COVID-19 and sports: Is it safe to play again?

Sports safety depends on a number of things, such as the amount of contact between players, the duration of the contact, and whether it’s possible to wear a mask during play.

It was difficult on athletes when COVID-19 forced sports to shut down, but at least everyone was in the same boat. Six months later, the picture is very different. Depending on where they live, what sport they play, and who they play with, some athletes are back in training. Others have to wait until spring, or longer, to play again. Some leagues have gone to great lengths to adopt safety measures, others have not.

All of this leaves parents in a bind. On one hand, COVID-19 infection remains a serious risk in many sports. On the other, athletes who can’t play miss out on the physical, emotional, and social benefits of sports.

“The surest way to keep kids safe is to keep them in bubble, but we can’t bubble our kids.”

What makes a sport more or less safe in COVID-19 pandemic?

Sports safety depends on a number of things, such as the amount of contact between players, the duration of the contact, and whether it’s possible to wear a mask during play. It helps to think of sports on a spectrum: from green (safest) to red (highest risk.) Individual sports that allow athletes to stay six to eight feet apart, like cross country running, tennis, and swimming are green. Team sports that require frequent close contact, like football and pair figure skating, have a much higher risk of COVID-19 transmission between athletes.

Low-risk sports allow for plenty of physical distance between athletes. In moderate-risk sports, athletes come close to each other for brief moments. In high-risk sports, athletes are in close contact often and for long periods.

What COVID-19 precautions should parents look for on their child’s team?

Whether your child is playing on a school or club team, be sure the organisation is taking basic precautions. Are players at least six feet apart, wearing face coverings, and washing their hands well before and after practice? Are athletes bringing their own equipment whenever possible, and is shared equipment sanitised after each use? To protect athletes, these things should be mandatory and enforced consistently.

Can athletes compete safely during COVID-19?

I worry a lot about the risks of competition. But it’s hard to tell competitive athletes they can’t compete. I think it’s possible to reach a happy medium. Competing against a small number of local teams reduces athletes’ risk of exposure. Some teams are also gathering contact information from the teams they play against. If a player on either team tests positive, they can notify other players and quickly contain a potential outbreak.

What are you telling competitive athletes who can’t play due to COVID-19?

Many of the competitive athletes I work with are worried about losing fitness during this extended downtime. No one would choose to be in this situation. But since we are, athletes can potentially enhance their performance and protect themselves from future injuries by focussing on strength and conditioning.

In Sports Medicine, we are recommending that athletes take advantage of this time. A well-balanced fitness programme can help them correct the strength and flexibility imbalances that often develop during periods of rapid growth. And of course, we remind them of the importance of adequate rest and recovery, proper sleep, and nutrition.

Making sure kids stay active

There’s been a lot of focus on organised sports and safe return to sport, but there are many other ways children can stay active.

Children need daily exercise for their physical and mental health, especially now with full or partial remote learning. It doesn’t matter if it’s an organised sport or just getting outdoors for a game of catch, there are many safe and effective ways for children to play and have fun while being physically active.

Dr Amir Neupane, an expert in Musculoskeletal Disorder and Sports Medicine, is the Managing Director of Aashas Health Care