Winning The National Cup Trophy after COVID-19 Lockdown: 2020 Behind the Scenes

Somewhere between science in sport, sometimes a blog post sneaks in that talks about life, personal experiences and achievements. So, here it is, the story about winning The Serbian National Cup with FC Vojvodina Novi Sad after two months of lockdown.

Now that the curtain closes on twenty twenty, it would be nice to do a brief analysis. Of course, it brought us strange times and uncertainty, but there are so many positive behind it and this story is a great example. This blog post doesn’t come from the idea of individuals to brag about small achievements, but rather as a story about success during hard times such as total lockdown. Since the pandemic is not over yet, and we cannot know for sure what next year will bring, some ideas and recommendations from this blog can help coaches and players find methods and tools for adequate implementation of the training process, control of life habits and finding motivation and positive thoughts in unpleasant times.

The whole world was hit by an unimaginable fate at the beginning of the year, a pandemic that affected all aspects of life, and professional football was no exception. Regardless of previous experiences, hardly anyone could have been ready for such a scenario. The season 2019/2020 started like any other: summer preparation period, competition, winter break, winter preparation period and continuation of the competition. Everything seemed normal until the 26th round when the lockdown started. If you don’t come from the world of professional sport, you might view this as a break from physical activities (players are constantly whining about how tired they are anyway!), however it was much more than that. The huge change of all life habits and uncertainty brought with them a huge stress that could very well have affected the lives and careers of professional athletes. Believe it or not, footballers are just people (but I didn’t tell you that).

It was March, the training process was suspended, daily activities were canceled and all attention was focused on prohibition and protection measures. All facilities were soon closed, and the use of public areas and recreational activities was banned. And finally, a complete ban on movement and any physical contact. If you forbid a young professional athlete to train, move and socialize, what is left of his life? We in the Coaching Team had only a few days to react to the new situation. We virtually got together and put the cards on the table based on the information we had:

  • How long will the lockdown last – nobody knows. As coaches, you know that all planning starts with important dates in the calendar. To simplify, we are preparing for something, we are not quite sure what, what will start once, we are not quite sure when.
  • The Football Association assures the clubs that the championship will continue and come to an end.
  • There will be very little time, the schedule will be very tight, especially due to important National Teams matches. So, we have to prepare for the congested fixture and everything is forbidden. That was quite a challenge! Nobody ever told us how to prepare a team without preparing it at all. But, the same fate for everyone – fair enough.

As S&C coaches, we are used to prepare the team for the “worst-case scenario”, which was 14 matches in 7 weeks after long passive rest. We could have chosen to go easy with our players because of the stress that the new way of life brought, but we did the opposite. We tried to keep the high volume of team activities, in order to spend as much quality time as possible. This amount of competitive activities sounds bearable if you compare it with the calendar of one of the elite European leagues, but most Serbian football teams are not used to this schedule. Playing in the group stage of a European competition is extremely rare for most clubs, so during most of the season, players are used to play every 5-7 days. Therefore, jumping into 14 games in 7 weeks, for teams that have very modest rotations in the playing squad, sounded like suicide.

So what did we do? Here’s what:

  • Within 2 days we started with an unusual way of training which we managed better and better over time. The basic idea was to keep the players busy, and thus reduce psychological stress. We will impose content that will be effective, and as interesting as possible.
  • We had GPS devices, so we decided to make it the first step. The team received a program that included 4 running-based sessions during the week. During the morning, S&C coach monitored live sessions of players scattered all over the country, from big cities to the smallest places in the south of the country, with instant feedback on volume and intensities. The sessions included high intensity interval runs and tempo runs to maintain aerobic capacity, as well as accelerations and runs close to maximal velocity in order to achieve adequate power output and specific mechanical load on the body, periodized during the week.
  • Zoom app became very popular, so we included 3 online training units per week. Focus was on mobility drills, body weight circuit sessions, but also landing skills and some type of plyometrics to make an additional mechanical stress on muscles, tendons and joints.
  • The club provided each player with a professional spinning bike, so we were able to track and play with loads in watts. That meant two more activities per week, Zoom again, all together again. Brilliant.
  • We talked a lot. In the preparation of each session, there was a part of the training that was intended exclusively for communication between the players and good fun. For some of us, this was the most interesting part of the day. We wanted good work and even better fun. It seems to me that we have succeeded in that. Hundreds of phone calls and thousands of messages, even though we were isolated, seemed almost like living together. I remember falling asleep one afternoon. I had over 20 missed calls with training questions waiting for me. I was almost certain that the players tried to prank me, and if that is true, we have achieved what we wanted.
FC Vojvodina Novi Sad – Serbian Cup Winner Season 2019/2020

To summarize. the lockdown lasted 50 days, and the team did 52 sessions of various contents. It’s no secret that repairing the house roof or running up stairs in a solitaire during the 96-hour lockdown was a completely normal activity during that period.

We didn’t know what to expect upon returning to the training center. However, on the first day we were greeted by incredibly cheerful players and they were surprisingly fit! I would say with certainty that some of them I have never seen in such good body shape! The Football Association has made a decision to give up on play-off and play-out system and that the winner will be announced after the last, 30th round. This meant another 7 games in 4 weeks for the teams that reach the National Cup Final. Also, the Association decided to allow the clubs two weeks to prepare for the continuation of the competition, but without permission to play friendly matches.

This was the moment of another important decision. We were aware of the risks, but very quickly we jumped into high-intensity activities (such as sprinting) and games in a small space that involved a large amount of accelerations, decelerations and physical contact. 7 days of focus on high-intensity football specific drills, followed by 7 days of tapering (High intensity retained, with volume reduction by 50%).

‘Physical preparation will not win you a title, but it can definitely make you lose one.’

Well, everything else is history. The team showed excellent performance during all 7 matches. Although the head coach did not rotate the team much, we had zero injuries and all the players were available. The team secured entry into the finals, which meant fighting for the long-wanted trophy. FC Vojvodina met FC Partizan Belgrade (who eliminated the famous FC Red Star Belgrade in the semifinals) in the grand final on 24th June 2020, and after 120 minutes of play, the result was 2:2. Concentration or luck, doesn’t matter anymore – FC Vojvodina won the title after penalty rollercoaster.

Let me conclude. The year was difficult and unpredictable. But we in Vojvodina will not remember it as the year of the pandemic, but as the year in which the 4th trophy was won in the 106-year-long history of the club. It was the year in which The Trophy returned to Novi Sad. And to clarify, the physical preparation of our football players did not won the trophy, on the contrary, it was only a small part of the puzzle. Still, this may be a moment to use my favorite quote: ‘Physical preparation will not win you a title, but it can definitely make you lose one.’

Serbian Cup Final 2019/2020: FC Partizan – FC Vojvodina 2:2 (4:6 after penalties)

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