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FC Cincinnati sports performance director Gary Walker says creativity key maintaining players’ mental, physical health

The coach is using a variety of methods to keep his players fit throughout the MLS training moratorium.

FC Cincinnati players have had to adapt to restrictions during the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

This isn’t exactly how director of sports performance Gary Walker envisioned celebrating his one-year anniversary with FC Cincinnati.

Since leaving Manchester United — where he previously worked for more than a decade — Walker knew there would be adjustments. He was prepared for the challenge of the MLS travel schedule, the long flights and layovers. He knew to expect the increased heat and humidity of Ohio summers.

But nothing could have prepared him for his last three weeks, as his club, the league and the world reeled from the reality of the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“This is not a nice anniversary,” Walker said. “This is something that nobody’s experienced before.”

With the league’s training moratorium extended another week, Walker is using creativity in every aspect of his day to keep his players sharp. For the coach, that challenge comes on three fronts — nutrition, fitness and mental well-being.

When FC Cincinnati is in season, players receive two of their daily meals at the team facility — breakfast before training, then lunch afterward. This allowed Walker and his staff to provide nutritional consistency to his athletes.

With players self-quarantined and many restaurants closed, Walker has to help many of his athletes learn how to properly feed themselves. He said this has been an educational experience, particularly for younger players who don’t always cook for themselves.

He’s also found that even professional athletes aren’t immune to one of the most universal challenges of the last few weeks — a lack of access to foods as crowds flock to grocery stores to stock up for self-quarantines.

Walker said he heard from several athletes who initially struggled to find basic groceries, adding another challenge to their nutrition.

On top of all this, Walker’s athletes need to take supplements — such as omega-3’s or fish oil — to boost their immune systems and make up for the sudden lack of time spent outdoors.

Amid the fear and uncertainty of the pandemic, Walker acknowledges that these details might seem unimportant. But they’re a vital part of his job of maintaining players’ health and fitness.

“There’s far more important things going on in the world right now than football, … but obviously this is our industry,” Walker said. “From the physical perspective and the technical staff’s perspective, it’s a difficult period.”

For Walker, the focus throughout the training moratorium is maintenance. He’s resigned to the fact many players will put on weight during the pandemic due to over-consuming calories and not having the proper exercise structure.

To combat this, Walker provides each player with a specially tailored training regimen, providing appropriate workloads based on their position group and injury history. The team also requires players to check in on a daily basis, providing feedback on their sleep patterns, muscle soreness and overall well-being.

FC Cincinnati players see their weeks structured the same way they were in the offseason — heavy running on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, with four days of muscle training and a recovery run on Saturday.

“It’s always going to be very hard for us to try and mimic the actual volume of what a training week looks like from a player’s perspective,” Walker said. “But we can try and mimic some other more higher intensity components because we know that we don’t need to do as much of that to maintain our fitness.”

Even muscle training comes with its own challenges. Outside of resistance bands and wobble cushions, the team doesn’t have enough strength equipment of its own to give to every player. Local stores such as Target and Walmart also ran out of this equipment in the weeks leading up to Cincinnati’s stay-at-home order.

Walker is working to find solutions, such as partnering with local gyms that are currently closed to temporarily loan weights to players. But every aspect of training currently requires creativity from the coach and his team.

In the midst of the pandemic, Walker is doing his best to find small positives in the suspension. His team has used this time to brainstorm activities that might help the club come back from the moratorium with new ideas for improvement.

One idea was to create a questionnaire asking players to list their own weaknesses and areas for improvement.

“It allows our whole technical staff to try and take more of an individual emphasis with the players,” Walker said. “It also allows the players to use this period to try and improve an aspect of something that they couldn’t otherwise have done. I think that’s probably a little bit of a better way to get engagement from the guys.”

For Walker, perhaps the greatest challenge is staying on top of the mental health of his players. Many athletes across MLS are young international athletes, living on their own and separated from their home countries and families by thousands of miles.

Although phone and video calls can help bridge this distance, Walker acknowledged that the fear sparked by the pandemic is difficult to contain.

Walker and his team check in with athletes on a daily basis. While their immediate focus is maintaining his team’s foundation of fitness, Walker said he ultimately hopes to provide complete support for his players until the team can return to the pitch.

“I know myself as an international, there’s that unknown really about what’s happening back home,” Walker said. “I think we need to be aware that some of our players are away from their families. It’s a very uncertain time and we need to provide them with the support to get through that.”

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