Best footie forward: C.B.S. kids lace up in the living room for virtual soccer
Conception Bay South Soccer Association creates online league with live games and video challenges
"On your mark, get set … go!"
The coach gives the signal, and dozens of young soccer players spring into action. They dribble balls back and forth between their feet, trying to rack up as many touches as possible in the 30 seconds allowed for the drill.
Just like at any soccer practice on any field, there are some kids running their hearts out, others puttering along at their own pace. But they all look happy, engaged, and enjoying time with friends.
But this practice isn't happening on a field. The young players are all in their own homes, kicking their own soccer balls, in living rooms and backyards and unfinished basements. The coach keeps a watchful eye on a patchwork of live feeds, stacked in the now-familiar grid of a Zoom call.
Welcome to virtual soccer.
"I think it's an adjustment," said Andrew Murphy, technical director of the Conception Bay South Soccer Association, earlier this month. "Everyone just in general is more used to doing things online than they were two months ago."
To check out virtual soccer in action, watch the video below,
Pandemic pushes players off the field
Like so much of daily life, youth sports has been profoundly disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. All over the country, soccer fields are sitting empty at a time when they're usually overrun with young players. Cleats and shinguards remain hung up in the closet from the end of last season.
Sara Crowley, 14, was devastated when she realized the pandemic would likely keep her from pursuing her passion this summer.
"Personally, soccer has always been my No. 1 kind of thing," Crowley said. "It's the one thing that I'd drop anything for to practice. It puts a smile on my face even when I don't want to smile."
Murphy, a lifelong player and coach, knew the loss of an entire season would be tough on youngsters like Crowley.
"Lots of times when you're driving through C.B.S., you see a lot of kids in their Strikers gear together. Even if it's not a structured soccer practice, you see them playing on the field or at the parks," he said. "They're used to, this time of year, training a few times a week, seeing the buddies and having their competition. So having that taken away from them is definitely disheartening."
"We gotta do something"
In early spring, with physical distancing firmly in place and the pandemic threatening a lengthy shutdown, Murphy and others at the CBS Soccer Association put their heads together.
"We were saying, 'We gotta do something, like maybe we do a challenge."
Soon after, Murphy posted a video to the CBS Strikers Fan Club page on Facebook. In his living room, with his young daughter watching from the couch, Murphy demonstrated a simple drill that anyone with a ball could do at home.
"When we posted it, we got a huge, huge response from everybody." said Murphy.
Dozens of young players took up Murphy's challenge, and began posting videos of themselves. Murphy realized they were on to something, so he posted another challenge, and then another. To date there are more than 40 challenges on the Strikers Facebook page, each with scores of videos that players have posted as replies.
"You see it all," said Murphy. "There's kids in their unfinished basement, banging the ball off a cement wall. There's kids who live right next to the ocean, and they're on their back deck with the sun going down.
"And you see other kids, they're in the living room and Mom and Dad are watching TV next to them, and they're just kicking the ball off the couch. So everyone's in a different situation, but it all works."
Despite having no experience with online training, Murphy says everyone was pleasantly surprised with how well the challenges seemed to be keeping the young players active and connected to their teammates. But as the weeks went by, Murphy could tell that something was missing.
"It was great, but the only thing I noticed that was happening was, without that competition, maybe it wasn't as exciting as when you have a practice or a game, Because even in a practice, they're going up against each other."
So the association decided to take its virtual game to the next level.
Now, once a week, the young players meet for an hour-long online competition. It's not quite a traditional soccer match, but it's as close as you can get in a Zoom call.
"We split them into two teams, and they've got to do a series of seven challenges," Murphy explained. "So it could be like, how many passes off the wall can you do. They're all doing it at the same time, and then they come back and type their score in, and our officials add up the scores and they'll say, 'OK, Bayern Munich, you won Round 1.'
"And I think that's been the most exciting thing that we've done for them so far."
It feels good … but weird
James Drummond, 7, summed up the experience of learning the game of soccer through a screen.
"It feels good, but like … at the same time it feels weird."
Matthew Crowley, 9 — Sara's younger brother — elaborated, citing a complaint that any adult attending virtual meetings can relate to.
"I get frustrated a lot because a lot of times the audio is bad and the stream keeps freezing. All of that."
Despite the technical difficulties, Sara Crowley said, the virtual league has helped her keep soccer, and her teammates, in her life.
"Getting up and practising with my team, it gives me a sense of home," Crowley said. "For some people it probably is hard to find the motivation, because through these times it's not the easiest, and some people are affected by it more than others. But for me personally, it wasn't totally hard to find the motivation, and I have my mom pushing me too."
For Andrew Murphy, the goal of this season isn't to win a league championship. It's to make sure the young players don't lose out on everything they get from sports: healthy bodies, and healthy minds.
"It's going to be the real life thing that they're used to, but I think this is the best alternative that they have," Murphy said.
"Before we start, we're often talking to each other, just asking how everybody's doing.… Even silly stuff, like after the game we're doing virtual handshakes where everybody puts their hand up into the screen. It's never going to be the exact same when you're doing it virtually, but they're getting a lot of it."