Soccer in place: How the Bears are responding to COVID-19

Cheyenne Tex/Staff

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The shelter-in-place orders implemented to prevent the spread of the coronavirus denote, to put it mildly, unusual circumstances. The changes we have faced as a society have forced us to adapt — to alter our lifestyles in order to live, to work, to enjoy ourselves and, in some circumstances, to simply survive.

New circumstances have forced new routines. Members of the Cal men’s soccer team, like many athletes and personnel at various levels in sports around the world, have been forced to improvise as well, as coaches and players do what they can to work through the different — albeit necessary — world of quarantine.

Wherever they find themselves, Cal men’s soccer players are doing what they can to stay in shape and stay together.

“We’re just trying to stay in communication with the players as much as we can. We do a Zoom call every week,” explained head coach Kevin Grimes. “We’ve done a variety of things to keep the guys together and engaged, making sure to see each other’s face, at a minimum, once a week.”

Coaches disseminate information regarding any relevant topics, keeping players abreast of academic, administrative and regulatory developments. The players have kept in contact too, sending each other workouts and using players-only meetings to maintain camaraderie.

“It’s nice to keep up with each other,” said junior forward Tommy Williamson. “The Zoom calls are definitely nice to have, to be able to see the whole team at once again, it’s kind of nice to just see everyone’s face.”

The blue and gold have taken a unique approach to the Zoom sessions, as well.

“In terms of team building, we do a lot of mindfulness training during our Zoom sessions. We actually do meditation,” said redshirt sophomore midfielder Lucas Churchill, who has led the Bears in this activity with a program he developed before the shelter-in-place order went into effect.

Most students and organizations have continued to meet virtually, but the Cal men’s soccer team has given its team meetings meaning beyond simple updates. Praised by both players and coaches, meditation helps the Cal players relax in stressful circumstances and maintain shared experiences, even while isolated from teammates.

“You have to find an outlet of some sort, to give your mind a break and the ability to refresh itself and to have a lot of recovery time,” Grimes said. “I think meditation allows us to do that.”

Grimes and his staff have also used these meetings to host guest speakers, bringing Cal soccer alumni online to talk about their careers on and off the pitch and to impart wisdom to players. These presentations, paired with Q&A sessions, have given players new insight.

“It’s really nice to see successful players who were once in your shoes that are not only successful on the field, but have careers set up off the field,” Williamson said.

These experiences over Zoom also highlight a new normal for the Bears — coaches are only allowed to hold eight hours of nonphysical activity a week and cannot have any virtual practice or workout sessions, per NCAA guidelines.

The reasons for this are clear: No one, from the NCAA to college administrators to coaches, wants to put student-athletes at risk by training them without proper medical staff. But it creates new challenges for players, who would normally be in the midst of regular training sessions. In soccer, maintaining skills, awareness, team chemistry and one’s ball skills are all reliant on repetition and consistent practice. Without that, the Bears are all individually working to stay prepared mentally and physically.

“Guys are staying in shape. Obviously, we have to hold ourselves accountable individually, but I know everyone wants to stay in shape and has been pushing themselves,” Churchill said. “There’s not really much else to do right now other than workout and, you know, watch Netflix.”

While shelter in place has made any type of team training all but impossible, it has allowed players to work on individual skills, which they usually would not get to work on at this time of year. As of now, the Bears are focused on remaining physically fit and maximizing their touches on the ball.

“It’s not that hard once you put yourself in a routine,” Williamson explained. “I try to keep myself on schedule where I’m getting my schoolwork and then getting a workout in.”

College athletes from around the country have found themselves without clear-cut routines of seasons past, but coaches are moving to provide players with resources to help them continue to workout. While they cannot train players explicitly, they can give them plans, workouts and ideas in order to help players stay in shape.

Although teams from across the nation are facing the same requirements from the NCAA and are doing what they can to stay in shape, differences remain among players. Coaches are working hard to give players structure for training in various settings, but the fact remains that those settings differ. Cal’s coaching staff has done its best to help players regardless of those differences.

“Our assistant coaches did a great job building a 15-minute video on training by yourself, training in pairs, training in threes, depending on what everybody’s household has to work with,” Grimes said. “Some guys don’t have any brothers or sisters to work with, some do. Some can work with their parents, some cannot.”

This situation highlights some of the difficulties the shelter in place poses — while all players face similar regulations, they don’t share similar circumstances. Disparities remain as each individual faces unique challenges, which can prevent them from practicing in an optimal fashion.

“I do a lot of long-distance running and a lot of body weight-exercises because I don’t have weights or anything around here,” Williamson said. “It’s a different environment. A lot of the fields around my house are closed, so I can’t really go and work on my shooting skills a lot, as I would like to.”

No one can be sure when the 2020 season will come or what it will look like, but several likely potentialities are in play. It could occur in fall as usual, be spread over two semesters, take place in spring or transpire in a manner yet unknown.

Confidence remains high, however, that in some form or another, college soccer will resume next season. If and when it does, both Grimes and his team will need ample time to prepare.

“It goes without saying, all the coaches in fall sports would like a longer preseason to get the players prepared and make up for lost time in the spring semester,” Grimes said.

That being said, the Bears remain ready for every eventuality. While they are still focused on themselves and have not changed their expectations for their upcoming campaign, like many teams around the country, the blue and gold are doing the best they can to prepare for the return of the normal while understanding that now is a necessary deviation from it.

“Obviously, this virus and people’s health is much more important than sports or anything. It’s important that we’re taking care of that,” Williamson said. “If we have a season at any point, obviously everyone will be stoked to play and would be happy to participate, no matter what the circumstances are.”

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers men’s soccer. Contact him at [email protected].