Resuming competitive sports in the age of COVID-19

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Firdous Ahmed Lone

The COVID-19 pandemic has confined majority of sports persons to their homes and forced them to alter daily habits including workout schedules. All individuals are facing physical, mental and behavioral consequences of COVID-19 pandemic including sports persons of all groups. Life of people has been difficult in the current lockdown because everyone has to stay safe and healthy while abiding to new norms. Strategies have been extensively executed to contain the spread of COVID-19 pandemic. These measures include social distancing, lockdown, environmental cleaning, personal protective measures and surface cleaning. Also, the adaptation of active lifestyle is highly recommended to prevent and counteract the mental and health consequences of COVID-19 pandemic.

Sedentary lifestyle has no positive effect on the immunity of individual, whereas moderate exercise is associated with improved immune system capacity and reduces risk of illness. But strenuous training and high intensity exercise bring temporary immune dysfunction and are linked with a bigger risk of acquiring illness including upper respiratory tract infections. Decreased cell-mediated immunity is described as a form of post-exercise immune depression, particularly after overtraining. Outdoor sports activities can result in the increased risk of spread of SARS-CoV-2 infection due to high ventilation rate in participants during sports competition, outdoor exercise and mass gathering in stadiums, running tracks, parks, sporting venues and recreational areas. Although people are advised to wear face masks during outdoor sports activities and do low to moderate conditioning exercises daily. But it is fact that during high intensity exercise and competitive sports demand for oxygen increases manifold and the supply of oxygen is compromised due to the use of face mask.

In resuming the competitive sports main question is how to minimize the risk of either acquiring infection or asymptomatically spreading SARS-CoV-2 infection to other players during sports competition. In the process of return to sports activities, all P.E. teacher and community coaches must ensure that their players have been sufficiently informed and follow all the guidelines and safety protocols. Besides, complete data of players should be maintained. Globally, COVID-19 pandemic situation has forced various sports federations, medical associations and government sports departments to come together and initiate fight against this unprecedented situation and develop different protocols and procedures to reduce the risk of SARS-CoV-2 infection during outdoor and competitive sports. A close observation of COVID-19 symptoms in players is highly recommended with special emphasis on personal, social and environmental hygiene and when a positive case is detected, all the guidelines and protocols should be followed strictly.

The guidelines and protocols for resuming outdoor exercises and competitive sports must be formulated with utmost care and caution. Attention must be paid on categorization of sports activities by risk associated with each. The low risk sports are those in which social distance can be maintained with sharing of no equipment. Such as cross-country running, throwing events, weight lifting, golf, alpine skiing, individual swimming and individual running events. The moderate risk sports involve close, continuous contact with protective gear, or group sports or team sport or equipment that can’t be sanitized or cleaned during play time like basketball, handball, baseball, volleyball, softball, throwball, gymnastics, swimming relays, water polo, soccer etc. The high risk sport are in which close, continuous contact with other players for example wrestling, American football, boys lacrosse, competitive cheer and dance.

The lowest risk is in exercising at home, alone or with family members, with own and sanitized equipment. Moderate risk is in exercising at public place, alone or with less than 6 family members, with own or sanitized equipment and high risk is associated with exercising in public or private place in presence of non-household members with shared equipment. Retuning to pre- COVID-19 exercise and sports activities is set to be enthralling and exciting yet challenging time as the lockdown period made majority of people familiar to sedentary lifestyle with lesser physical activity or hardly exercising. But certain number of people continued training to keep themselves fit and healthy during current pandemic. Both formerly fit and physically active individual will struggle hard to achieve their earlier fitness and performance levels when they step out for exercises in current pandemic situation. De-training causes de-conditioning of physiological systems such as musculoskeletal, cardiovascular, respiratory and neuromuscular system as well as components of fitness like power, flexibility, endurance, strength, speed and coordination.

Focus must be on gradual return of sports both recreational and competitive. Players must achieve proper level of fitness before resuming competitive sports. In this context, cooperation of coaches, trainers, P.E. teachers. psychologists, nutritionists are of utmost importance to players in order to manage all the aspects that have direct or indirect influence on safety, health and performance of players in competition. With the decrease in strength, flexibility, endurance, neuromuscular and proprioceptive control, there are higher chances of injury faced by players during transition from unprecedented lockdown period to sports specific practice and then competitive sports. Earlier and incomplete transition from lockdown period to the commencement of competitive sports will make budding players more vulnerable and result in higher number of injuries in players during competitive sports.

All players must achieve match fitness before return to competitive sports in order to minimize the risk of injury. Sports competition organizers may consider applying various strategies to boost behaviors that reduce the chances of transmission of COVID-19 infection. Therefore, the return to competitive sport must be gradual, with regular risk assessment. All the decisions related to resumption of competitive sports must be taken with careful references to government guidelines and close consultation with central, state and local public health authorities and concerned sports federations. Inclusive and in-depth protocol should be prepared for controlling the transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection and to ensure the good health conditions and top performance of players in sports competition during COVID-19 pandemic.

  • The writer is a lecturer in Education Department.

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