Apr 12, 2020
Editor’s note: Tor-Kristian Karlsen is a Norwegian football scout and executive and is the former chief executive and sporting director at AS Monaco. He 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 mental effects of not playing games due to the coronavirus shutdown.
As proved by social media posts, there is no doubt that quarantined players are keeping their bodies in shape despite a lack of organised training sessions with their clubs because of the coronavirus. Individual training programs, apps and GPS monitoring gear are all contributing to the maintenance of physical fitness across all levels of the game.
But looking after mental health is a more complex issue. In a time of uncertainty, anxiety and isolation, how are clubs managing welfare and well-being? Based on feedback from players I have spoken to across multiple European leagues, the practice varies.
Not surprisingly, clubs that pay the most attention to the mental health of the players during periods of normalcy are front-runners when crisis strikes, as player welfare officers, mental coaches and sports psychologists check in regularly and sometimes even daily — remotely, but also at times physically — to make sure that this extended spell of isolation does not turn have an overly negative effect. However, others have had very little guidance, or even communication, from their clubs beyond an individual training program.
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“Our main concern is the foreign guys; some of them live by themselves and have no local network here outside of the club,” a backroom staff member at one club in a top European top league told me. “I’m not a trained psychologist, but I know the players well as I’m around them all time so I’ve learnt to understand when they’re in a good mood and when they are unhappy. If I understand they are struggling, I try to do my best to help out or cheer them up. That might be a simple thing like sending messages or having a chat on the phone.
“Back before the virus outbreak started, I would often go around to [spend time with] certain players, maybe watch a movie or a game together, but that’s obviously out of the question now,” the staffer continued. “Though my actual role at the club is more of a logistical position, I feel like a social worker. But it’s fine; I enjoy spending time with the boys and it gives me a lot of pleasure. If it gets really serious with any, though, I bring our club doctor into play.”
Travel policies during this time of increased restrictions and self-isolation guidelines have varied from club to club. Some have been happy to let their players go back to their home countries and wait out the crisis, while others — worried about the logistical consequences of getting players back if and when the league restarts — have issued orders to stay put.
Not having close family around, plus worrying about grandparents or frail friends becoming infected in their home countries, is something that concerns all the foreign-based players with whom I spoke.
“Of course it helps having contact via video conferencing and phone calls, but it’s still unpleasant to think what could happen if friends or family become infected,” one said. “Would I even be allowed to travel back home if somebody fell ill, or worse?”
Regarding help he has received from his club, he added: “There’s no organised system here to follow up on us, but if I needed support there’s a few people at the club who have told me I can call them any time. Otherwise we have WhatsApp groups for the players and there’s always somebody ready to talk or message. Ironically, it feels like some of us have become closer without even seeing each other for weeks.”
From his base in Norwegian capital Oslo, Geir Jordet, a professor of sport sciences who operates as a performance psychology consultant specialising in professional football, remotely coaches a group of approximately 12 players who are scattered around Europe. Jordet works directly on behalf of the players themselves, as an auxiliary service to what is offered by clubs.
“Those playing for the most progressive and forward-thinking clubs are being well looked after by the club’s own support staff, whereas the shortcomings of clubs who don’t have the right systems in place become more visible now,” he said.
While Jordet was quick to emphasise that his group of clients “have shown an incredibly constructive mindset and are dealing well with the crisis,” he admitted that recurring concerns are weighing heavy on minds.
“In addition to feeling far from relatives and family, it’s the uncertainty that seems to create most stress and anxiety among the players. The first couple of weeks went quite smoothly, as everyone was expecting the break to be short-lived, but now that most leagues are halted indefinitely and the exact date for restarting activity is largely unknown, the wait becomes harder to manage.”
Although the collaboration with his group of players is long-established and not an impromptu idea borne out of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the state of emergency has forced Jordet to tweak his methods.
“Under normal circumstances, we spend a significant portion of our time reviewing the previous game and preparing for the next, but in the absence of games there’s more emphasis on the things that one can benefit from when they’re unable to perform interactive game-like training with teammates and opponents,” he said.
One such thing is the Virtual Reality device BeYourBest, which Jordet has been instrumental in developing. It is designed to improve cognitive awareness and perceptual skills in football players. Meanwhile, he finds that players today — especially in times of crisis — are prepared to explore activities that would have been frowned upon in the 1990s.
“The VR training can easily be done within the confines of one’s own front room and helps the players working on areas that can otherwise only be acquired during organised training sessions or game situations,” Jordet said. “There’s definitely more curiosity and focus on meditation and yoga now. Meditation might not be ideal for everyone, and some players are only able to sit for five minutes, but others are fine with a full 20-minute session.”
As for a light at the end of the tunnel, last week’s move by German clubs to resume organised training has brought hope to those plying their trade in other European leagues.
“At least the idea of restarting the Bundesliga in May gives some hope to the rest of us,” one experienced player told me. “I have been in the game for a long time and have a family at home, but even for me the waiting is unbearable. Since I was very young, routine and planning my day has been absolutely vital in order to bring meaning and satisfaction to my daily life. Now there’s little structure to life and I see weeks and months of my playing career just withering away.”
The player is well into his 30s and his experience is reflective of others at veteran status: While he appreciates that health comes before anything else, he finds it hard to deal with the thought of his professional career coming to an abrupt end because of coronavirus.
“I always knew this [career-ending] scenario would come, but not because of a global pandemic! So what I thought would be a gradual process of retiring, could now be a something that is suddenly thrust upon me. It’s not something I would speak to the club about; I view this as a private matter. Instead I use my friends and family to get things off my chest.”
As the world faces uncertainty and a breakdown in routine, sports professionals with time-limited careers have the added stress of seeing time slip by with nothing to show for it. Working from home is simply not an option, which is all the more reason why they and their clubs must be aware of the shutdown’s psychological impact potential.