This Is Surrey Football: Fezaan Azam
To mark the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, we spoke to Woking Tigers coach, Fezaan Azam to learn more about this period of spiritual reflection.
Fezaan explained what Ramadan means to him, what inspired him to coach as well as sharing his top tips for coaching players who are fasting. He also provides an insight into how he adapts his training sessions during the month of Ramadan.
What inspired you to start coaching?
I started playing football at a very young age and have always had a passion for it. With regards to coaching, I only started to take an interest a few years after I started playing Adult football. About 7-8 years ago I started to play/manage one of our Sunday teams just due to the fact we didn’t have a manager. I really enjoyed it and began to take an interest but as I read into it and watched various seminars. I found I was leaning more towards youth coaching. For me the thing that really stood out and influenced me with coaching was how you can improve players on and off the football pitch, this seemed a lot more effective at a youth level.
In February 2017 I helped (along with Shamraiz Akhtar and Mohammed Farooq) form the Youth setup at our local Club, Woking Tigers. Our initial aim was to do weekly sessions as there seemed to be a need for it in our local community. By week 3 we had over 100 young players turn up, so we decided to enter leagues and open an official Youth section within Woking Tigers.
So, for me the main inspiration to start coaching was based on my love for football but also to try and offer something beneficial to the local community. Once you get into it you never really want to leave, and you only realise how much you enjoy it once you stop doing it as has happened during COVID-19.
What does Ramadan mean to you?
Ramadan is a holy month and means a lot to me personally as it does for all Muslims. There are many aspects to it with the most prominent one being that we will fast through the whole month. This is one of the five pillars of Islam so it’s an obligation, for all those of us who are able to fast through the month.
For me personally, I feel like it is a chance to press the reset button. You tend to spend a lot more time in the Mosque and also with your family. Naturally in this month I will avoid over working and will try to spiritually connect. I find that it helps me realise what is truly important and gives me a lot of peace. It works differently for everyone as some people enjoy the communal side of it and others will enjoy spending some time in isolation to worship. I enjoy a mixture of it and love going down to the Mosque and seeing people but also try to spend some time alone every day to worship.
You may not believe it when you think about fasting for an entire month, but I look forward to this month all year round and feel it goes too quickly once it has finished. After the first few days your body quickly adjusts to your new eating/drinking pattern.
How would you usual celebrate Ramadan and what will you be doing this year during COVID-19?
For me the one main difference is how many people you will see. A lot of the rest of the month is the same. You would wake up for a pre-dawn meal (currently just after 4am) and then pray the morning prayer. During the day I would try to take a few trips to the Mosque for the daily prayers, read the Qur’an and listen in to some talks. You tend to try and take part in any goodness there is e.g. if someone is running a food bank you would want to go down and offer some time. For the sunset meal (currently at 8pm) I would eat at home with my family most of the time but would sometimes pop down to the Mosque and help them prepare for anyone who is breaking fast there. After that, we have an evening prayer which lasts 60-90 minutes at the Mosque. I would spend a bit of time there after the prayer just catching up with others.
A lot of the activities are still available but with COVID it is all very different. The talks which you could previously go and listen to are now online. The pre-dawn and sunset meal doesn’t take place in the Mosque at the moment as the Mosque cannot serve food. Lastly, we still have the prayer at the Mosque, usually our congregational prayer is done shoulder-to-shoulder but due to COVID restrictions we are standing one-metre apart which doesn’t quite have the same feel to it. Naturally I have seen fewer people and you aren’t having the gatherings at people’s household due to COVID restrictions.
However, we are thankful for the blessings. For a start this time last year we were in complete lockdown, the Mosque was shut, and we couldn’t see anyone. So just having the ability to pray with others, spend time in the Mosque and see some people you wouldn’t have seen last year is a huge blessing.
What would be your top tips for coaches who have players who are fasting this month?
I would tell coaches as a minimum to understand who in their squad is fasting. When it comes to youth football the players are completely reliant on the coaches to tell them what to do during a session, so you need to keep an eye out to see how they are coping. Very rarely will a child tell you they are struggling so it comes down to a coach knowing their players and ensuring they are coping okay.
You don’t always have to tailor your sessions too much as most players make the choice to play football during Ramadan whilst knowing it will potentially be difficult. It tends to come down to how many players are fasting in the squad and what their capabilities are to train whilst fasting. It's probably not the best time to pull out your yearly fitness or bleep tests but other than that most things are okay.
The main reason I mentioned knowing who is fasting in the squad is not to give those players special treatment but to understand why you may see a drop in energy or performance levels. This will stop you from pushing a player too hard who probably cannot match his usual energy levels. As with anything in coaching it ultimately comes down to how well you know your players so that you can understand what they may or may not struggle with. If unsure the best thing to do is talk to the player or the parent if it is a young player as they can always help you understand what’s best.
Would you typically adapt your sessions during Ramadan to support your players?
As our Islamic calendar is different Ramadan comes forward by approximately 10 days each year. It will now be right in the football season for years to come. This year we decided not to start playing again until after Ramadan as the second week back would have been the start of Ramadan. With the players and coaches already being inactive for so long we didn’t think it was ideal to play again until after. However, normally we would play through the month of Ramadan.
I personally adapt my sessions a lot during Ramadan as we tend to have squads where a lot of the players will be fasting but as said earlier this isn’t always necessary. For the youngest kids who aren’t fasting it is life as normal for them and it tends to be the Coach who is trying to give himself an easier session.
For those who are fasting, I would remove any sprints and big blocks of fitness. The session would mostly be around ball work. Any running will be kept light and just try to work wherever we can on keeping a football involved and not pushing the intensity too high. Another thing to keep an eye on is the weather, when it is hot, I would normally move the session time to slightly later so that it’s a bit cooler and we don’t put anyone at risk. I also don’t enforce anything on players understanding that everyone copes with fasting differently and some might need to sit out exercises to take breaks.
What would you say are the main challenges of playing football while fasting?
From when I was playing the main challenge whilst fasting is as a player we don’t tend to know when our body has had enough until it’s too late. You don’t always factor in heat and even how long you have left in the day after your game. Therefore coaches need to keep an eye on players to see if they pick up on anything.
As a child I played in a team where only two of us were fasting, so it was relatively easy for the coaches to manage. They could utilise roll-on roll-off subs and when the energy levels of two players dropped it's maybe not so bad.
As a player what becomes difficult is seeing your own energy/performance levels drop. Naturally, anyone playing football is competitive and a lot of the time you must manage your game and understand what works best for you. This is a lot easier in training but where it comes to competitive games you tend to overdo it occasionally and leave yourself tired for the rest of the day.
A few years ago, 7-8 of us entered a summer football tournament whilst all of us were fasting. We started well and felt fine in the first few games, plating these games at our usual intensity. As we got to the second half of the group games we were struggling and making subs every minute and by the final game we were probably playing at a walking pace and we're happy to be going home. Despite it being such a hot day, we didn’t manage our game or realise just how draining it would be on us, they tend to be long days even when you aren’t fasting. Needless to say, entering a football tournament in the middle of summer whilst fasting isn’t the smartest move!
Personally, I will carry on coaching through Ramadan in a normal season and I know most players will continue to play. We want to be able to carry on with sport but it is just a case of acknowledging that performance and energy levels will drop and accepting that.