaches adopted a completely new approach to player evaluations. Rather than pulling players aside at practice and handing them a form, coaches scheduled in-person meetings with players and their parents to go over everything and answer any questions, leading to more motivated players and greater connection between coaches, players, and parents. These changes have worked well in the shelter-in-place setting.
Moving to a virtual setting has been hard, but the bonds that were built with the players have really paid off.
“Well, on the one hand, nothing could really prepare anyone for what’s going on right now,” Gibson said when asked if the organization was well prepared to handle this pandemic. “On the other hand, absolutely, because it was natural for us to stay connected because we had a connection. It was natural for us to continue doing what we do in whatever way we could, given the circumstance: stay connected.”
Prior to the pandemic, Los Gatos United coaching staff met in person on a regular basis. This has continued to date. Now, however, meetings are conducted via Zoom at least three days a week. The coaches use that time to make sure everyone is on track with the curriculum they are implementing, discuss return to play strategies, and just enjoy one another’s company.
In addition to virtual training sessions, coaches connect virtually with their players at least once a week, just to check in and talk. The meetings can also turn into things like soccer trivia games or other virtual, cognitive activities.
“We’re doing as much as we can to stay connected. I think if we didn’t have that connection [with the families], then, a situation like this can move your club in the opposite direction,” Gibson said. “For us, I think we’re tighter than ever, in many ways, as a club.”
Virtual Training Sessions
When the quarantine first started, Los Gatos United focused on the virtual meetings, and they never really put much thought into formal training sessions. But, as the shutdown prolonged and the end date started to move further into the future, they began to adjust their curriculum.
Teams now meet three days a week on Zoom to work out together. Coaching staffs go through a technical warm-up with the players, and then players run through a given drill. Drills are then posted on the club's YouTube channel.
The kids have really taken to these workouts, but Gibson believes that says more about the quality of players in their organization than anything else.
“Half of our club is going to be juggling [the ball] over 1,000 [times] no problem, just because they are motivated,” he said with a laugh. “I think it’s almost less about how great the structure of your curriculum [is], and more about are [the players] doing it. Are they motivated? Are they finding the wherewithal to continue to work on their game, [in order] to separate themselves from other kids?”
Like everyone else, the Los Gatos United staff sees the benefit in virtual training. One benefit they mentioned is that it can give them flexibility with summer camps. Instead of having 200-plus kids together on a field, they can run virtual workouts and have guest speakers that helps the players work on the mental side of the game.
In the end though, Gibson and others at Los Gatos United hope to rely less on "virtual reality" and get back to playing the game how it was meant to be played–in person and closely connected to one another.
“For the most part, I think, the game that we play is one you do in person,” he said. “The connections make the most sense in that way.”