Footballers and isolation: alone together

How have footballers been coping with isolation during lockdown, and what is getting them through as competitive football starts to re-emerge across the world? Andy Searles, a chaplain in Major League Soccer in the USA, and part of ChurchTogether, gives us his take …

Football is a team sport. To reach the highest levels of the game, you have to surrender much of your individuality from your earliest years to your teammates, for the sake of the team. In football, the whole really is greater than the sum of its parts.

Over time the chemistry that is built and the camaraderie that is shared becomes you. This is why it takes players time to adjust and learn to function as an individual when they retire from the game. At least at the end of your career, though, you have time to prepare for the separation that retirement often brings. Teams didn’t have that luxury when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.

During the past 10+ weeks, isolation has been a challenge for players. It's not the same to work out alone in your back garden, it’s hard to follow a strict training regime that has been What’s App’ed from a socially distanced trainer. Not having someone to laugh with, process with, and challenge you saps motivation quickly. So how are professional footballers staying together while being alone?  

Several teams that I have worked with have found creative ways to tackle this problem until normal team dynamics can resume. Technology has provided the opportunity to talk tactics and review game footage, but it has also been leveraged by me, a self-proclaimed CEO (Chief Encouragement Officer in this time), to counter the isolation that this virus has brought.

We've had team-wide inspirational presentations from numerous speakers who have either won Super Bowls, or had their legs blown off, or rescued hostages, or negotiated with terrorists or earned PhDs in what makes elite teams elite.

These presentations have created opportunities to realize that there are greater challenges and opportunities outside of our football bubble, allow us to enter into a shared experience and mentally strengthen ourselves for when we can return to play.

We've helped senior players connect with young players and intentionally invest their experience into those who will one day play in their position.

We've held book studies and bible studies, and talked about things that tough testosterone-filled guys don't usually speak about unless they are faced with the natural fear that a pandemic brings.

We've facilitated small group conversations, screen to screen, that have often only contained frivolous discussions because that's enough, at the moment, to keep us in touch.

The challenge for me in working with professional athletes during this time has been to work out how we let those in isolation – and especially those who have a stronger than usual pull towards a sense of team – know that they are not alone. Learning to dispense touch and strengthen the team through technology hasn't been easy, but it’s helped us be alone together.

How have you been alone together?

Tell us how you’ve coped with lockdown and isolation – comment on our WhatsApp channel on +44 7955 232 780, or one of our Facebook pages: Planet Sport Football Africa, Planet Sport, or Passion for Sport