LAFC trains in a 'virtual' world that keeps them connected

Daniel Guzman’s position at the Los Angeles Football Club is lead performance coach. That simple description no longer suits the job.

In the 16 days since the COVID-19 pandemic forced the suspension of the MLS season and expelled LAFC from its training center in Cal State LA, Guzman has become a social media expert, an off-site training organizer, head of an online chess club and confidant for the players and team of the team – all in an effort to create some normality and comfort at a time when nothing is normal or comfortable.

“Some people, maybe in a few years, will say, ‘I had all the answers’ and ‘I knew it,'” said Guzman. “I don’t have all the answers. All I know is that the connection with these guys is important . “

Perhaps more important than its original goal, simply following the players’ daily training.

With gyms and parks closed, team training sessions banned, and everyone ordered to hide in place, Guzman and his staff established mini-workout facilities at each player’s home, then turned to an online app to track those workouts .

Players wear heart rate monitors when they exercise and the readings from those sessions are compared to detailed information Guzman has collected from the moment each player joined the team. As an example, he pointed to midfielder Mark-Anthony Kaye.

“I know how much time in the red zone, from a heart rate perspective, [he] splits, “Guzman said. “What I can do is work back from that data and aim for that amount of time in that high-intensity heart rate zone.”

Heart rate is not that important to goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer. But LAFC has statistics on how often he jumped during a training session, so Guzman can come up with exercises to replicate that.

“We can measure what’s important to us and then provide feedback based on their individual needs,” he said.

What Guzman and his staff couldn’t measure was the players’ mental well-being. They soon realized that it was much more important.

“Boys get cabin fever. Or they are bored, ”said Guzman. “So the most important thing I can do right now is to give them a good connection and communication.”

Making calls was not enough, however. LAFC has one of the tightest teams in the league, but after two weeks of isolation, some players already felt separation anxiety. So Guzman, athletic trainers Sean Kupiec and Luis Ramirez, and physical therapist Jason Han turned to the Internet, organized group stretch sessions on Zoom, and used Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, and Snapchat to check in with players, sometimes several times a day.

“The more personal time we can get, the better,” said Guzman, who works from his wife’s grandmother’s house in Laguna Beach, where his family is staying during quarantine. “We want to see their faces and joke around with them, just check in and make sure they’re doing well.”

Video chats are organized based on language, interests and even when someone feels like it. That meant FaceTiming with attacker Brian Rodriguez in Spanish at 10pm. or have a Zoom session in the morning with defender Mohamed El-Munir. Some players have sent photos of supplements they want to take or videos of the breakfast they are going to eat.

“Any kind of communication we would normally have in the training facility, we try to keep that,” said Guzman. “Our dressing room has just moved to a virtual dressing room. We have a team group chat that is still very active. They throw out something unrelated to football, but it’s just something funny they’ve seen. And boys will respond to that.

“Finding routine, keeping these guys engaged – we are honestly trying to find new ways. If we fail, we will learn from that. If we find success, we’ll build on that.”

Sometimes that means improvising. In the normal morning, ping pong games were popular in the training center. That turned out to be difficult to replicate online, so Guzman replaced it with evening chess games.

None of this fits the strict definition of what it means to be a football team, but in the case of LAFC it has strengthened it.

“I think everyone will run away because this is a bit more connected,” said defender Jordan Harvey.

His coach agreed.

“This is a different challenge for all of us,” said Bob Bradley. “Normally, teams come with strength every time you come together. Now you need to find ways to involve the group when you’re not together. Taking care of every man, understanding how they do it, making contact are the keys. “

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