By James Bowen
The concerns of Joost-Olan Sheehan, a 19-year-old midfielder for the Westchester Flames soccer club, are a common fear for modern athletes—falling out of shape.
“At this point, I should be at the climax of my bulk, but since being sent home due to the coronavirus, I’ve only been able to do at-home exercises with limited equipment,” Sheehan said.
After Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on March 20 that non-essential activities, including sports, would be temporarily postponed until the foreseeable future, Sheehan, who lives in Larchmont, N.Y., is under mandatory quarantine to protect himself from contracting or spreading the coronavirus.
After March 12, all of the Westchester Flames have been conditioning remotely since the United Soccer League Two’s (USL) announcement of an extended training moratorium. The decision was made as a preventative measure to combat the spread of COVID-19 in Westchester County—a known epicenter of the pandemic.
But audible frustrations echoed throughout the football club, none of them louder than U-23 coach’s Sean Kenny. “Our season ended before it even started,” Kenny said. “Our squad will not have trained for over 2-3 months as the collegiate and other leagues have shut down.”
Another coach weighed in about the quarantine.
“Because the shut down came so early, even trials were cancelled, and most teams do not have solid squads,” Stavros Zomopoulos, head coach of Berkeley Men’s Soccer, said. He’s also a fitness coach for the Westchester Flames.
Passiveness could harm the conditioning of his players, Zomopoulus said.
“For a non-high level professional side, where the players do not have home access to the necessary equipment, it is impossible for them to be able to stay in ‘competitive’ soccer shape. Their speed, agility and small area fitness will lag,” Zomopoulus said.
He suggests professional teams can do calisthenics, such as stretching and jumping. “For our teams, what we have done is on spot sprinting sets and band resistance. Most players have access to at least one, so that’s part of the program.”
But there’s no way to replicate the intensity of a training session from home for our level, he believes.
In response, members of the semi-professional soccer team are practicing plyometric calisthenics to condition their bodies during the quarantine to stay fit. “[These] intense exertions of maximum muscular capacity in short bursts allows for muscle fibers to tear, leading to muscle growth,” Sheehan said.
Burpees, situps, pushups, or any explosive maneuver over a short period that puts stress on the muscles, allow for intense workouts in reduced spaces. Those exercises are part of his plyometric training.
Zomopoulus says the lack of cardio could deteriorate the stamina of his players.
“Our practices were a full 90 mins 2 or 3 times a week. Our compact season necessitated often 2 and a couple of weeks, 3 matches. Given our players were coming off not full intensity spring seasons, and as we only had 3 weeks before [the] match schedule overtook us, we had quite a heavy load,” Zomopoulus said.
But cardio isn’t the only facet that players are stagnating in.
“Now that you mention it, muscles shrinking is something I worry about,” Sheehan said. “I’m used to lifting heavy weights at my university and training with the school team for two hours a day for three times a week. But now I’m stuck at home.”
While muscle shrinkage takes at least three weeks to start occurring, some athletes are already feeling the consequences of inactivity as a result of the quarantine.
“I can already feel myself falling out of shape,” Walter Darby St Cilien, a Haitian-born soccer player formerly from the Red Bulls academy, said. “That too even considering I eat relatively healthy.” The 21-year-old plays year-round intramural soccer at the collegiate level, but was sent home amidst the quarantine. “I eat maize and do twenty pushups a night,” Cilien said about his new training routine.
Cilien says his eating habits keep him lean for sprint speed and agility, but Joost-Olan prioritizes building muscle. Cutting calories is a cause for concern for him.
“I haven’t seen my fitness diminish, but it’s definitely gotten more difficult to increase my athletic performance,” Sheehan said.
One dietician disagrees. Roberta Gershner, a nutritionist in Ossining, N.Y., says vegetables can boost metabolism and in turn enhance cardiovascular performance and stamina.
She explains in spite of the difficulty to eat clean, that athletes should maintain good eating habits during lock down. This will minimize the loss of stamina and other athleticism.
“Add stretching and light aerobics to the mix, and the oxygen starts flowing through the blood,” Gershner said. She preaches the moderate exercises can supply the muscles with blood for faster recovery during the anaerobic phase of plyometric exercises — where muscles are deprived of oxygen.
His players will need months to return to this level, Coach Kenny says. The USL extended the training moratorium from March 30 to April 19. The Westchester Flames are expected to face off against the New York Red Bulls II on May 9, but coach K is confident in his players.
“That’s the thing. We don’t know when this is going to end,” he said. “But we have to be ready when the season restarts. Whenever that may be.”