Grassroots Football: End of Season reflections.

As the curtain falls on another year of grassroots football I thought I’d reflect on what has been an eventful season. The prevalence of Covid-19 has had a major bearing on how the season has run, but then when you factor in all of the usual ups and downs of running any kind of sporting team, it’s safe to say that things have been demanding in the extreme!

A little bit of background: regular readers will know this already, but I coach a football (soccer) team for under 12s. I’ve done it now for the past four years and it’s a source of great joy and satisfaction as well as fatigue! The highs are right up there, but the lows can be an absolute pain.

The global pandemic wrecked the previous season (2019-20), but you’d hope that this type of thing would prove to be a once in a lifetime event. Unless of course you are a Hollywood actor, or you live in the Bible. Sadly though, with wave after wave of the virus hitting, grassroots sport was paralysed again and we found ourselves back in lockdown and unable to train or play for large spells of season 20-21. In fact at one point it genuinely felt like the season would be abandoned and we’d be looking at waiting 7 or 8 months before a ball was kicked in anger again. And then, just as we were beginning to lose hope, the rules were relaxed as vaccinations took effect and we were able to get going again, albeit with tight restrictions in place.

So what are my reflections on the season gone by? Well, they’re a funny old mixture of satisfaction and extreme frustration. We finished 7th in a 10 team league. 7th in Division 7 of 8. So, it’s safe to say that our performance overall wasn’t what I’d hoped for. There have been times when we’ve played wonderful fast moving, flowing football, but there have also been times when we’ve played like a team of strangers, both to each other and to football! It’s the kind of inconsistency that leaves a lot more questions than answers and has also meant a lot of time spent trying to figure out what the problem was and how we could be more consistent as a team.

When I started coaching the team they were Under 8s. We were the 2nd team and even then there were a range of abilities. My goal – no pun intended – was always to coach my players so that they were comfortable with a ball at their feet. I’d like to think that with the majority of my players I’ve achieved that. I’ve always wanted to instill the importance of playing a quick passing game into my players. Pass to a team mate, move off the ball, look for space and look for angles; play the game on the grass, in the right way. I think that for a large proportion of the season we’ve got there with these goals, but a lot of the time physicality and focus have cost us.

So these are two areas that we need to work on with pre-season and next season in mind. I still feel like some of my lads are very immature and prone to just switching off in games and that’s when mistakes happen. Since we started playing again after lockdown in January we’ve been competitive in every game and only lost one by more than one goal. In all of these games we’ve had spells of playing wonderful football; we’ve been good to watch. And yet, there’s always the risk of a mistake.

Teaching the boys the value of a team ethic has been more important than ever this year. For a few years previous there had been a bit of a tendency for boys to mix with only the people from their primary school and it caused problems. The feeling that this was everyone’s team and that everyone was a team mate took a lot of getting through. And while I don’t think we’ve quite got the message through, we’ve definitely made great strides with it this season. You can hear it on the pitch with the encouragement that they give each other and the positivity. Rather than criticising a team mate who takes a bad touch or misses a chance, now we’re more likely to hear one of them shouting that it was “unlucky” or “just keep going, don’t let your head drop.” They’ve never been the loudest of teams, but we’ve improved vocally this year and it’s something I’m genuinely happy about.

The team ethic has come into play with our physicality too. While some teams have fielded several players that look like fully grown men this year, we’re still quite a small bunch. It’s meant that we’ve been bullied off the ball at times over the years and worse still, we’ve allowed it to happen and simply complained, rather than trying to be stronger. That changed a little in the period since around April this year. We’ve talked and talked about it in training and before, during and after games and the message seems to be getting through – don’t cheat, but fight for the right to keep the ball and win football matches. This is definitely something that we need to keep working on as well as carrying it forward for next season.

Next season will be a big step up for my team. They move from playing 9-a-side football to 11-a-side and that means playing on a bigger pitch with bigger goals. We’ll have to adapt to new positions and different formations and all of this presents a real challenge. I’m hoping that the size of the pitch will help us because we pass the ball well. However, I’m conscious that it should help others too who rely on how well their stronger players can run with the ball. With this in mind, part of our build up to the season will be spent working much more on fitness and trying to improve players strength, pace and stamina. If we can get closer to teams physically, the way we play the game might just give us an advantage.

At the moment though our main concern revolves around the recruitment of players. the 12-13 age range is a tricky time with junior footballers as lots of them start to explore new interests and the drop out rate is quite high. So far, having asked parents who’ll be signing up next season I’ve had only 11 positive replies, which basically means we haven’t got a squad yet. Our goalkeeper has decided to drop football, leaving us without anyone to fill what is a really key position, so we’re on the lookout for a new keeper! It promises to be a crucial next few weeks, with the simple fact being if we can’t get enough players then the team will have to fold. I’ve already heard whispers of other teams that are in the same position, so it’s going to be a case of putting out adverts, relying on word of mouth and crossing everything that’s crossable in the hope that we can attract bodies! If not, I’m going to have to find something else to fill my everyday thoughts and Sunday mornings!

The other thing that I need to think about now is sponsorship. Grassroots football clubs are not organisations that are awash with money. But the kids that populate them tend to grow fast. So when it comes to kit, my lads have grown out of what they’ve got and we are in dire need of a new home kit. The last time we got one we could only secure sponsorship to pay for just over half of what we got, meaning that the club had to stump up money to help out. I’d like to avoid that this time round.

That said, schmoozing potential sponsors is not my thing and that is yet another problem. My assistant coach is usually pretty good at that kind of thing though and as well as this, we have parents of some of our players that have tried to get sponsorship in the past. In fact, our last home kit sponsorship was achieved by one of said parents badgering a business owner who drinks in the same pub as him!

If we do get the money then we need to get the kit, which shouldn’t be a problem, but again is something that irks me. Our club committee insist on sticking with the same supplier for all teams and frankly, I don’t rate the supplier. Our home kit for the last two seasons has been plain, dull and unimaginative, so I’m hoping that this year there might be a bit of flexibility.

A couple of years ago I used an online kit designer to come up with some ideas from a different supplier. I then put the idea to the club. You would have thought I’d just arrived at the meeting riding a sea horse while holding hands with a mermaid. Suffice to say, we stuck with our usual way of doing things.

A year later however, we decided that we’d buy a training kit that could double up as an away kit because our home kit clashed with several other teams in our league. We went with a neon yellow and grey number and it blew a few minds. And then, a coach from one of our younger age groups got in touch to find out which kit it was, as he wanted to order it. Gradually more groups did the same and now several of our age groups wear the same snazzy kit that we introduced. So there’s hope for a quiet kit revolution yet!

Overall, it’s been a season of highs and lows and it’s left us with lots to work on. I think I have a team of players that are capable of a great deal more. I think their potential is a lot greater than they realise and happily, I think the penny might have dropped a little with this. I’ll be going into the season with some targets for them, both individually and as a team, but in short I’ll be looking for a much better league finish. This season we finished 7th out of 10 clubs. Next year I’ll be pushing my boys for a top three finish (if we get the players and actually still have a team, that is…) and if results in the final four or five games are anything to go by, we can achieve just that.

We lost to the teams that finished 2nd and 3rd in the league, but were competitive in both games, particularly against the 2nd team. We defeated teams that finished higher than us in those final games too, most notably against the team that won the league. In fact, we were the only team to beat them over the course of the entire season; the only team to take any points at all off them as they won every other game that they played. And it wasn’t just a win; we made them look very ordinary and dominated all but the final five minutes or so. If we can take that performance forward, then we’ll be OK.

So here’s to another year of football with all of the challenges it brings. Let’s just hope that the pandemic isn’t going to cause the chaos that it has for the last two seasons though!

Running Tips for Beginners and enthusiastic old people alike!

Let me start by pointing out that in no way am I any kind of expert on running. So I’m not claiming that what I write about in this blog is any kind of guarantee of success. There is no way on Earth that reading this blog is going to make you some kind of Olympian! However, as someone who’s ran on and off – more on than off, but a little stop start now and again – for most of his 49 years, I can certainly say that I speak from experience.

Running is something I’ve always loved. It was something that I started at school and success at junior school sports days whetted my appetite. I discovered very early on that I was in possession of a good turn of pace and despite my size, was capable of beating more or less anyone I raced. For a while at least. A heart problem put pay to that and once I recovered I found that I wasn’t the ‘athlete’* I’d once been.

*The term athlete is being used with quite an amount of creative license here by the way. I was a quick kid but that was about the size of it!

With my childhood heart problem taken care of I started running again, albeit not as well as before. But I really wanted to raise money for the heart unit where I’d had my operation and so, to cut a long story short, I started running more regularly and more seriously. I started to do sponsored fun runs and from there graduated to doing the Great North Run, a half marathon, raising money as I went. After that, I just kept on running either for fun or more competitively for clubs. In my time I’ve completed a number of half marathons, but mostly just ran for fun. That said, that’s a lot of running! And in the last few years, following more heart problems, I’ve started running much more regularly. It’s amazing what a health scare can do for you! So you never know, there might just be a bit of common sense in the tips that I can offer! So here we go…

  1. Preparation, preparation, preparation! I can’t lie; there are far too many times that I go out having not prepared properly. If it’s an evening run I tend to make the excuse that I’ve been on my feet all day at work, so I’ll be fully warmed up anyway. But it’s never true and the proof is never more evident in those first couple of miles when I can’t get into my running or afterwards when everything seizes up! So, it’s a little bit of a case of doing what I say and not necessarily what I do here. Take time to warm up. Stretch thoroughly and perhaps even go as far as some running on the spot beforehand. Your body will thank you for it later! Stretching isn’t the only thing you can do though. I always make sure that I’ve had a blast on my inhaler – I’m asthmatic – as I don’t want to be too out of breath too soon. I’ve also started eating a handful of pine nuts and cashews before I head out, just in the hope of a bit of an energy burst. Pine nuts are good in terms of being heart healthy and contain things like iron and magnesium, which can boost energy. Don’t eat so many that you end up running with indigestion, but I always find they help me along the way. Cashew nuts contain healthy fats and again are heart healthy. I can’t claim to be an expert on all things dietary, but even if it’s as a placebo, I find that handfuls of things like this help me out.

The final thing that I make sure I do is to have a few jelly sweets in a pocket, ready for a quick sugar rush when I feel I might be flagging just a little bit too much. My personal choice are Mike and Ike’s, a nicely sugary coated import from America, available in B&Ms brilliant and strange American Confectionary section. Other jelly based confectionary, American or otherwise, is available. All over the place.

2. Clothing. Unless you’re into naked running, clothing is a vital part of your armour as a runner. Some would say it’s essential. From a personal point of view, having never tried naked running, I’d always go with clothing; no one repeat no one, needs to see me and my middle aged body charging down the road, in the nip as they say.

Silliness aside, good quality running gear is important. But there are levels here. I’m not someone who feels the need to splash ridiculous amounts of cash on what I’m sweating into, but I do want to feel comfortable and at least look the part without it being a case of ‘all the gear, no idea’.

The most important thing – in my humble opinion – is to get a good quality pair of trainers that you’re comfortable in. I used to run in Nike flats, but found that their very thin nature meant that they wore out relatively quickly. So eventually I went for a reasonably priced pair of New Balance 680 v6, which feature a nicely cushioned sole. Game changer! Suddenly I was running faster, going further and more importantly at my age, not suffering with aches and pains for days after. You could say that I’m a convert to cushioning. I’ve since bought a new pair of New Balance, but my 680s are hanging on in there and I’m out running in them regularly. I’ve found that some good quality running socks feel a lot better too.

In terms if what else I wear, I prefer 2in1 shorts, with an inner cycling short lining. I’m all for keeping those hamstrings warm! What I would also advise with running shorts is that you buy something with some kind of pocket. That way, anything light that you need to take can be stored away. My pockets always have a few jelly sweets and I find my door key handy for getting back into the house!

I’d also advise buying specialist running tops. I’m a t-shirt man myself. My build just doesn’t lend itself to vests and no one needs the sight of any more of my body! What I would say is that you should have something bright or even high viz, just for your own safety. It’s surprising how people many just don’t see you coming, so be as visible as possible, especially on more murky days or evenings. With this in mind, I was pleased when my wife bought me a couple of light up bands that I can wear around my upper arms in winter. If it gets too late and the light is cutting in, I just flick a switch and they light up, leaving me to focus on my running rather than whether or not I might get knocked over! They’re lightweight and comfortable too, which is ideal for people like me who hate running with anything annoying attached to me. You can see the kind of thing I mean below, although there are lots of variants on this particular accessory.

3. No excuses. Until the last 18 months or so I’ve always been brilliant at coming up with excuses as to why I shouldn’t go out for a run. And excuses as to why I should come in early from a run. Drizzle, too windy (weather, not me), a niggling and sometimes not real injury, not enough time, too close to lunch, not enough sleep, not in the right frame of mind, too windy (me this time), too sunny…I’ve gone through phases where anything I could tell myself would be enough to stay where I was and not head out for a run.

Don’t do it. Those endorphins won’t release themselves. However tired you think you feel, however bad your day at work was, get out for that run. Keep up the momentum. You’ll feel better for it. You’ll be pleased with yourself. You’ll have improved your fitness, just a little bit. But if you let that excuse keep you in then you’ll find another one the next time and even when you get back out again, you’ll excuse yourself some more, another time.

Once I stopped making excuses and just getting out there, I got fitter, stronger and faster. It’s taken me a long, long time, but nowadays the weather and the niggles don’t get in the way and I’m absolutely loving my running.

4. Plan a route (kind of). Personally, I don’t like to plan a very detailed route, but I like an idea of where I’m going, vaguely which set of streets I’ll be running along and more to the point, where I turn for home. I keep it vague for one reason: if I want to add a chunk of running in, I can and that means that I can feel good about myself once I get home. If I know that where I’m headed will take me say for 5km but I’m feeling good, then I might add a few extra streets in and before I know it I’ve covered an extra kilometre or two. And I can’t pretend that it doesn’t make me feel a whole lot better. Maybe it’s just a me thing, but I’d definitely recommend it. I suppose in a way it means I get to explore little bits of town, rather than just running another circuit of somewhere and I find my way a bit more interesting. Sometimes it’s good to keep my mind distracted from how my legs are doing and heading down a couple of new streets does just that!

5. Recovery. Over the last 18 months I’ve learnt that once I get back in after a run, my next hour or so is really important. I always used to make sure that I had a drink of water, but it was never anywhere near enough. And I’d never stretch.

Nowadays everything has changed. When I remember, I put a bottle of water into the freezer before I head out for my run. I’ll neck that as soon as I get in and then refill and drink slowly for a while. I might even refill again after that. I also make sure I eat a banana as soon as I get in. I might even have more cashews or pine nuts. If I have any pain I have a massage roller ball that I put in the freezer and then massage with when I get home and it works wonders! And I make sure I stretch again. This is usually done while lying or sitting down, touching my toes or painfully pulling my feet back behind my back. Before, I might well have just flopped down in a chair and watched television, then wondered why my muscles just stiffened up half an hour later. I’d wake up next morning and find it difficult to walk, such was the stiffness in my legs and back. And then lockdown happened.

During lockdown I read a lot of things about running and exercise. I also did online workouts and learnt the value of warming down and recovery from this. I can’t recommend it enough. The stretching helps to loosen and lengthen the muscles again and the fruit and snacking helps throw vitamins back into the body, which can only help. The water replaces fluid that you’ve lost while also refreshing you, obviously. It seems obvious now and why I totally ignored recovery for so many years is beyond me, but I would absolutely recommend that you take far better care of yourself after you’ve ran. You’ll feel so much better for it.

I hope these tips – some more obvious than others – will come in handy for you. Like I said before, I’m no expert, but I’ve found that these things have helped my running immeasurably. I’m faster and stronger, but more to the point, I enjoy my running much more than ever.

As usual, feel free to let me know what you think by leaving a comment. Oh, and happy running!

Poetry Blog: ‘I ran’

This is a poem that’s been sat in my notebook for a long time. Months, not years, but a long time all the same. In truth, it’s one that I was a bit unsure of. I didn’t know what to do with it and as such it got a bit lost. Every so often I’d flick through said notebook looking for something else, only to re-discover this forgotten poem. Finally though, after a closer inspection, I’ve decided to give it an airing.

I think the good weather has helped. The poem is about a time when I could exercise a great deal more because for almost the whole time the weather was glorious. Looking out of the window as I write, it’s another glorious evening, much like those of last April and May.

It’s a poem about the pandemic. I don’t know quite when I wrote it, but I know that I took the whole thing deadly seriously once I realised the extent of the devastation that seemed to be going on. I was adamant that I was definitely sticking to lockdown, but determined to take advantage of our daily exercise allowance. And so I did.

The poem is about lockdown in general, but also the fact that I took the opportunity that lockdown presented as a chance to make some changes. I’d have said that I was reasonably fit or even kidded myself about being ‘naturally fit’ when it all started. But as I read more and more reports about coronavirus and took into account my own vulnerability to it, I decided that I was going to have to get much fitter. After all, there was little excuse; I wasn’t at work and all I really had was time. So, as the poem says, I ran.

I ran...

When the danger struck, I ran.
Not away from it, but straight at it,
maybe heroically, possibly naively, 
feigning bravery because I didn't know what else to do.
Such is my way with everything.
Don't think, don't plan, act on instinct, 3 in the morning thinking
and possibly a dash of Dutch courage.

And so, when the unseen, yet definitely alien villain headed our way,
sounding dangerously, almost laughably familiar,
I ran.
Decked out like a skinny, pound shop part time superhero,
I somewhat limped into action, exercising evangelically
in an attempt to out-cardio this beefed up cold.

But while others stockpiled toilet rolls and 
took another paracetamol from their selfish stash,
I got fitter, leaner, stronger.
My thirst for the fight meant I doused my fear in fresh fruit, 
nuts, seeds and an ever present bottle of water,
and I ran.

Thousands perished. Some sought solace in illegal road trips
or standing on doorsteps hypocritically acclaiming those who chose the Hypocratic.
I doused my guilt with physical torture, pushing myself to limits I'd not explored in years,
enjoying the isolation, getting evermore prepared to face what felt inevitable
and hoping that this wasn't all in vain.
I ran.

The effects of lockdown – or lockdowns, plural – can’t be underestimated. I think, more than anything, I benefitted from it, but it was still an awful, scary time. Running got me through the fear. In fact, running quite often dealt with the early mornings, while writing steered me through the late, sleepless nights. So my poem is both about what I did as well as being a direct result of what I did.

I’ve tried to inject a dark humour into parts of this poem. At first, I didn’t really believe the hype about coronavirus. It was the flu, it was a ‘beefed up cold’ and I wasn’t going to lose too much sleep about that. I soon realised the truth though! I’ve attempted a little more dark humour later in the poem too. Although I was fit, I probably didn’t really look it; hence the ‘skinny…superhero’ reference. And let’s face it, not many tall skinny fellas look good in lycra!

The whole pandemic scared me and the best way that I could think of to deal with that fear was just to throw myself into something. Exercise, fitness and in particular, running was that thing. Initially, my thinking was simply that if I was fit, the virus would stand less of a chance against me, so I was exercising in different ways every day. At first the whole family joined in and then, as the world righted itself and people went back to school and work it left me largely on my own in terms of exercising. And this was when the running went into overdrive. I’m guessing that when I wrote the poem I was feeling particularly evangelical about it all!

That’s certainly why there’s the reference to people stockpiling certain products. I think lockdown saw a lot of people showing their true colours and it angered me that while I was doing my best to stay safe there were others just making sure that they didn’t run out of anything, that they weren’t inconvenienced. I’d see social media posts from people about how they’d joined in the ‘Clap for Carers’ knowing that they’d been visiting friends or family when it just wasn’t allowed. The hypocrisy of that support for the NHS really bothered me when all it seemed to be for some people was a chance to pat themselves on the back and look good. And I watched in horror as various high profile people in the UK were caught out visiting family hundreds of miles from their homes, while I couldn’t head out to visit friends and family myself. In fact, at the time of writing, I still haven’t seen my parents, my sister and some of my best friends and it’s been well over a year.

So there you have it. A poem that may take people back in time a little bit, despite the fact that large parts of the world are still in lockdown and that even here in the UK we’re only just beginning to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel. As ever, I’d love to hear what people think, so please feel free to leave a comment.

Back on the grass again…for an actual game! (Part 2 of 2)

So after two training sessions in a week, numerous messages over WhatsApp and several pep talks with my players, we were finally, properly back on the grass today. An actual game with points at stake. Some competition and the adrenalin of a serious game of football, albeit at Under 12 level.

Sunday 11th April marked our return to competitive football and the sun was smiling on the Garforth Junior Football League as teams re-started the season once again. We woke up to an absolutely glorious day, if a little chilly, and frankly perfect conditions for football.

As stated in the first part of this blog, my team restart their season with more than a few worries. We play in Division 7 of 8 and at present are third bottom of the league. It’s safe to say that wins have been hard to come by this season, Indeed one of our wins was actually expunged from the records as the team we beat decided to drop out of the division after lockdown. Not because we beat them, by the way. I think it was down to the availability of players, but it still cost us valuable points.

We were playing the team beneath us in the league and so the importance of the game had been stressed by myself all week. And as we arrived at the venue for the match, I felt confident that we’d give a decent showing of ourselves.

Speaking of the venue, it was the kind of place where I always feel my lads and me might look a bit out of place. We’re a team from Morley, a market town on the outskirts of Leeds and let’s just say that there are areas that we visit for away games where the locals are a bit more refined than ourselves. Sometimes, as we park up outside a row of enormous houses with Range Rovers and Aston Martins in the driveways, I feel like we might be in danger of having our collective collars felt by the local constabulary. It certainly makes me conscious of my Mazda and the scruffy bags that carry the team’s equipment!

Today was one of those days. The area was relatively rural, with some rather plush houses around. We were also playing at a quite splendid private school where they even had a steward to make sure you drove round the car park the right way! The pitches were like bowling greens and the facilities clearly nicer than ours, where only last week two teenagers drove a motorbike over our pitch at speed as we trained. So walking through the grounds of the place made me feel slightly inferior at the very least! We’re the kind of team that my dad would refer to as ‘Raggy Arse Rovers’ and it’s exactly how I felt today.

Once we’d found our pitch we warmed up and went over the basics once again; don’t panic on the ball, don’t just boot it downfield at every opportunity, try to pass and move, use the width of the pitch, take responsibility, encourage each other and anything else that sprung to mind as kick off approached. I was able to take a moment just to have a look around and for a few seconds was mesmerized by the sight before me; the bright green of the pitch and the contrast of those thick, untouched white lines painted in, the bustle of parents, the excitement of the kids taking part in three separate games on the sight and the distinct tension brought about by the fact that we all want a positive outcome this morning. And then, before we knew it we were lining up around the centre circle for a minute’s silence to mark the passing of the Duke of Edinburgh. After that, it was over to the boys on the pitch.

It doesn’t take long to remember how helpless you can feel as a coach. In fact, I’d safely say that in the months of being away from football, it’s something that I’ve not missed at all.

We quickly took hold of the game and yet, for every mistake made or chance missed, my mind was ticking over with questions. Why has he done that? Who told him that was OK? What was he thinking there? As I say, as a coach you feel helpless. You’re screaming inside, yet still trying to find the balance between letting your team think and act for themselves and telling them what to do and what or who to look out for.

I don’t want to take you through each and every kick of the game. That’s not the point here. So, I’ll let you know that we lost in the end, because it helps with explaining the process that you slip into so easily despite the amount of time spent away from doing what you love.

We lost with virtually the last kick of the game, having came back from 3-1 down with about 5 minutes to go, to level it at 3-3. As our opposition re-started the game at 3-3 I was prompted to warn my team, “Don’t do anything silly now!” only to watch on in horror as a series of inexplicable mistakes happened across a timespan of about 10 seconds and we conceded the last goal. While it’s pointless playing the blame game, it was more than difficult to paint on a smile and talk to the ref, the opposition, their players and mine about what a great game it had been. Blame lockdown, blame a lack of fitness, blame me, blame whoever or whatever; we were poor. And yet we still should have won. It’s been like this for a large part of our season and again, it’s not something I feel deprived of by lockdown!

After wards we discussed the need to learn from mistakes and the need to stay calm on the ball. We have another important game next weekend and it’s crucial that we’re better. Talking to parents in the car park afterwards, I was adamant that I wouldn’t have time to put on an extra training session this week, partly due to work commitments and partly down to just feeling ridiculously unhappy with our result! Sometimes, even as an adult it’s hard to hide the disappointment and not react a bit like a child! However, as the afternoon wore on I found myself asking my wife if she’d be alright with me being out for another evening in the week so that I could run an extra session. She was just surprised that I hadn’t already sorted it out!

So, we’re back on the grass and living with all that it brings. The highs, the lows, the surprises and the disappointments. Nine more games to go, until barring further lockdown measures, we finish the season in early June. Already, it’s like we’ve never been away. Training sessions are coming thick and fast and we’ll be counting down the days until our next game this weekend. That love that I have for football is being rewarded once again and I wouldn’t change it for anything.

Back on the grass again…for now (Part 1).

As grassroots football returns once again and my car becomes a magnet for mud, grass cuttings and various bits of kit, I thought it might be nice to write a couple of blogs about how things went on our return. I’m starting with this one about our first few training sessions and will write Part 2, about our first match, as soon as it happens! I hope you enjoy reading about it all.

Rightly or wrongly, football has always been one of the major loves of my life. Of course family comes first and of course, I see the sheer stupidity of being so obsessed by a game. But it’s a habit I can’t break…and believe me I’ve tried.

However, about four years ago I found myself cajoled into coaching my son’s team and my obsession grew. It’s a brilliant thing to do though and one I’ve written about before, but these last few months – and in fact the stop start nature of the whole of this season – have been a lot to cope with both for us coaches and our players, as well as parents..

At the end of March though, the government began relaxing their Covid restrictions and grassroots football made its latest comeback. Unlike a lot of teams we didn’t jump straight back in though. While other teams at our club were back training on March 29th, the day that the guidelines relaxed, we waited until April 1st until we held our first session.

I have to say that it felt like a bit of an error on my part as I watched those first teams training on the fields at the end of my street! I couldn’t wait to get back and knew – via our WhatsApp group – that parents and players felt the same.

Just being able to be out of the house, mixing with team mates and testing their ability and fitness was going to be one hell of a change from what had happened since January. We’d tried to keep our boys fit by forming a training group on the Strava app with the aim of getting everyone to run a collective 50 miles per week, but it proved to be a difficult thing to do. Initially the group were running the distance every week. In fact in that first week we ran over 110 miles between us. But in recent weeks it had tailed off and while some of the lads were still running and have kept them in good shape, four or five out of a 14 player squad isn’t all that great!

On Thursday 1st April we returned to our pitch and actual football training. It was smiles all round, but just not many of them. For that first session we only had 8 players and one coach as 6 players and my other coach were required to isolate after being in contact with someone who’d tested positive. I split the lads into two groups and while we ran a few drills and did some fitness work, ultimately, given the numbers, we kept it as simple as possible. In the end, we set up some makeshift goals on the pitch, coned an area off and had a game of four-a-side. It was brilliant! Just end to end stuff, lots of goals, a blur of bright orange bibs versus neon yellow shirts and everyone involved with smiles on their faces!

At one point as I looked back up the hill that houses our pitches, we had the local amateur team playing a friendly and everyone from our Under 7s to Under 11s running around on various pitches. You don’t want to get too far ahead of yourself, but it felt like life might be getting back to some kind of normality.

At the end of the session though, I was reminded of something I haven’t missed at all. Parents arrived to pick up their kids and after I’d got the kids to collect cones and poles, I was left entirely alone to first pack it all away and secondly, to haul it all up the hill to my car! As the kit bag full of cones repeatedly banged up against my thigh and I struggled to balance the huge bag of poles so that they wouldn’t tip forward and empty everything out through the hole that’s been worn through, I was vividly reminded of what a pain in the arse being a coach can be! I passed probably 30 or 40 people standing spectating on various sessions and not one asked if I needed a hand!

With a game coming up and having missed months of football, I had a brainwave. Why do one training session in the week leading up to the game when you could do two? I messaged parents just to gauge opinion and availability and was met with a resounding yes. My own son had missed the first session as he was isolating and although he’s made an effort to keep up his fitness (that’s a polite way of saying I’ve been dragging him out for runs with me whenever possible), he’d barely kicked a ball for months. It was the same for many of the squad. So an added training session would do them all the world of good. Or at least tire them out so that they wouldn’t bug their parents so much for a couple of evenings!

Another reason behind this decision was our league position. We’ve actually lost points over the break as a result of a team dropping out of the division we’re in. This has left us 3rd bottom of the division and in real danger of finishing bottom if we don’t do well. So we clearly need to put in the hard yards before we kick off.

The differences between the first session we had held and this second one are marked. Firstly, I’m almost late! It happens on a regular basis. With only myself to organise on the previous Thursday, I was there with lots of time to spare and could set up and be ready as the kids arrived. Tonight though, my son has done his usual trick of being nowehere near ready. He can’t find various items of kit, despite being told to get organised, he’s labouring with his tea, he hasn’t done his water, he can’t find a hat, etc, etc.

The other difference is that we have almost a full squad. We still have one player isolating, but in all there are 13 boys ready to train. Plus the elder brother of one of them, whose team have folded, leaving him at a loose end. He asks to take part and we welcome him and hopefully his calming influence with open arms!

Before the session we have a long chat with the lads about how we’d like to finish the season. We have 10 games still to play and, as I mentioned, the very real possibility of finishing last! I, for one, don’t want that. While I always want my team to enjoy playing and am more than happy to be inclusive and let everyone have their fair share of time on the pitch, regardless of ability, I can’t hide the fact that I’m competitive. So we talk about the idea of the team and backing each other up and about the need to give absolutely everything we have in these final games.

We keep the session relatively simple, dropping plans for a passing drill in favour of a longer game and once the warm ups, jogging and sprinting are complete we run through a drill with the ball before choosing teams, handing out bibs and letting them get on with a game. Again, smiles are the order of the day and there’s no whining and moaning about what’s fair and unfair or who fouled who; just the desire to have a game. They play for half an hour with only a 1-0 scoreline to show for it, so it’s clear that their shooting skills have filtered away over the break, but we can work on that next session. We’re edging closer and closer to a first game in months and hopefully we’ll get a result. But the approach has to be one of complete positivity and encouragement. We all need to be pulling in the same direction.

We return to training two days later for our second session of the week and third since we’ve been allowed back. This time we run through a few more drills with the ball as well as upping the ante with the running, in the hope of adding a little bit of an edge with stamina. We end with a game and this time the goals flow, but sadly that brings out the worst in one or two of our lads. My team are still very young and although the idea of working as a team has been drummed into them time and again, yet the moment things start to go wrong there are those that start blaming others, griping, sniping and failing to take responsibility. It’s something I find very frustrating and once again, something that will have to be addressed before we play on Sunday. It’s vital that we work together and if we can’t, then truthfully, I’d rather not bother.

As a side note, another frustration rears its head again tonight. We decide to set up our 9-a-side goals tonight, which means hauling them about a quarter of a mile down the hill to our pitch and then back again afterwards. These aren’t light and they’re cumbersome too. The hope was that our parents would offer a hand in putting them back. Some hope. My arms and shoulders still ache this morning after the sheer struggle of carrying the goals back up the hill, lifting them over a 7 foot fence and then maneuvering them through the car park, while all the while fighting strong winds. I feel like an old man this morning!

So there we have it. Football’s back and within just a few sessions we’ve had a microcosm of the highs, lows, joys and frustrations. Here’s to Sunday, the first game back and a chance to leave over three months of lockdown frustration on a pitch somewhere in West Yorkshire. I’ll let you know how that goes in Part 2 of this blog, which I can hopefully post on Monday. In the meantime, I’d love to know what you think, so feel free to leave a comment.

How do you motivate a team who aren’t allowed to play?

If you read my blog regularly then you’ll no doubt be aware of my sideline (although I’m sure my wife would call it more of an obsession) as a football coach. If this is a first read, well then you just found out. I volunteer with a local youth team and coach one of their Under 12 teams. It’s the team that my son plays for and I ended up doing it when the original team coach was removed from his post. I’ll be honest; although I knew I’d be able to do a better job, I was also very much the only candidate!

I’ve written about my coaching before on here. It can be an absolute joy and yet can be a right royal pain in the backside too! At the moment it’s definitely on the latter end of the scale and this is largely down to the fact that we’re unable to actually do any training at the moment.

We last played a game on Sunday 6th December of last year. We trained a weekend later and then as January approached we were told that rising Covid cases meant that junior football was being suspended and that no one would be playing or training until further notice. That last training session had been a minimal affair as we tried to deal with low numbers, social distancing and Covid paranoia. It was undoubtedly a sign of things to come. However, we’d had a great session and were still optimistic that there would be a game the following weekend to look forward to. The optimism was short lived.

Well, we’re now half way through February and still waiting for that further notice. There has been a flurry of activity on social media lately, after the chairman of our league asked our opinions about how to move forward and this has led to a whiff of optimism, but still, there’s nothing concrete like a way forward or even a date. I’m not being critical in any way. I can see clearly that running these leagues and keeping everybody happy is a horrendously stressful job that I would not want. But I’m missing football and like lots and lots of other coaches, finding motivating my team a tough old job.

A little bit of background on my team. I think it’s safe to say that not everyone in the 14 strong squad is actually that interested in football. I’d even say that for my own son, who hasn’t kicked a ball for almost 2 months. There are easily five or six others in the squad just like him. I think football is just a means to an ends here; a way of getting lads away from screens and into the fresh air.

My lads are the second team in our age group at the club; often referred to as the development team, but not by ourselves. We play in Division 7 of 8 in the league, so perhaps that tells you something about ability. Please don’t get me wrong, I think we have some brilliant little footballers and excellent athletes, but when you watch some of the teams in the higher divisions it gives some perspective. I’m not hugely interested in ability. I want to develop footballers and help create good people. I love to win, but I realise that it won’t be possible every week. I don’t accept it, I don’t like it, but I realise that there are better teams than us and also better coaches than me. As long as my players are enjoying what they do, that’s enough.

And that fact leads me nicely on to what I wanted to look at with this piece. I think I’m a good coach, who tries to set a good example, tries to have fun and tries really hard to look for areas in a kid’s game that can be improved. I think, over the last few years of coaching the team, I’ve been successful in doing that as well. What worries me though, is how to keep players motivated when I can’t see them, can’t work with them and am juggling a busy work and family life in amongst all of the stress and pain of a global pandemic.

We have a WhatsApp group for coaches and parents in the team. This has been our exclusive avenue of dialogue over the last couple of months, but I feel like it’s failing. I’m failing. I worry that the majority of my team will not have kicked a ball over the whole of lockdown. I worry that they’ll not have worked at all on fitness and that when they return to football they’ll be ridiculously unfit. And I worry that some won’t return at all.

We’ve tried a number of things to keep our squad engaged and motivated during the lockdown. But I don’t think they’ve worked.

During the previous spell of lockdown in the U.K. we started a running challenge, setting up a Strava group for the players with the challenge that they try to run 5kms per week. Over half of the players and their parents signed up and things looked good. I felt optimistic. However, the results were sketchy at best and most of those who signed up simply stopped running or walking after a few weeks. I found it incredibly sad that a group of 11 and 12-year-olds couldn’t bring themselves to walk or run 5000 metres across the course of a week, especially when it could be done in stages and was going to help them represent their team. It was disappointing, but in actual fact, they maintained enough fitness to be able to win the game that was arranged when we came back to football. It was worrying though and a sign of things to come.

Another lockdown was always inevitable given the instability of the times we find ourselves living in. We added a skills challenge as a means of keeping the boys involved while also having a bit of fun. It felt simple. Attempt the skill, film it, post it and we’ll choose a winner each week. Two of the players posted a video of themselves taking on the challenge and then, nothing. One of those players was my son, and I’d be lying if I said his participation wasn’t almost wholly motivated by me! Another failure.

We even introduced the incentive of a prize for both the running challenge and the skills challenge and both fell flat. Clearly mobile phones and X-Box were winning out!

Our club committee, recognising that this could be a terminal problem, then got involved. Unfortunately their first idea was a running challenge and we know how that one had already panned out with my lads! But then Zoom football quizzes were organised and despite having spent the best part of three lockdowns avoiding these things like the they themselves were contagious, I promoted it and duly entered myself and my son. I mean, I had to be the one setting the example, right?

Come the morning of our Zoom quiz and I was full of optimism. The squad would be ‘together’ once again and it would be great to see their faces and to find out how everyone was doing. I was confident that given my own knowledge of the sport, me and my son might even be up for the win. And then, after one or two technical problems, the gallery screen came into view. Apart from me and my son, there were three other players. Two of the three were twins and the other one was the son of my assistant coach. So essentially, one household without a direct club connection had joined in! We’d failed again. In fact, only three players from the other team in our age group joined in as well. Seven players from two squads numbering 28 players. And to top it all, me and my son didn’t even win the quiz!

So we’d tried to embrace technology and a world that 11 and 12-year-olds were familiar with and couldn’t make it work. The whole thing was becoming incredibly frustrating. As a kid – and frankly still as an adult – I was obsessed with football. I wanted to be outside with a ball at my feet as much as possible. In fact, on the day that I was discharged from hospital having undergone open heart surgery, aged 6, I attempted to cry my heart all the way back out again because my parents wouldn’t let me go outside and join in a game that was being played on the patch of grass opposite my house. For a kid not to want to be involved with football was almost beyond my comprehension, especially when said kid was actually part of a football team.

I’m not stupid. I understand that there are a lot of distractions nowadays. I know that football – whether it’s our national sport or not – has a lot to compete with. But I don’t buy the idea that it can’t compete. While I was obsessed with football as a kid, I did other things too. I – don’t judge me – spent hours sitting in the library (the local one, not the one in the east wing of our house or something) reading books. I collected records, I played other sports, I had a PC and played games on it. But football was my ultimate love. There was never any trouble engaging me and I always found time to play. So, I don’t buy into the idea that we should blame other distractions.

All of this makes the lack of engagement of my team all the more puzzling and frankly, upsetting. I’ve questioned myself, my sessions, my relationships with members of the team, my enthusiasm, my manner with the kids. But even as my own harshest critic, I can’t simply blame myself.

So it’s a question of where do we go from here? I must admit that this week we’ve had a bit of a breakthrough. Having re-visited the Strava group and the idea of a fitness challenge, I came up with the 50 Mile Challenge. The simple concept is, can we all walk or run enough in a week to get to 50 miles between us? I was inspired by the Proclaimers song ‘500 Miles’ and then began reducing the mileage when I realised how far I was expecting each of us to run or walk! I’m saving the idea though and might try to turn it into some sort of sponsored event in summer, if Covid allows. I mean, I had plans to make a video and everything!

When I put the idea on the WhatsApp group I had to wait 24 hours before anyone even reacted. Again, I was left feeling down, especially in those first 23 and a bit hours! But then when we recorded our own first run, I scrolled down our club Strava feed. People had been running! Not everyone, not by a long way, but people had been running. Our team were engaged and working on their fitness! By the time a day had elapsed we’d combined to run or walk nearly 16 of our 50 miles. And now, at the time of writing, 8 players, 2 coaches and our referee have recorded a grand total of 56.16 miles in just four days. My response? A congratulations note on the WhatsApp group followed by another challenge! I’ve asked if we can make it to 100 miles by Sunday night! Well, I might as well exploit that momentum!

The next challenge will come with next week. I’m keen to keep these shorter challenges going, so I’ll be posting on Sunday evening and asking if we can at least outdo whatever amount of miles we manage this week. I’ll be challenging those that haven’t joined in as well. I’m tempted to set a challenge of 150 miles, but might stick to 100, just to be on the safe side and step things up gradually. Experience tells me that initial enthusiasm doesn’t always last!

The lack of enthusiasm has really made me think about how to engage the team when we’re finally able to play again. I’m already sketching out ideas for simpler training sessions where we mix the right amount of fitness with a bit of competition and a short sharp game at the end. I’ve tried to cram as many drills as possible into sessions in the past, in order to work on various aspects of the team and players, but I’m definitely going for a leaner, meaner approach. Hopefully, they’ll be sessions that can cut out the messing about and keep every player engaged enough to want to be there every week.

I also have a couple of much grander plans for later on in the year. Firstly, I’ll be trying to get a group of players and coaches together to do some kind of sponsored activity. I’ve a couple of causes I’d like to help, but I’d also like to try and do something to raise money for the club as a whole. Above all of that though, I think doing something like that as a team will help to build some sense of identity and spirit within a squad that is made up of kids from 4 different high schools and that is still very cliquey.

Alongside that, I’d also like to do something that helps within the community. I’d hoped to do something over the Christmas period, but Covid got in the way. It’s still not a very well developed scheme, but I hope that with the involvement of our coaches and parents we can come up with an idea that makes a difference to people in our community and of course, our team. It might just amount to delivering supplies to the elderly or collecting shopping or donations for a foodbank , but I think it’s the kind of thing that young people should do in order to help build a bit of character and just open themselves up to what’s actually happening in their community and the kind of difference that they can make. Whether people will get on board with any such ideas, who knows?

I’ve found it really tough to motivate or engage my team over the last two months. It seems that the default approach at the moment is to take to a screen and that makes me feel really unhappy. And it’s disconcerting – and I won’t lie, a bit of a blow to the ego – when you feel like you’re doing your best and no one seems interested! We might just be getting somewhere though, but if you’ve enjoyed reading and have any suggestions, I’m all ears!

Heart ops, Strava groups and 7am starts – how I fell in love with running again.

Looking back, I’ve been a runner most of my life. From scratch races around our estate and school sports days, cross countries and a brief dalliance with a running club I’ve always done it. And I’ve always loved it.

I was born with several heart problems. The main one was a hole in the heart, but there were a few other things that when combined, put my life at risk. As a child, up until the age of about 6 or 7 I spent a lot of time in hospitals and had open heart surgery at a young age when such a thing was very much still in its infancy. I was weak, scrawny and described by my surgeon as “a very poorly little boy”.

I got through, but for a long time I stayed as very much that same scrawny little boy. I don’t know whether my illness contributed, but I took a long time to really grow and always found myself playing catch up with kids of my own age. I was forever skinnier and until I was about 16 years old, I was shorter too. Where any kind of sport was concerned it didn’t bother me a bit. I was always doing some kind of actvity, and while I may not have been the best, I was prepared to put in the hard work in order to improve.

In terms of running, I had a bit of an advantage from quite an early age. I seemed to have decent pace in sprints and about enough stamina to hold my own at longer distances. But I was never quite good enough to make me really happy. I still really enjoyed running though. However, always being not quite good enough began to get to me in the end and I would suffer mentally while running, whether it was a race or I was just out on a training run. Nothing terrible, just a bit of what I saw as a weakness. I’d drift off, losing focus on what I was doing and begin to hear my own voice often telling me I’d done enough, or that I was far too tired and that I should just stop and walk. As time went on I began to just lose interest. In the end on one of the final times that I entered the Great North Run (a famous UK half marathon) I had a bit of a shocker! I had trained sporadically and ended up just putting faith in the fact that I’d done the race enough times before to be able to know what I was doing. It didn’t turn out that way.

To compound my lack of fitness, it was a really sunny day and I got sunstroke. By the time I’d finished I found talking difficult and was slurring my words. I’d arranged to meet my then girlfriend – and now wife – along with, I think my mam and dad, at a certain point away from what would be a crowded finish area once I’d finished. However, by the time I arrived I think they were considering sending out a search party! I vaguely remember asking a man on the baggage bus where our meeting point was but really not understanding his explanation, such was the state I was in. In the end, I gathered my thoughts somewhat and just staggered in the general direction of where I felt it was and finally found my welcoming party. After that, I remember being forced to drink a lot of water and then falling asleep on the back seat of the car, draped across my girlfriend’s lap. I genuinely don’t remember much at all about the actual run.

Needless to say, the whole experience put me off running for quite a while and it was a long time before I found the motivation to start running seriously again. However, to cut a long story short, I got motivated enough to do one final Great North Run (my 6th) in order to exorcise those particular demons, ran it in a decent time, proved a point to myself and then more or less gave up running for a number of years.

Until my mid to late 40s I didn’t really run again much at all. And then – as has been documented in a few previous blogs – heart problems struck again and I decided that I needed to get fit. As far as I was concerned I’d had a gentle brush with death and wasn’t prepared to sit around and allow my body to go to seed any longer. So I ran for my life.

Even then my running was relatively sporadic. I’ve always been particularly prone to niggling injuries and sadly it’s always been something that I’ve allowed to put me off. I think as I’ve got older I’ve got mentally weaker in terms of levels of determination and used small injuries, colds etc. as a good enough excuse to duck out of a run or two. But then something else happened that completely changed my outlook and fortunately allowed me to make my body a great deal fitter and stronger.

When Coronavirus struck, I ran. Simple as that. Being told that I was particularly vulnerable to the virus and then watching how dangerous it could be, made me think. I needed to be as fit and as strong as possible. I had to be prepared to fight. So I fought. And this time I fought properly.

By March of this year I was in lockdown and unable to work. I genuinely didn’t know what I’d do to get through the initial four weeks that I was going to be away from work. So when schools closed and Joe Wicks decided that he’d run a live family fitness class every morning of lockdown, I jumped on it.

Initially it was our whole family. But when my four weeks turned into 6 months, things got busier for the rest of the family. My kids were being schooled remotely (until my then Year 6 son went back to actual school) and my wife was working from home. This left me, pig-headedly doing a Joe Wicks workout every morning at 9am and without realising it for a while, getting much fitter and stronger into the bargain. Suddenly one morning while having a shave I noticed the appearance of actual muscles on my arms, across my shoulders and chest and thought, well this is a bit different!

After a few weeks I felt fitter than I had in years and so started getting into the habit of finishing a workout and then heading out for a run on at least a couple of occasions in a week. And what a difference a bit of strength makes! A couple of weeks later and I was beating personal bests every time that I went out. If I ran 3km on the Tuesday, then I’d run 3.5km on the Thursday, until I was regularly running a 5k after a couple of workouts per week. Just over a year ago, I started to do Park Run and after a couple recorded a 5km personal best of 28 minutes and 56 seconds. That was enough to give me an excuse to stop again! Now, after a few months of going out running, that personal best has been broken several times and now stands at 24.48. Who knew that being actually, properly fit could make such a difference!

Clearly, taking fitness seriously has really worked for me. As someone who’s thought of himself as a runner for years, I’ve now realised that this is actually the fittest I’ve been in probably 25 years and at the same time, the best I’ve been at running! Other commitments mean that I have to limit my running to twice a week, but I find myself getting quite giddy in the lead up to a run. I can’t wait to leave work on a Thursday so that I can get home, stretch and then go for a run with my son. I wouldn’t say I was obsessed, but it’s definitely a mild addiction.

Recently, because of new lockdown rules, grassroots sport was cancelled and I usually coach an Under 12s football team. Armed with the knowledge of what the last lockdown did to my team, I was quick to put in a plan. And armed with a new fitness regime, it was always going to involve running!

The last lockdown meant that the only contact I had with many of my players was via a parents WhatsApp group and all that I could really do was check how they were. It also meant that by the time they returned to football, months later, many of them were really out of shape. So this time I had a plan.

We’ve set a 5km challenge, meaning that we’re trying to get every kid in a squad of 14 to run at least 5km per week. This will hopefully keep them fit. We’ve formed a club on the Strava app, meaning that we can all check each other’s progress, the kids are getting respect from each other and there’s a good level of challenge as they can see each other’s efforts in the app. As a coach I can keep an eye on who’s doing what and it’s definitely going to help me to pick a team when we’re all back together as, apart from anything else, I’ll know who should have the fitness to last an hour of playing time! While there are some who’ve avoided it, the majority have taken up the challenge and I know that they’ll be in better shape than last time when we finally play again. The whole thing seems to have kept spirits up within the team too and it’s been brilliant to see each of them trying to improve on their efforts. It’s also been a brilliant way for me to test myself and set a good example to my team too. We’ve even got one or two of the mums and dads joining in too, so running has been a bit of a saviour over the last month or so!

Yes, of course I chose my longest run to screenshot!

So where am I at with my running currently then? Well, given everything in my life – and I’ll be honest, my age – I’ve made sure that I only go out and run twice a week. I run on a Thursday evening with my son, simply because that’s when he should have his football training. I also get up ridiculously early on a Sunday morning and go out for a long solo run, while there’s hardly anyone around.

Fitness-wise, this is great. I’ve been out on the last four Sundays and starting with a 5 miler, have progressed up to my latest effort of 8 miles. This is the furthest I’ve probably run in at least 10 years! I have to say, I love it. There’s nothing quite like running through a foggy Yorkshire town at 7am, knowing that it’s more or less just you for streets and streets around! I’m alone with my thoughts, watching day break (sometimes I even see the sun come up, but this is northern England, so it’s a rarity) and just completely relaxed. It hurts, I must admit, but it doesn’t really matter. As I’ve previously explained, I’m much fitter and stronger and so feel that I can recover fairly quickly, where before it might have taken me days of walking like I’d had a blunt object inserted somewhere unpleasant before I was back to feeling even remotely normal. Like I say, it’s amazing what being properly fit will do for you!

The start of a beautiful sunrise during one of my early morning runs.
But sadly, it’s not always as lovely!

If the pandemic allows I plan to run at least one race for charity in 2021, partly to raise money for a heart fund, but also in memory of a couple of friends who we’ve lost this year. It’s been a tough time and I’d really like to be able to give a little bit back. And now I have a way of doing that again.

It feels like a bit of a success story. I’ve rediscovered something that I really loved and feel that I’ve become much, much better at it too. And for a man of my advancing years it’s been a real boost. Given the context of things with a global pandemic, lockdowns, normality being taken away and the fact that we’re unable to see family and friends, I think we all need a bit of a boost. Perhaps, if you feel like having one too, you might go out for a little run and see how it feels? I’d definitely recommend it!

Ten Things that Lockdown Exercise Has Taught Me

Photo by Philip Ackermann on Pexels.com

It’s safe to say that 2020 has been a remarkable year so far. Sure, its story can be summed up neatly with just two chapter headings – COVID-19 and Lockdown – but really that’s what has made it so remarkable.

Courtesy of a global pandemic lots of us have been given a time to reflect and learn. To slow down. I’ve written about the positive side of lockdown before and, as such acknowledged the tragedy of the losses suffered around the globe. While we’ve been locked down, people have fallen victim to a silent killer, while others have put their own lives on the line in order to help. We’ve been living through life-changing times, that’s for sure.

For me, despite finding the threat of the virus quite terrifying and finding the isolation from work both heart-breaking and mind numbingly dull, lockdown has been a positive process. The fear I’ve felt has made me spend more time in touch with my family – I have rung my elderly parents every few days, a great improvement on my usual shameful record of keeping in touch. I’ve been in regular touch with my sister and I’ve been forced to spend more quality time with my immediate family and in turn thoroughly enjoyed it. Furthermore, I’ve written more, connected with friends, relaxed more and frankly, transformed my garden!

By far my favourite pastime in lockdown has been exercising. From the off I’d decided that if there was a likelihood of contracting the virus, I was going to be as fit and strong as possible in order to fight it. A combination of asthma and a heart problem left me vulnerable to COVID and having spent time in hospital in the recent past frightened that this was it, I wasn’t going to go and die from what some were describing as the flu! So I began to exercise.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself over these lockdown months. Exercise has changed me. Don’t get me wrong, I was fit enough to begin with, especially for a man of my vintage, but now, I’m very much Middleagefanclub 2.0!

Here are ten things I’ve learnt about myself via lockdown exercise.

  1. I have abs, I want better abs and I finally understand the fuss about abs! That’s a lot of abs! I can’t help feeling enthusiastic about this though. I’ve spent my whole life learning to be comfortable with my slim build; perilously thin arms and pipe cleaner legs, not to mention my pot belly, developed over the last few years of my forties. And when my wife unearthed a picture of me in my twenties, emerging from a loch in Scotland a la a skinny, lanky Daniel Craig in just swimming shorts but sporting an actual six pack I realised that I’d been taking little or no care of my body for years. Now though, via a daily exercise workout with Joe Wicks on Youtube (70+ workouts and counting) and daily walks (sometimes more than one) I’ve found that, at the grand old age of 48, my body has changed. As well as the abs, I have muscles in my legs (visible ones), pecs (that’s a chest to the uninitiated) and discernable biceps! In short, I’ve learnt that with dedication and hard work my body is far, far stronger than ever before! Don’t get me wrong, I’m still slim, but I’m no longer a stick insect with a belly!
  2. I can exercise through the pain. I’ve always been injury prone. I think being tall and thin has made me fairly fragile, although I’ve never actually broken a bone, and so I’ve always picked up niggling muscle injuries quite easily. I’ve had a couple of serious ligament injuries to my knee and ankle along the way and they say that your body is never quite the same after that type of thing. So it was almost inevitable that when I began to exercise seriously, that something had to give. Needless to say that after a few weeks there was a ‘pop’ in my groin, followed by a bit of a tear in my thigh a week later and then about 5 weeks in my back went. However, I’ve never enjoyed exercising as much as I have during lockdown and so, I was determined to carry on. I was doing the #PEWithJoe workouts as provided every morning of lockdown by Joe Wicks and as such was just determined to carry on, such was my enthusiasm for being there and doing every workout, every morning. It’s meant applying a great deal of Voltarol to my back and mainlining Ibuprofen (other ailment treatments are available) but I’ve managed to just keep going. I’ve even found that whatever pain I’m in when I wake up, once I’m exercising and properly stretched it eases. I might not seem much, but after a lifetime of feeling like I should rest up because of injury, I’m now completely attuned to simply working through the pain.
  3. I have little shame and a lot less ago. For far too long in my life I’ve been too cool for school. When others have dived in and enjoyed themselves immensely, I’ve backed off for fear of losing face. Well, not any more…at least where exercise is concerned anyway. There’s still no chance of me doing dressing up, regardless of the charity or acting in any staff plays – work colleagues, Laura, Gemma, Emmas, et al take note! However, while exercising in lockdown I have found myself doing all sorts of ridiculous things in the name of fitness. I’ve walked like a duck to exercise my quads, done bunny hops, Pikachus and Joeys for cardio and frog jumps and bear crawls just because someone has told me it’ll do me good! And when Joe Wicks has told me to put my hands up like I’ve got bunny ears or to imagine I’m a kangaroo holding a joey in my pouch, I’ve done it and not worried a jot about who might be able to see. My neighbours and postman may well have seen a very different side to me at some point and I have to say that I don’t care!
  4. I still don’t like fancy dress. A man has limits! Friday is Fancy Dress day in my new exercise world and while thousands across the world have joined in, I haven’t budged. While Joe Wicks jumps around dressed as a panda or Spiderman, I’m keeping up my own good work in shorts and a t-shirt. I’m happy to run around the town I live with a face resembling a damp plum tomato, but there’s no chance that I’ll be dressing up like one. I even considered an alice band when my hair was particularly long, knowing full well that any number of friends could walk or drive past, but it’s a long stretch from that to running 5km dressed like a superhero! However evangelical I might get about exercise, there’s a very slim chance that I’ll ever resort to fancy dress. Fitness is important, but dignity more so!
  5. There’s no shame in running downhill! I’ve lived in my present home for over 20 years now and tried to go out running at times times during many of those years. However, where we live is quite hilly. Indeed at the end of my street there’s a main road up a big hill. For years I told myself that I always had to start my runs by heading up the hill. And for years I wondered why my first kilometre of those runs was invariably slow! I’d dread running up the hill, knowing that by the time I reached the top my legs would be like jelly and I’d only really be starting my run. That’s all changed during lockdown. I’ve taken to doing a workout and then heading out for a run a couple of times a week. But I decided to be fair to myself. Thus, on my first run, I ignored heading upwards and ran a little way down the hill, through a local park until I reached a nice flat stretch. It meant that by the time I’d reached my first climb I’d already ran a kilometre and was completely into my rhythm and feeling good. Lo and behold, it’s really helped! I’ve found that I’m steadily building up my distance and retaining some speed, while getting ever fitter and really enjoying my running. There really is no shame in running down the hill – even if it is for a few hundred yards. I only wish I hadn’t been so stubborn and learnt this twenty years ago!
  6. I really like order. In order to give a sense of variation to his workouts, Mr. Wicks has introduced a few gimmicks. The intention here is to add an element of chance or jeopardy if you like, to the workouts. Personally, I have all the jeopardy I need with the fact that my back might just ‘ping’ at any moment, but given that over 100,000 households are listening most days, I’m guessing any complaint would fall on deaf ears! So, rather than letting us know exactly what we’re going to be subjected to, he’s added in a sense of the unknown. The unknown has so far come in the form of a spinning wheel that contains the name of lots of exercises that we could do, two giant dice and also some over-sized playing cards that are used in a game of higher or lower. If I’m honest, I don’t mind the cards at all, simply because there’s always a visible list of the exercise options, so I sort of know what’s coming. There’s order. I despise the wheel. Hate it with a passion. It never seems to roll true and is forever landing on the same exercise, meaning that whatever part of my body is taking the strain will be a quivering wreck by the time the wheel has spun and landed on the same thing three times in succession. Without a doubt, I’m far, far happier when Joe just tells me what’s coming next!
  7. Daily family walks will inevitably be punctuated by arguments. On all but about five days since the start of lockdown, we’ve been out for a walk around our local area, as a family. We’ve walked for miles and miles, which to us adults seems like a thing of wonder. However, to our children, it’s the dullest thing ever. It’s guaranteed to sour at least one of their moods and, given that my children are very much of the opinion that we all need to hear what they’re feeling at any given time, their disapproval will be voiced. Cue arguments! I’ve often said that we provide a traveling soap opera for anyone within hearing distance when we’re out and about, but I daresay there are people in houses around where we live who have counted down the minutes until we pass again in the early evening. It seems to be a tailor-made opportunity for my children to have a good moan or offer an unwanted opinion. Me? I tend to just walk at the back, lips firmly shut, but even then there have been times when I can’t help but join in. Who knew a walk could be so eventful?
  8. I still prefer to exercise without a soundtrack. While I’ve experimented with running with my iPod on, I’ve never really found it adds anything to the way I feel. More than anything, I worry about not hearing traffic and crossing a road where I then get knocked over! While I’m out running I like my wits about me and I find I can concentrate and focus a great deal better without music in my ears. I wouldn’t say that there’s any kind of zen thing going on, but I find the silence helps me to think. And while I’m thinking – maybe weighing up a decision that’s got to be made – I’m not feeling the heaviness in my legs or the tightness in my chest. My thoughts don’t wander, so there’s no danger of worrying about anything asthma-related and more to the point, I’m no longer prone to the little voice in my head telling me I’ve gone far enough and should stop! I think even with music on I’d be telling myself just to get to the end of a particular song and then turn round and walk home! I’m definitely mentally stronger when it’s just me and the outdoors. I’ve found the same with working out. While using YouTube to exercise there are mornings where the instructor plays music and I’m never at my best when it’s being played. Just tell me what to do, let me watch the clock and I’ll be fine!
  9. I’ll get stuck in, whatever the weather. Just this morning, post-workout, I was out for the walk that serves as a warm down. It was fairly cold and the drizzle was relentless. But we were still out and about. And this has been the case throughout lockdown. While in the past I might not have gone out for a run because it was blowing a gale or raining, nowadays I don’t give it a second thought. Similarly, when it’s been very hot, I’ve made the effort to get out and run. It’s definitely the right approach and it’s definitely making me fitter, stronger, and healthier.
  10. I’m a terrible judge of people. I owe Joe Wicks an apology. For years he’s just been a bloke with silly hair and I mildly amusing voice. Then, when I joined in with his workouts I initially found myself judging him a bit more. Now, 15 weeks or so in, I’ve come to realise that he’s alright. He seems to have similar sense of humour to me – he’s a big fan of Alan Partridge – and like me he’s devoted to his family. I still can’t live his lack of taste in music, but I’ve learnt a valuable lesson. Just because you’re regularly clad in lycra, are unashamed about showing off your sculpted body and are vocal about your love of exercise and healthy eating, it doesn’t make you a bad person. Sorry Joe. And apologies to every runner or gym goer I’ve ever sneered at around where we live.

So there we go. Not only have I got fitter, but I’ve learnt a few things about myself. I’d love to know how others have filled their time during lockdown or maybe even what you feel you’ve learnt about yourself. Let me know in the comments.

How lockdown helped me contract the exercise bug.

It started, like many things do, with an idea that felt like a bit of a dream, especially given the chaos that was about to erupt. It turned out however, that one particular kind of chaos would be all of my own making. The chaos brought about by a gradual obsession with exercise. While avoiding the virus, I’ve caught the exercise bug.

Initially isolated and then days later placed in lockdown, I was intent on going for a run every few days. That was it; simple. Just the odd run to make myself feel a little bit better, gather my thoughts and cling on to my sanity. I hadn’t ran for a while – a combination of a busy schedule and the usual winter health issues taking their toll. Now, with possibly a huge amount of time on my hands I was going to exploit it and gradually get fit.

However, almost before the plan was hatched tendonitis in my achilles stopped me in my running tracks and so I resorted to walking. Easier on the body. On my first day of isolation, bored, determined to get exercise and feeling down about the fact that I couldn’t go to work, I walked for miles. My watch told me that by the end of the day I’d done just over 23,500 steps. My head told me I needed to calm down! The next day, a Thursday, I’d toned it down a bit and walked a little over 18,000, but this was still a ridiculous amount and I knew at the back of my mind that I wouldn’t be able to keep it up.

By the time Friday rolled around the Prime Minister was announcing that the country was going into lockdown and that schools would be closing. This would mean another change of plan. We were to be allowed out only for one exercise session per day and in my case that would have to be taken with the rest of my family. There would be no more walking around for hours. Instead, there would be a daily walk for an hour, close to home and spent in the midst of family bickering, most likely prompted by one of my children while almost certainly involving the other one and requiring one or both adults to referee. It seemed that the part of me that was going to get the most exercise would be my jaw and I could wave goodbye to any peace and quiet. This virus was going to test both my physical and metal health!

On the same day I made what could be a life-changing discovery. Perhaps ‘life-changing’ is a bit of an exaggeration, but it’s definitely changed things for me, so you know, go along with my positivity here! I’ve already blogged a bit about this and also written a poem inspired by it as well, but in terms of this blog, it needs another mention. Or a paragraph or two.

Joe Wicks, otherwise known as The Body Coach, announced to the nation that as part of the home schooling effort in the UK he’d be taking a PE class via YouTube every morning from 9am. After a little hesitation I jumped in. I was going to have to home school my son anyway and so, #PEWithJoeWicks would become the start to our day. I never imagined I’d get so involved!

Since that first Monday I’ve taken part in the workout every day. As I write I’ve done 30 workouts, taking the weekends to rest. I’ve tried hard to be as strict as possible with the workouts too. Each exercise is done in 30 second bursts and so I make sure that I’m doing everything with maximum effort and not slacking off for the last few seconds in order to get an extended break in between. It would be easy at my age to just motor through things at half pace, blaming wear and tear on the joints and claiming to be looking after myself, but given that this may well represent the most dynamic I’m going to get in any given day, I’ve been making sure that I put in a lot of effort.

The exercises range from easy things like jogging on the spot or throwing 30 seconds worth of imaginary punches right through to planking, squat jumps and old school favourites like burpees. There’s also an element of fun brought into it, because after all, this is meant to be a kids’ PE lesson. And obviously fun is where I come into my own. Ahem.

It’s easy to see how Joe Wicks has made his fortune through exercise. Even when you take away the looks, the hair and the perfectly sculpted abs, there’s a lot left to admire. He’s enthusiasm personified for a start. Even when he’s telling you how sweaty and worn out he is he’ll be letting you know in the next breath how much he’s enjoying himself. And because he’s having fun, invariably we are too. It’s a relentless mantra – exercise is great, this is doing you good, stay positive! And if you’d told me before I’d tried it that I’d be smiling along with someone telling me this kind of thing and actually believing it as well, I’d have asked if you’d ever met me before. Exercise as fun wasn’t supposed to be my thing.

The actual exercises themselves are made fun too, although I’m never 100% convinced my legs are in agreement. When I’m doing kangaroo jumps while pretending to carry my imaginary joey or doing bunny hops with my hands on top of my head to represent my bunny ears, I must be enjoying it otherwise there’s no way in the world I’d bother with these extra details! My son Dylan, my regular exercise partner, certainly loves it as he’s often adding sound effects in as he goes! And we haven’t even got onto squats that lead into jumps where you shout out ‘Pikachu’ at its climax.

Like a lot of other people on lockdown I’ve stopped worrying about style and how I’m dressed. Nowadays, wearing jeans is classed as dressing up. I blame Joe Wicks as well. And while we’re on the subject I’ll be cutting my own hair soon as well, but I digress.

We do #PEWithJoe every morning at 9am. After that we continue our warm-down in the back garden with a little bit of football and by the time we finish that it’s usually around 10am. Then I’ll get changed. And this is where my style lockdown comes in. It just seems pointless changing out of shorts and some form of exercise top to get into jeans and maybe a t-shirt or a shirt. I know that I’ll be back out exercising or in the garden at some point during the day. And so, nowadays I just sling on a pair of tracksuit bottoms and a t-shirt, usually the type of thing that I wear for running. In other words, I’m almost permanently dressed in leisure wear these days. It’s bad enough that I’ve not worn a suit, a formal shirt or a tie in around a month due to not being in at work, but now, even a pair of jeans feels unnecessary. It seems like some form of exercise is always lurking just around the corner.

Our daily exercise isn’t just limited to a half hour workout in the morning though. Oh no, we’re going for gold in our house. Every day – and I mean every day – we subject ourselves to a three mile walk. Socially distant, of course, and just around the locality that we live in, but still it’s a daily three miles.

As a middle aged man three miles a day is quite the big ask. I’m 48 years old for goodness sakes! Less than 2 years ago I had heart surgery! But let’s trail ourselves around the local area for three miles per day. That’s over 20 miles a week!

To be fair, there are times when I love it. Everything feels good and it’s fantastic to be out in the fresh air. The weather has helped too. In our part of the U.K. we’ve been having wonderful weather – beautiful sunshine and clear blue skies – and so, to be out walking in it has been fantastic. But sadly, I’m getting no younger. For every night where I’m enjoying myself, there’s one where I am nothing short of knackered. We live in quite a hilly area and there are times, when stood at the bottom of an enormous hill, and my legs are like jelly before we’ve even moved. In my head I’m ranting – ‘Why the **** are we doing this?’ – but outwardly I’m smiling and insisting that everything’s fine and that I must have just overdone things earlier in the day. I’ve never failed to complete the distance, but I’ve lost count of the times where I’ve questioned my sanity! Still, at least I’m in good shape. Especially for a man of my now advancing years!

I know that the exercise bug has truly taken hold for another reason as well. Despite sticking strictly to lockdown conditions, I must admit that on several occasions recently I’ve considered getting up really early and sneaking out for a run. I stress that I haven’t done it, but it still feels like such a good idea. I imagine there’d be no one about, which in terms of running for me, is a really good thing. You see, I have a tendency to attract the attention of small dogs and on more than a few occasions have tumbled over them as they’ve jumped up at me. The last time saw me literally somersaulting through the air and left me battered and bruised, so avoiding that particular type of thing has real appeal. But as much as more exercise is a temptation, I know I’ll be avoiding it. Better to be slightly less fit than catch the virus because of my own stupidity. Or take a tumble while trying to avoid yappy dogs.

So lockdown, despite its very obvious drawbacks has had its benefits. I’ve become more obsessed than ever with keeping an eye on my steps via my watch and making sure I’m as active as possible, but boy am I fit! No doubt the eventual return to work will make the kind of exercise I’m doing regularly almost an impossibility, but for now I’m going to keep on acting like I’m preparing for some kind of middle-age Olympics!

 

PE with Joe – how I found out that where there’s a Wicks, there’s a way.

It seems cynical to say, but this whole Coronavirus lockdown thing has allowed me to start getting fit. And when I say fit, I mean really fit. I was fit before…for a man in my middle years anyway, but now I’m beginning to feel like some kind of middle aged superhuman! OK, that might be me getting a little bit carried away, but I’m feeling good.

It started as a reaction to the virus. As someone who is classed as being vulnerable to it, I decided early on that in order to combat the risks I’d have to stay fit. So I wasn’t going to be sitting around watching films and reading books, which had been the kind of situation I’d dreamed of for years. No, I was going to maximise my daily government sanctioned exercise window and then do as much as I possibly could around the house to be as healthy as I could be. The fitter I was, the more strength I’d have to fight whatever was going to get thrown at me.

When UK schools closed down I was subsequently given a fantastic fitness opportunity. This was the point where, with the focus on home-schooling, lots of people starting volunteering services and sharing ideas. And this was when Joe Wicks stepped into my life and began to get me and my family fitter than we’d been in years!

I was aware of Mr. Wicks before this time and had decided that he simply wasn’t for me. I have to admit that this was based largely on his appearance. As a middle aged man with a little bit of a pot belly, I found myself feeling secretly jealous of this newcomer who looked like he’d been carved out of rock and dipped in hair. As well as this, I decided that his kind of fitness simply wasn’t my thing. As a footballer and runner I was more into simply pushing myself to the limits and ending up feeling physically sick than what I saw as glorified dancing.

But then, a few years ago now I tried yoga and loved it. And so, when Joe announced that at 9am every day of lockdown he’d be putting on a half hour PE class for the nation I thought we’d give it a go. It wasn’t quite as instant a decision as that. In fact at first I just thought, ‘no way’. But then, through a combination of chatting about it with my wife and considering the fact that it’d be a way of keeping the kids busy for a while, I thought that we could at least give it a go. Now, weeks later, I’ve not missed one day since it started!

The workouts have been a pleasant surprise. Apart from some ill-fitting lycra gear – which through football and running, I already had – and a yoga mat, there’s been no need for equipment. No weights, no resistance bands, and no other bits of stuff that I actually don’t know the name of. In hindsight, I don’t know what I was imagining! I do know that I can’t be a pleasant sight however. I’m a shade short of 6ft tall and built like a telegraph pole, so clingy gym gear isn’t exactly flattering. But Joe’s enthusiasm has been the perfect counter to my paranoia!

I didn’t realise that it’d be as difficult as I found it at first. After that first day I ached in places that were unexpected to say the least. Who knew that your bum could hurt so much just by doing aerobic type stuff? And given that I’d lifted no weights, how come my arms and shoulders felt so weak all of a sudden? Or weaker than normal; it’s all relative!

What I do know is that I’m thoroughly enjoying my appointment with Joe every day. It’s tough work and gets a sweat on, but it’s a tonne of fun too. As I said, it’s difficult but as time passes I’m finding that my body doesn’t hurt so much anymore. And whatever the aches and pains I’m there every day looking for more. There’s nothing too complicated and it all comes in bursts of 30 seconds before a short rest and time for a drink of water, then we’re ready to move on to the next exercise.

He has us doing things like squats and push ups fairly regularly. But there are also things like ‘Spiderman’ where we lunge to one side and fire out our imaginary webs before switching swiftly to the other side. My ten-year-old son loves doing this one and joins in doing the web sound effects with Joe. I’m also doing a sound effect; it’s called the wheeze. We also do ‘Climb The Mountain’ where you’re essentially in a plank position but running your knees up towards your chest. And then there’s ‘Bunny Hops’ where we…well, we hop like a bunny (ears included), as well as ‘Joeys’ which involve us jumping from side to side, kangaroo style protecting the baby in our pouch. I’d advise you not to try to imagine me doing these things by the way as I fear that even the imagined sight could burn your eyes. But I can tell you that it’s loads of fun and you can certainly feel the benefit.

The whole thing has allowed for a little bit of father son bonding too. Me and my son both do the class and as such, we’ve both not missed one yet. We spur each other on and it’s something that we now have in common; something else to talk about other than just football! That said, as soon as the workout is over we’re off outside for a game of football as a warm-down! Old habits die hard. It’s been nice to talk aches and pains with my son though and it feels like we’ve got a little bit more in common as a result.

The days are never the same. We do a range of different exercise or it might be a variation where we do ten exercises before a break followed by the same ten after. Other times, we do twenty different exercises over the course of the half hour. No two days are ever the same though, which is definitely a good thing and it keeps an old dog like me on my toes and stops me from using boredom as any kind of excuse for missing a day.

Introducing music was for me, a bit of a nightmare. For a start, let’s just say that Joe’s musical taste doesn’t have anything in common with mine. But then, apart from the sheer trauma of listening to Dua Lipa, I found it completely off-putting. I was finding that I couldn’t hear the 5 second countdown towards the end of each exercise and believe me, I needed to be able to hear that! The relief of knowing that I only had 5 seconds to go until having a short rest was palpable. Having Joe shouting over someone like George Ezra meant that I now had nothing to cling onto!  But he’s decided not to use music every day and as such this adds a different level of variation.

Next came Fancy Dress Friday, which needless to say is not my bag! I hate dressing up simply because a lack of confidence tells me that I look an even bigger idiot when I’m dressed as a superhero or say – and this actually happened – Freddie from Scooby Doo. Joe seemed to relish the exercise even more while dressed like Spiderman though and was leaping around like never before. Meanwhile my son came down in an England top claiming to be Wayne Rooney. Safe to say that Fancy Dress Friday probably won’t catch on in our house. It doesn’t mean that we can’t still enjoy the exercise though and again, Joe’s enthusiasm is actually a little bit infectious.

The upshot of it all is that I’m more or less sure that I’m a convert to this particular form of exercise. I’m already beginning to think about how I can make it part of my day when lockdown or isolation ends and work comes calling again. Thankfully it shouldn’t prove to be too tough with modern advances in technology like the ability to have YouTube on your telly. And hopefully, as was the original idea, it’ll help myself and others to fight this virus.

Keep exercising and stay safe everybody.