Football, by its very nature, is a social sport. From fans to players, it’s a shared experience. As a supporter you share the good times and bad, the highs and the lows, with your brethren. If you’re a footballer, you’re used to a team environment and the constant social interaction with your teammates on and off the pitch.
To have that suddenly removed from your life can have a dramatic impact on a person’s well being, both physically and mentally.
Like all of us, it’s something that Vancouver Whitecaps players are having to deal with right now, but for many at the ‘Caps that’s not the only aspect of it. Many are from other countries, with their family and loved ones isolated from them not just at home, but somewhere else across the world.
Some are on their own here, some don’t speak English very well or are unsure of how the Canadian medical system works. All of that adds to the stresses of the current situation, and it’s certainly something the club are very aware of and taking very seriously.
“That’s something that’s been in the forefront of all of our minds of the medical support team,” the Whitecaps chief medical officer Dr Jim Bovard confirmed to reporters on a conference call on Tuesday. “We’ve been addressing that at many levels. When we did the call on Sunday it was a tag team with someone who speaks Spanish, that was the most prevalent language we have on the team.
“We recognise that the team that has been put together is a young team and we’re aware that their various skills can be more challenged. Some of them are on their own. It’s been addressed. We have mental health practitioners in with the players and the team to help assist them with that.
“We’re looking at measures for getting food to them and their physical needs. Using we’ve done a workout run remotely from home, run by Jon Poli our strength and conditioning coach, so we’re getting very creative in order to address all of our players needs.”
While so much focus is understandably on the physical symptoms of the current COVID-19 pandemic and the steps that must be taken to avoid contracting and spreading the virus (please, just stay home as much as you can), for many that puts a very heavy strain on people’s mental health.
The mental side is an aspect that Vancouver Whitecaps are also taking very seriously with all aspects of their club personnel, with all the players having Dr Bovard’s phone and email contact details to get in touch with specific individual needs and to help them make the correct decisions.
“As a club, we have mental health performance staff already that are part of the team,” Dr Bovard said. “They’re able to repurpose their skills and expertise into this area and stay a step ahead of it.
“Much as I’m doing with my updates from a medical point of view, they are looking at the mental health side and sharing with the players, in various formats, from written to some conferencing that will likely be coming up. A lot of the simple principles from a mental health point of view will be there.”
From solely a players perspective, this is a young group, with an average squad age of 24.1 years old.
Most, if not all, are already very technology savvy and are used to contacting teammates, friends, and loved ones via the various online mediums available to people nowadays. That doesn’t replace the actual physical benefits of being in someone’s company of course, but it at least gives them something.
“In some ways a lot of these young athletes are better adapted from a technical side of it,” Dr Bovard added. “They’re used to using their phones, playing games on their phones, and interacting with people all over the world on their phones. So it’s really that physical part that’s challenging, but by doing something like a group workout using this forum, they can feel connected, if not physically, at least socially. We’re trying to stay ahead of that.”
Dr Bovard practices on the North Shore, with patients in the Lynn Valley care home, so he has seen the impact the virus has had on the community first hand. Keeping everyone safe and healthy and informed is the key priority right now and as such he undertook a video conference call with the players on Sunday to just share basic information about the virus, the key points they need to know, and ways to stay healthy both physically and mentally at this time. A simple call with a simple message, but it was one that he feels was very much appreciated by the players, and one which will be undertaken on Wednesday with the club’s academy and REX program staff, players, and their families.
“That was a group call,” Dr Bovard explained. “They fell that connection as a group during that call. It keeps them together.”
Those group calls aside, the club are also taking a very proactive approach to ensure that any player’s physical and mental health issues are being addressed on an individual basis, and to just basically check in with everyone to make sure that they are managing through these troubled times.
“Our Sporting Director, Axel Schuster, and our head coach, Marc Dos Santos, have been in regular contact [with the players],” Whitecaps CEO Mark Pannes added. “They’ve made concerted efforts to make sure that they call and talk with each player on a very regular basis. The players are themselves in regular contact with each other.
“We also have a Whitecaps first team Whats App group chat where there are daily updates posted as well. We have a multi-person football operations team who are in constant contact with players as well, so there’s a lot going on. Nothing beats seeing a stadium packed, but in the meantime, everyone’s trying to get along as best they can.”
Pannes stressed the importance of not trying to be first with reporting news and updates, but being accurate. And in a time with so much misinformation and conflicting messages out there, the importance of that cannot be stressed enough.
For a league with 26 teams spread across a continent, with various levels of the pandemic affecting each market on a local level and a variety of combat measures in place, another important aspect is for everyone to have a united and consistent message across the board.
As such, a multitude of conference calls are taking place within the Whitecaps organization and within MLS to keep everyone informed and if you’re wondering what a typical day looks like behind the scenes now, there’s a lot of conferencing calling.
The Whitecaps take part in a conference call at 8.45am every morning with Dr Bovard, their sports science and medical and training teams, Schuster, and a handful of the club’s senior executives, to make sure that they have the latest health information, medical information, and guidance for the ‘Caps.
In addition to that, twice a week, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 9am, the club are having meetings where they are supplying internal information to all of their staff. There are also a serious of daily inter-department calls and departmental functional calls within the league on a number of days during the week.
The Whitecaps workday ends with a daily senior executives conference call at 4.30pm to recap what’s happened in the day and to plan going forward.
The club has been very proactive in their approach to the current crisis and have been planning and acting ahead of the curve from an early stage, including having staff work from home. Dr Bovard delivered a slide presentation to the first team players on March 11 and that was then offered to the club’s academy staff to roll out and also delivered to all the staff at the ‘Caps head office.
The results of such a timely approach can clearly be seen.
“There’s a real emphasis on communication right now,” Pannes said. “That transparent flow of communication has really helped us… We’re very happy that we haven’t had a staff member or anyone on the football operations side, including players and coaches, test positive at this point.
“I think it really speaks to the good work that our team has done in advance and also the leadership that Dr Bovard has provided us in his capacity as our chief medical officer. We say that in no boastful manner. We realize we’ve been very lucky as well. We’re just trying to pare the best practices we can with the proper physical distancing and hygiene guidelines and we’ve been lucky to get a good result so far.”
And the underlying message is a simple one – Stay Safe. Stay Home.