COVID Sport Restrictions: Bubbling Up More Progress?
Billy Densham suggests COVID-19 bubbles have highlighted the importance of prioritising athlete mental health
The mental wellbeing of athletes has been pulled into sharp focus as a result of tight COVID restrictions. This could be a watershed moment where the sporting community accepts that mental health has to take more prominence in professional sport. There can be no doubt that more attention has been paid to mental wellbeing in recent years, but the COVID pandemic has forced administrators and athletes to face these problems head on.
Careful management of player wellbeing by coaches and administrators is critical and the steps taken under COVID restrictions can pave the way for the future. Resting players for mental health reasons and normalising players taking a break stops the alienation of players who are suffering. The COVID restrictions are no doubt taking a toll on athlete’s mental health, but sporting administrators can use this as a time to learn and revolutionise how we assess wellbeing in professional sport.
Here are some examples of how bubble life can change long term attitudes towards mental health.
MENTAL HEALTH BREAKS IN CRICKET
In cricket, the England men’s Test team have been in a secure bubble with regular testing since they arrived in Sri Lanka on the 3rd January. To mitigate against mental health issues from prolonged exposure to ‘bubble life’, the ECB has put in place a plan to let certain players return home at different stages during their tour of the subcontinent.
Whilst it is understood that the protocols are necessary and that players wellbeing is paramount, some pundits have criticised the selection policy. England are chasing what would be a remarkable Test series victory in India and are without some of their best players for certain test matches. While winning is the goal, mental wellbeing should always come first, especially in these challenging times. Previous coaches have explained how they regret disregarding players mental health and the administrators at England cricket are trying to do all they can to protect player welfare. This should be wholeheartedly praised, even if it is detrimental to England’s success in the short term.
For cricketers on long tours, mental health breaks may become a regular fixture. Cricket fans will just have to accept that player wellbeing is a crucial part of selection. If managing mental health becomes commonplace, it will hopefully reduce the stigma around players needing a break.
SIX NATIONS WITHDRAWALS
England’s 6 nations squad are confined to their rooms, even while inside a secure bubble in the Lensbury hotel. This is to limit the spread of the virus if it were to get into the camp. The commercial success of the 6 nations is critical as rugby administrators do not have the same economic riches that other sporting bodies possess.
The strict rules were clearly layed out prior to the tournament and some players removed themselves from their squads as they did not want to enter such a strict bubble. Italian star, Matteo Minozzi opted out of the tournament as he was “physically and mentally tired, too much so to live in a bubble for another two months”.
In the future, announcements like this may be commonplace. Hopefully athletes will not have to live in strict bubbles for too much longer but opening up about mental struggle and wellbeing can be normalised. It may not be such a surprise to see players miss training camps because they are dealing with mental health issues.
IS IT ALWAYS A PRIVILEGE TO PLAY PROFESSIONAL SPORT?
When asked about the impact of COVID restrictions, most athletes qualify any complaint with an expression that they are extremely lucky. This is a dangerous narrative. Athletes seem to have accepted that because they are still playing the sport they love at the highest level; they must not complain about the difficulties of ‘bubble life’.
We must realise that professional sport is an extremely pressured environment, regardless of COVID restrictions. While it is inevitable that sports stars become role models and this is something they must accept, we must be careful not to consider them as invincible. Many people dream of being a professional athlete, and there is a dangerous assumption that it must be an honour to be play sport for a living.
While sports stars are held up on a pedestal, hearing about their struggles with COVID restrictions is pivotal. It teaches us that professional athletes are not immune to mental health struggles and need to be managed carefully.