How COVID-19 is likely to impact sports in future

Coaches, athletes, federations will look for new protocols for training, competitions

sports rep collage Clockwise: A collage showing representational images from wrestling (archive), cricket (BCCI Twitter handle) and football (FIFA Twitter handle)

A month or more of staying inside your house with restrictions on your movements, and no live sporting action to follow on the TV or on the internet. No scores to check, no adrenalin surge in anticipation of a much-awaited match No spending hours post matches to discuss threadbare what went right or wrong in your WhatsApp friends group or listening to experts discussing the game. No expression of joy or agony on social media. It's been a world without any sports. Except horse racing, which continues in Australia behind closed doors despite a lockdown.

With countries across continents going into lockdown to fight the spread of COVID 19, sports, too, came to a standstill. Not used to being indoors for long, deprived of their normal training facilities and change in training schedules—it has been a challenging time for sportspersons, too.

Dealing with the long-term impact of coronavirus in midst of competitions involving several competitors is yet another challenge. Experts across sports disciplines believe it is bound to be different for each sport—from individual sports like golf or shooting to team games like cricket and football to contact sports like wrestling or kabaddi.

When sporting activities do resume—PGA Tour announced resumption on June 11 in Texas, and were one of the first sport to do so—things will be mighty different for sure. First, be ready to see sports events sans spectators—TV broadcast will be the chief source of following it live.

Coaches, top sportspersons, sports federations are all working individually and together to look for new protocols once some sense of normalcy returns and training and competitions resume.

Chandrakant Pandit, former India wicketkeeper and one of the most successful domestic coaches in India, told THE WEEK, "It will definitely be difficult once lockdown is lifted. Cricket is a team game and an outdoor one at that." Everyone involved will have to find a way which suits a paticular age group, he said. "Elite cricketers have access to solo training. It will be tougher for junior cricketers."

Pandit has just switched over from Vidarbha to Madhya Pradesh as coach, after the completion of the domestic season. He is already trying to figure out how training schedules have to be worked out for different age groups. "The senior players are mature. They can follow instructions easily. It is the younger lot that needs to be handled with care. Coaches, who have own academies, will have to split kids in groups of 2 or 3 kids each and work on them indoors for, say, 30 minutes. Another group will have to simultaneously do the outside drills like catching,” Pandit said.

“Break the trainees into small groups and maintain a 30m distance if you have a big academy. I have one academy and I have decided to take another 1-2 months once lockdown is lifted, to resume training. Let things normalise as much as possible. I simply feel coaches and support staff will have to work longer—possibly whole day, doing staggered training in groups. This way they can take care of 25-odd students."

Savio Medeira, AIFF's head of coaching education and former India coach, said only time will tell how the game will get impacted. “No one expects the fundamental game of football and how it is played, to change. But the protocols going into the game, will. You cannot come back to the game unless you are 100 per cent sure it's safe to return. You cannot do any activity without an opponent and a football. One cannot avoid that and follow social distancing while playing. But, you can be sure that everyone who comes into the match—players and officials—come without any infection. Sanitising of the dressing rooms before and after games will have to be done."

But, what if you are a wrestler or a kabaddi player or a boxer, where you need not just a training partner but physical contact is unavoidable?

"Kushti (wrestling) is such a game where you just cannot do without a training partner. How can you keep distance? The top players have their own sparring partners whom they train with, and I am sure even during lockdown they are trying to practise with them," said London Olympics bronze medallist Yogeshwar Dutt. "The problem wrestlers face now is not having access to training on the mat. When we train on mat, you must have seen 5-10 wrestlers train alongside each other. They finetune certain specific moves. You cannot change that. What is the use of washing hands after every few minutes in sports like wrestling when a bout or a competition is on? We have to touch the opponent, also try to pin him or her down. In the process, you end up touching your opponent," he said.

Dutt's advice to all wrestlers is to follow a strict physical training regime during the lockdown to ensure the body weight remains steady.

In golf, too, coaches expect certain changes. It is a solitary sport but there are certain aspects that one is bound to see changed. Said Digraj Singh, golf coach, former player and golf management guru, “Golf is an individual sport but even then, while playing, one will now have to ensure minimum 6m distance between two players or two trainees. It will be more difficult for kids who learn golf. We will have to make cricles to ensure they stay within that. But, I think, the biggest changes you might see will be in the use of caddies—it might come down. Members of golf clubs will prefer to use self-driven golf carts. It won't be that big an issue in tournaments, though."

There might even be a change in the format of the game, Singh said. "People may use only 3-5 golf clubs from now on. Why have all 140 if one doesn't use all of them at a time. You may see less clubs in the bag and a changed format."

In shooting, however, not many changes are expected. As Olympic champion Abhinav Bindra put it, "There is no contact with other human beings in any of our sport. There is usually a metre's difference between shooters in ranges. We are trained for social distancing," he summed up with a laugh.

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