Having the entirety of a sports season within the confines of a 'bubble' is an unprecedented situation.
There's nobody coming in, nobody going out (unless you want to enter another week-plus quarantine) and there are a lot of limitations on what the athletes can do inside. For the most part, the constraints of the bubble were the focal points of the conversation across the three leagues that have entered them (MLS, WNBA and NBA). But for the Washington Mystics, they've found one unexpected benefit of life within the bubble.
Team bonding for the newcomers is better than ever.
This season the Mystics are welcoming several new faces to the roster. With some turnover and several opt-outs from key players, general manager and head coach Mike Thibault had to sign players with no ties to the organization just to fill out the team.
A condensed training camp and essentially no offseason preparation, one would think that getting the new players gelling with the old guard would be a tall task. In the bubble, team bonding takes care of itself.
"We do a lot of things together," newcomer Essence Carson told reporters in a Zoom meeting. "Almost everything together... We're always bonding playing games, sharing stories, learning more about each other individually as people outside of basketball. You know, lending helping hands or giving advice. Just anything you can think of. It's such a close-knit group, and it's happening so quickly that you know I've never seen it happen that quickly off the floor."
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Coming off of a WNBA championship, Washington already had a pretty tight group of players. A large contingent of them are back, but missing so many important leaders could be detrimental to the identity and culture of the team.
In the bubble, however, the players are essentially forced to interact with each other 24 hours, seven days a week. The players have to practice together, walk around campus together, eat together, and even are rooming together in the same living space.
Under normal conditions players just have to show up to the team facility for a couple of hours for practice. No shared meals. Not much hanging out as a group. Afterward, it's pretty normal to go about your own life. In the bubble though, even downtime is with teammates. Whether it's Myisha Hines-Allen creating a new Tik Tok, team Mario Kart races, or an outing at the golf course - everything is done as a team or with a pretty large chunk of it.
"You know it's funny, in a weird way I think just coming down here to Florida has sped that process up because they're all basically living together one way or the other in either in the hotel or the villas," Thibault said on the Mystics building camaraderie. "There's not a lot of other things to do, as far as you know you're not going anywhere. So, you get to know your teammates better. They've done meals together, they had a pizza night together. I think just the fact that we're here helps them get involved with their teammates more than they would have maybe in any other circumstance."
The new players noticed right away. They have been ingrained into the fabric of the team from day one. On top of Carson, a 12-year veteran, being added to the roster, Leilani Mitchell joins the team in her 11th season, former 2017 second overall pick Alaina Coates was also signed and 31-year-old Shey Peddy, who had a brief stint on the playing roster last year, was also added.
The first two, Carson and Mitchell have been around the block. Even Coates is playing on her fourth team as she enters her third year. All have glowing endorsements on how they've been welcomed.
"They made this transition here seem seamless," Carson said last week. "It's almost like we're not in a bubble, you know, with this group of young women. And that speaks a lot especially in such a short amount of time."
"I think off the court, you know, the team's been really welcoming for myself and the other new girl," Mitchell said. "You know we talked about it and how it's just like a breath of fresh air, especially Essence and I coming from the same team last year and then, you know, implementing ourselves here it's just- everyone has a positive attitude."
"Well yeah, our off the court chemistry as y'all can tell from all the Tik Toks and all those videoes and stuff, this is a great group of girls," Coates said. "I love them so much. I didn't, I didn't expect everybody to be this goofy but I'm just glad I get to be a part of it."
Bonding is great on multiple fronts for Washington. With such a weird situation playing the entire season in a bubble, the team's camaraderie is going to be imperative to help get the new players, and even the old players to an extent, up to speed.
Several teams across the league don't have the roster holes that the Mystics do. Many will be ready and be able to rely on past schemes and plays when the ball is tipped.
Bonding together is one thing, whether that translates to winning games is another. There are countless examples of teams not having a great connection in the locker room but being able to put it all together on the court.
"We do a lot of team bonding and for me, I think the best way to gain chemistry on the court is to have it off the court. You build friendships and bonds and you learn what people love to do," Peddy said. "So I think we can bring that chemistry off the court onto the court, the league better watch out for us because we're coming."
At least for the Mystics, this new, almost forced team-bonding is what they need as they navigate through a unique season. Extra bonding is only going to get this team closer to where they want to be when the season starts.
"You know, sometimes it takes a little while for people to warm up to you. But this is an amazing bunch of women, and I can't wait to see that transfer and carry over onto the court," Carson said.
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