As a soccer coach, what do you do when you can’t be on the field, can’t coach your team and have no games currently scheduled?
Answer: Everything you possibly CAN do.
And that’s the philosophy U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski and his staff are taking.
Since the U.S. team headed home on March 12 after winning the 2020 SheBelieves Cup with a 3-1 victory against Japan the day before in Frisco, Texas, sports overall have ground to a halt, forcing athletes, amateur and pro alike, to be flexible, creative and self-motivated.
While it’s true that most of the U.S. players could have used a mental and physical break following the long run to the 2019 World Cup title, the subsequent Victory Tour, and quick turnarounds for Olympic Qualifying in January of 2020 and the SheBelieves Cup in March, a break can last only so long before one badly needs get a good sweat on.
To that end, the USWNT High Performance Staff have been in regular contact with the players who are spread out across the USA – some in their home markets, some in their NWSL cities – to make sure they have what they need to stay as fit and healthy as possible.
“First and foremost, U.S. Soccer’s primary focus has been on the health and safety of the players and its staff,” said USWNT Performance Coach Ellie Maybury. “Obviously, U.S. Soccer wants all the players to stay in as best shape as they can for when they can return to the field as teams.”
Maybury knows that as far as maintaining fitness, it’s a bit different for each player depending on where they are and what they have access to regarding training gear and space. When people went into the recommended isolation, U.S. Soccer touched base with each player to determine what facilities, equipment and access to fields they had. Based on that feedback, Maybury designed individual programs for each player within the strategies of social distancing and COVID-19 guidelines.
The workouts were based on some players having access to performance equipment (e.g., dumbbells, exercise bands, medicine balls), home cardio equipment (bikes, rowers, etc.) or private gym access. Maybury didn’t want to send workouts that weren’t possible to complete.
“When this all started, we didn’t know what the decision would be regarding the Olympics, so it was important to maintain players’ fitness as much as possible, and in a safe manner, as they had all done some really good work from December through March as part of their Olympic preparation,” added Maybury. “Now that the Olympics are postponed, we are trying to keep the players in shape
as best as we can, as league training may resume – hopefully -- in the coming weeks or months.”
U.S. Soccer also uses an online app to send the players their training programs while away from a team environment. Players log on to the app and see exactly what they need to do each day with videos and descriptions for each exercise/drill/workout. The players have also received additional nutritional support during this time, including quarantine grocery shopping lists, recipes and the like.
The USWNT Medical Staff, led by Head Athletic Trainer Steve Stricker, is also in regular communication with the players about COVID-19 updates and the latest guidelines for safety, as well as touching base with players who are doing rehab.
The players are of course also getting important support from their NWSL coaches, NWSL fitness coaches, athletic trainers, club administrative staffs, and each other.
Meanwhile, Andonovski has been coaching as much soccer as possible, via video chat. He’s been calling players periodically to check in and running hour-long video sessions during which he and the players take critical looks at clips of individual and team play to evaluate and improve. He’s also keeping in touch with his staff and USWNT General Manager Kate Markgraf to talk scheduling and plans for the future, to the extent possible.
“The players’ attitudes have all been great,” said Andonovski. “These are highly-motivated and elite athletes who want to do everything they can to keep improving, even in these unusual times. It’s a strange time for our coaching staff as we love being on the field working with the players, and we feel like we have so much we want to share, but right now we’ll focus on what’s most important, which is the health and safety of everyone, and we’ll use this as a chance to grow our team in different ways.”
Andonovski has also spent some of this rare down time on weekly video and conference call meetings which are run by U.S. WNT General Manager Kate Markgraf and include the Youth National Team coaches and WNT assistant coaches. The virtual meetings serve to streamline philosophies, talk planning and player pools, and discuss the DNA of the USWNT program. The coaches and staff are taking full advantage of these types of get-togethers, which are usually challenging to organize during the standard international soccer schedule filled with travel, camps and games all over the country and the world.
The pandemic put a hold on an excellent run to open the Andonovski era, as the team went 10-0-0 to tie a record for best start for a head coach in USWNT history. The record will have to wait, as April matches against Brazil and Australia were cancelled, followed by FIFA’s decision to cancel the June match window. “Wait until when” is anyone’s guess, but Andonovski and his staff will continue to work every day to make sure the players are locked in.
Assistant coach Milan Ivanovich, a former professional player who is known to be quite skillful with the ball, returned to his native Serbia before travel restrictions were imposed. There, he found a deserted field and taped videos of himself demonstrating drills and ball work which have been sent to the WNT players to replicate, as well as the Youth National Team coaches to share with their player pools. That means that the WNT players who have access to fields in their NWSL or home markets – and have been training by themselves or in twos and threes with their roommates – are mimicking Ivanovich’s moves 5,000 miles from Belgrade.
It’s a great example of flexibility, creativity and motivation – three qualities the USWNT has never been short on.