COVID-19 and lockdown - how Blues Academy tackled one of its biggest challenges

Josh Williams in action for Blues Under-18s
Josh Williams in action for Blues Under-18s

The big focus has been safety, health and wellbeing and making sure they were in the best place to come back and making sure they and their families are feeling as happy and safe as they can in this situation.

Stuart English

When the Academy programmes were halted in March due to Coronavirus, it presented a huge set of problems never before encountered.

But through some ingenious methods, hard work and help from within and enlisted from outside the Club, Blues ensured that more than 160 players from Under-8s to Under-23s in their care remained catered for.

The Academy has returned to small group training at the Trillion Trophy Training Centre, Wast Hills. But for several weeks technical, sports science and fitness sessions, education and continued professional development itineraries were delivered virtually.

The likes of Craig Gardner, Lukas Jutkiewicz, Jude Bellingham, Wes Harding, Charlie Lakin and Connal Trueman stepped to the fore to help the players over Zoom.

And personalities as diverse as Gianfranco Zola, Steven Knight, Ant Middleton, Wes Brown, Robert McCracken, Michael Beale, Aidy Boothroyd, Wayne Bridge, (ECB performance director) Mo Bobat, Troy Townsend and Tony Bellew gave motivational talks and took part in question and answer sessions, for players, coaches and staff.

The mental well-being of players and parents was also addressed.

Here, speaks to Stuart English, Blues Academy Head of Football, about what was put in place to best help serve the players, coaches and staff.

English helped round off the 2019/20 Academy season by hosting a virtual awards evening from the Trillion Trophy Stadium, St. Andrew's, to celebrate the achievements and development of all age groups, as part of the COVID-19 schedule put in place.

How did you manage things initially from the outset?

Stuart English: The Academy boys went to an online programme initially and the staff were working as normal, but obviously not in the training ground building. We did a three-week online programme where the coaches were having Zoom calls and meetings and all sorts of things going on and were being taught through Zoom rather than in person. Then five or six of us were furloughed. Then to a degree at that point we took a break and didn't have any kind of formal activity going on - we just had continued professional development (CPD) activities where we got together twice a week and tried to keep people positive and give them a bit of direction. The players and the parents, we just gave them a three or four week breather. Then we restarted and I think we're in week five or six now of the online programme. The staff were unfurloughed plus a couple of extra ones. Then it was a case of trying to get around all the groups and create them an online programme.

What age groups did this encompass?

SE: From Under-8s up to Under-23s. Any 18s or 23s that weren't in with the First Team were all part of it. The 18s and 23s followed a full-time model almost because we needed to get them back into some kind of routine. For the last five or six weeks they've been getting up and having an 8.30am physical session over Zoom. We tried to map out their day as if they were in the building. Then they have education slots. They weren't coming into training, but they were having slots where they would do any running they needed to do and measure it on Strava and send it in. Now they're back in starting to do the social distance training, they don't have to do the runs at home. They now come in and we have a coaching lesson, then they have education and a lunchbreak and they get a bit of a rest and then they're back in on the night to do more socially distanced practice sessions.

How did it work in terms of Strava and heart monitors and so forth?

SE: In terms of Strava, that measure the distance you cover. All they needed to do was screenshot that and send it in to show they've covered the distance, speed or targets that were set them. Now they're back in training they'll keep their vests because you can't change vests because of the virus. They'll have their GPS device and they'll put it in their vest, and it will all be recorded for the sports science and medical team.

The lockdown was tough for everybody but for athletes I imagine it took it to a new level because you've also got the added difficulty of maintaining your fitness?

SE: Yes, but there have been some good bits that we can use in the real world, if you want to call it that. There have been lots of challenges, but I think the biggest part has been around motivation, direction and purpose. When you're getting up and doing your run on your own and stuff like that it's a lot more difficult than coming into training with a group of players that are all striving to get better. Then playing games is much easier than just running.

I suppose it's a bit like someone coming back from a long-term injury and having to do everything on their own?

SE: Definitely, minus the interactions. With the Zoom sessions we tried to get them scheduled in so that they were getting some interaction with the staff and with each other. They'd go into breakout rooms with maybe five or six and a member of staff and talk about various topics. So, at least they were interacting with each other and they were talking about football and still learning and developing. We had technical challenges where we would set them challenges that were in line with their individual objectives - things like passing over a variety of distances - and they would film themselves and they would send the videos in and there would be a winner for each age group.

Obviously the physical side is very important, but how crucial was the mental side in terms of keeping players motivated, focused and happy?

SE: That was a challenge. Over the period where we didn't run a full-time programme, we were setting up Q and As with First Team players or Academy graduates across all the age groups.

Who were some of the players that took the time out to speak to them?

SE: Jukey and Craig Gards did one with the older players. Jude did one, Wes Harding did one, Connal did one with the goalies.

The players must have experienced varying different circumstances at home?

SE: We tried to speak to the parents. Are they working or not, are they furloughed, what's their home situation like, do they need any support, do they need a laptop, for example? Whatever it was it enabled us to create a picture of what would help them so we could tailor it to their individual needs depending on their home circumstances. During the time we call the off-season bit through June is when we usually have a break anyway, we tried to leave it as natural as possible to try and keep some kind of normality. For the younger ones they had physical active sessions over Zoom once a week. The youngest ones, 8s, 9s, 10, 11s, they've had technical sessions over Zoom as well. The coaches got in their gardens and set their laptops up and went through loads of different kinds of technical work whereby the boys were in their gardens with a ball and they'd do their drills. That's been good and the kids really enjoyed that and sometimes we had 50-odd kids on Zoom all with their balls doing their technical work. It was just trying to find whatever way worked best.

It sounds like you've had to use a lot of ingenuity during these unique times?

SE: Definitely. Obviously, it (lockdown) happened very quickly when the staff were still working. We split it up into three staff, one analyst and two coaches for each age group and we said 'we've got three weeks of this programme left'; we couldn't do it physically but it was possible online and to make it as best all-singing and all-dancing as you could. So, they all went away and did slightly different angles. Every coach fed back how they'd run it and what would work well and what wouldn't, which then gave us the ideas. Throughout the whole time the players all had individual programmes monitored by sports science. They restarted football five or six weeks ago now and since then it's been slowly increasing it as the rules have opened up about what we can and can't do. At the moment it's all social distanced training, so they can only turn up in groups of six - one member of staff per six. There can't be any interaction between the kids in their session. They all have to be in their individual zones marked out on the pitch.

Have you been given any indication when competitive (Academy) football is likely to restart?

SE: It hasn't been 100 per cent confirmed but the ideas are that the 18s and 23s start around the same time as the First Team (around the weekend of 12 September).

What has the general feedback been like from the parents and the players? Beneficial?

SE: I think so but it's so difficult to judge because some clubs have not done much at all and some have done loads. We've just tried to get the balance right where we've given them a bit of a breather when we think they've needed one and at the same time making sure we've checked up on them and got them together for the Q and As and the work. The majority of the feedback has been really good from both players and parents and the staff as well. We've tried to keep everybody as engaged as possible knowing they're all in different positions, where some have got both parents working, some have got siblings home schooling. It can't be one size fits all.

Has the main challenge been dealing with so many dispersed individuals?

SE: The biggest challenge has been how can we have stuff going on to keep them positive and progressing from a football perspective. But it's not so much about the football it's been more about their head and making sure they have had interactions with their teammates and the staff. It's about making sure they knew we were here if they need us and we care about them and whatever they needed to a certain degree we've been there to try and help. We didn't want it to be there's nothing going on and then suddenly it's all restarted again. Hopefully the online and socially distance training will allow everyone to have an easier integration. Like a transition. The big focus has been safety, health and wellbeing and making sure they were in the best place to come back and making sure they and their families are feeling as happy and safe as they can in this situation.