How the ‘Juventus Way’ helped young Montgomery Co. soccer players during pandemic

Juventus’ Gonzalo Higuain celebrates after scoring during the Italian Cup soccer match between Juventus and Udinese, at the Allianz Stadium in Turin, Italy, Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2020. (Fabio Ferrari/LaPress via AP)

When play resumes June 20 in Italy’s Serie A, Juventus will be in first place and looking to secure its 68th league championship.

If you’re not familiar with one of the world’s most famous soccer teams, think the New York Yankees of Italian soccer. But all its glamour and success is matched with true character and commitment for the way the game is played. That’s not just limited to the team in Italy, but extends to a global network of youth clubs, including the Montgomery County, Maryland-based Juventus Academy DC Metro.

Renzo Bejarano is Juventus DC Metro’s technical director. In February, he was in Italy with some of the local club’s other coaches who were getting certification in what is known as the “Juventus Way.” With Italy becoming the next hot spot for the coronavirus pandemic, Serie A was forced to suspend its season March 9.

Bejarano and his director of coaching, Ali Khrizman, both Montgomery County natives, believe it was fortunate they were both schooled in the “Juventus Way” as they had to prepare to stay connected and help young people and their families through a time no one had ever experienced before.

“Because Juventus’ focus is on so much more than soccer, it helped us get ready for something we had no idea we would have to be ready for,” Bejarano said. “The minute schools started to shut down and restrictions were placed on activities, we were able shift how we operated as a club and become a community resource.”

The “Juventus Way” is concerned with the development of players on the field using technical and tactical ability to create a style of play. Things such as ball possession, individual initiative and collective hard work are stressed, but Juventus’ philosophy is to “grow up people before players.”

Despite having to deal with its own problems in Italy, Juventus continued to provide support to all of its affiliated youth clubs around the word. That support included access to Juventus psychological team, and that global exchange of ideas helped develop Juventus DC Metro’s plan to support its players and their families.

“We all share ideas, so we share our lesson plans,” Bejarano said. “We share videos and ways to be creative. Perhaps the best one was when our Under-16 Girls did a funny toilet paper juggling video where they would kick it off the screen to another player.”

It should be noted no toilet paper was wasted in the making of that juggling video, but the point was to make sure the kids were in a positive mental place and in an isolated world where they were still connected.

There were tie-dye parties, movie nights and assignments to watch a professional game and write an evaluation on a team or a player’s performance in that game.

Like most of the world, the club used video conferencing app Zoom to enhance its connections with a combination of agility, skills and cardio classes.

Still, even when the focus seemed to be on physical performance, the Juventus DC Metro coaches were more concerned with their players’ mental health.

“On most of these team Zoom calls, we have had a second coach watch the session,” Khrizman said. “We’re watching these players and not just their skills, but how are their facial expressions? Do they seem engaged? And, if they’re not, then we have reached out to those players and families to make sure they are OK.”

For Bejarano and Khrizman, holding regular mental health team meetings have been a part of incorporating the “Juventus Way” and to ease the apprehension and anxiety kids might have had in sharing emotions.

Finding ways to reduce stress in uncertain times might also end up being a benefit for Juventus DC Metro when they can play games again.

“During this time, because we have not been able to have team practices, we can only really focus on individual ball skills,” Khrizman said. “We have seen such an improvement in just the last month in the technical skills of our players. Once we get back on the field and are able to do the contact stuff, the tactics should be easier for our players because their ball mastery is going to be so sound.”

Next week, the Juventus Academy DC Metro begins its summer camp, with sessions limited to eight players and two coaches.

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