“An eventful year that none of us saw coming!”

Eleven teams, around 250 players, and 80 employees all pursuing one goal – winning football matches. However, it is precisely this endeavour that has become something of a rarity in 2020, with very few matches taking place in the Hertha BSC academy thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. As a result of this, academy director Benjamin Weber and others in charge at the academy have been faced with the challenges of how to deal with the lack of training and matches in the best possible way. Against this is the responsibility they have towards talented youngsters who simply want to play football. “Finding the right way to deal with this situation has been the first big challenge during this time,” admits the 40-year-old Weber. We sat down with the father of two to talk over the year just gone.

Benny, I think we can all agree that 2020 was a unique year to say the least! Apart from Hertha BSC and football, what were your personal experiences of 2020?

It was an extremely unusual year for us all and we spent a lot of time dealing with the challenges that were thrown at us again and again. When I think back to the first lockdown earlier in the year when my children were suddenly doing schoolwork from home and we were all working via video conferences, it was a bit surreal then. It all changed so fast. We had been sitting in the stands at the Olympiastadion against Werder Bremen two weeks beforehand and we opened our new medical centre two days after that. Next thing you know, everything was completely shut down! When my kids were allowed back into school again in the summer, it felt like a bit of normality had returned. The fact that the situation has got so much worse again in autumn is naturally a big setback for everyone in society. All in all, it was an eventful year and we can safely say that none of us saw it coming. I think it took all of us some time to come to terms with the virus and what it means for everyone. A lot of people thought that it would all be over by the summer. I’m hoping that things get a bit more normal in 2021 again.

What effects has the pandemic had on everyday life at the Hertha academy?

One big change is that I’m unable to communicate with the coaches and players from day to day as I’m used to doing. Working with youth is a team effort and doesn’t just involve the head coach and the players, but also managers, sports scientists, assistant coaches, athletics coaches and goalkeeper coaches. In a setup like this, we need constant communication with each other to keep in the loop about the development and progression of the boys. A big part of this is the conversations we have in person with the team and the coaches, but we’ve had to have these meetings online for several months now. This works okay, but it’s nothing compared to speaking to people face to face. We’re really missing the conversations with the players and their parents about their development. It’s a different dynamic with a call and it’s been a big change to adapt to less social contact. But on the plus side, I would say that the pandemic has improved my digital skills. At the start of the year I wouldn’t have known how to set up a video conference call but now it’s the most normal thing in the world! (grins)

What were the biggest challenges you faced as academy director at the beginning of the pandemic?

At the start of lockdown, we had to deal with a few overarching questions. What exactly is happening? How are we going to deal with this situation? In terms of the academy, we have about 80 employees and 250 youngsters so the first big challenge of this knew, unfamiliar situation was finding the right way to adapt to the circumstances against the background of our responsibility towards the young players. The club was a big help in this because they communicated with us often and in a very clear way, so we were well positioned to keep people within the academy informed about all new developments. There was a lot of uncertainty right from the start so we had to think about how we could stay in touch and the best way to communicate, alongside complying with the new regulations across the board. This last question was especially important and with hindsight, we may have acted too cautiously in some areas. However, that was probably for the best as very little was known about the virus at that time and our first priority is always to protect our players and staff members.

What other new tasks did you have to get to grips with over the course of the pandemic?

Another big challenge was explaining the new rules and requirements to different age groups that apply to us all. An example of this is wearing a mask in the dressing room. It's a point that we emphasise again and again, and we can't let up on it as it protects us all. In addition to this, planning ahead has also been tricky and we’ve had to consider when we’ll be able to play again and how to keep our teams at a competitive level. If we look at our U19s A team, they’re in their final year at the academy before transitioning to the men’s game, but they’ve only played four competitive games since March. That’s hardly any playing time. Our U23s played their most recent game on 31st October in Lichtenberg. At that time, we were still hoping that we would at least be allowed to resume play in December. After all, that’s what everyone at the academy misses: competition. Fortunately we’ve been able to do an excellent job with our team and I would like to emphasise the contribution of André Henning in particular for his work in terms of preventing infections, implementing hygiene regulations, coordinating with the academy, and communicating with those in charge at the club. We've come through the pandemic in good shape so far. Health is naturally paramount in everything to do with sport. It’s all about keeping infections numbers down and making sure we all stay healthy.

You’ve mentioned the lack of playing time for players in the academy over the past few months. With eleven teams, lots of coaches, and above all players who all just want to play football, how do you keep everyone in line?

My colleagues in charge of the academy and I are delighted that we have such a good coaching team for the youth players. I emphasise the coaching team on purpose; I don’t just mean the head coaches, but also all of the leaders in charge right down to our youngest team, the U9s. All of the staff have done very well to keep the players in the loop at all times. It was tough during the first lockdown because we weren’t able to train at all and could only communicate digitally. That’s when we launched projects such as #AkademieChallenge and I have to praise our editor for that. We used these projects to introduce key topics to the individual teams. Communication and creativity are particularly important here.

Football was suspended in the spring and has been suspended again since last November. How do you keep the players and coaches occupied without the prospect of competitive football being anywhere close?

Over the past few weeks and months, we’ve been working intensively with all the coaches on individual development. Additionally, we’ve been working on an ongoing project with the DFB and the DFL as part of this individual analysis. The teams are missing competitive matches a lot though and are missing the important games against other academies, particularly with the older age groups. But the younger players development has not stopped by any means. There are a lot of ways to develop these youngsters with different training techniques, even though their regular matches have been stopped. The fitness coaches can incorporate more intensive speed training and the coaches can plan longer sessions because there’s no match to prepare for at the weekend, so there’s a variety of ways to keep the boys on their toes. We’ve been focusing on some of the things that tend to get left behind normally alongside the things that will be crucial when things get going as normal again. We’ve got numerous further and additional training courses and lectures for our coaches and staff on the agenda as well. The coaches have been going through their teams in detail and analysing the needs of individual players so that they can work on those together. All in all, we’re spending a lot more time on analysis and looking at what we can improve in the day-to-day training of each youth team in the future.

In the second part of this interview, Benjamin Weber discusses the prospect of youth football getting underway again as well as plans and aims for the year ahead. The second part will appear on 'Mach' dich Hertha' on 28th January 2021.