Junior sports should be encouraged to return to training as coronavirus restrictions are eased

Australia World

Inevitably most of the headlines generated by the lifting of some restrictions on sporting activity have highlighted the impact on proposed start-up dates for the NRL, AFL and other professional leagues.

But the easing of limitations on outdoor gatherings has raised a vital question for local sports clubs — do you start training even if you might not play games this winter?

Victoria on Monday became the latest state to reach stage two of the Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) Framework for Rebooting Sport, which allows physical activity in groups of up to 10 with “adequate spacing”.

This notionally permits local teams to train in small groups and perform non-contact drills with the proviso that “accidental contact may occur but [there should be] no deliberate body contact drills”.

For junior sports, which face severely shortened seasons or no games at all, this provides the opportunity to get kids back on the park in reasonable numbers even before decisions about the viability of competitions are made.

While kids love to play games, there should be no shortage of socially isolated home-schooled children desperate to get back on the footy field, the netball and basketball court or to any other venue where they can exert some pent-up energy with their teammates.

Offering training sessions could allow local clubs to provide at least a fraction of value for the fees paid before the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed way back in March and which they might have to refund if there is no play.

As importantly, modified training and — when we reach stage three of the AIS plan — improvised intra-club competitions, lightning premierships or shortened league seasons will ensure kids retain a connection with their sports and continue progression with skill acquisition.

This is one way of attempting to ensure there is not a black hole in participation next season created by kids who’ve lost interest and abandoned their club or the game itself during isolation.

But while the benefits are obvious, it won’t be easy for every club to get their juniors training in the post-COVID landscape.

Despite the easing of restrictions, AFL Victoria has advised local Australian Rules clubs against authorising sanctioned training because it believes they are not yet prepared to manage protocols around shared facilities and equipment.

At some clubs there is already uncertainty about the availability of grounds booked for the season but now heavily populated by residents locked out of gymnasiums or taking casual strolls — especially given more space will be required to isolate small groups performing non-contact drills.

More volunteer coaches could be needed to supervise groups, particularly in large team sports such as Australian rules where one squad of 22 or more must be divided into three.

Typically those coaches, driven by participation goals and enjoyment, will be formulating modified drills and non-contact competition to keep kids interested; those interested only in competition and trophies might be less enthusiastic.

Some clubs may struggle to return to training

The complications for senior teams hoping to start training well before it is decided if their season will commence are even more complex.

Across semi-professional and even notionally “amateur” leagues there are many reports of football clubs of various codes that are resigned to abandoning the season believing they will be unable to cover the costs of a truncated, socially isolated season.

Sponsorship from local businesses — typically provided by pubs, restaurants, real estate agencies and other establishments hard hit by the coronavirus shutdown — has already dwindled and with crowd numbers restricted and bars and canteens closed it will be difficult to cover operating costs.

At the same time semi-professional coaches and players are seeking alternate income in jobs that might not allow time for training, particularly if there is no certainty if or when a season will recommence.

But when the green light is given, any opportunity to bring players together will have long-term benefits for those clubs who keep a connection with young players and maintain strong community ties.

It might not even be too farfetched to suggest that keeping local clubs training even without games is one way of ensuring we don’t take a step down the road toward the American model. In the US, participation typically ends the moment hopes of progressing to elite leagues end.

Meanwhile, after the latest series of announcements, professional sport is looming on the horizon, which will only increase the appetite of local clubs and players to get their own seasons started.

James Tedesco jinks in his run with the ball for the Sydney Roosters in an NRL match against the Manly Sea Eagles

James Tedesco jinks in his run with the ball for the Sydney Roosters in an NRL match against the Manly Sea Eagles

The NRL is edging closer to its planned season resumption later this month.(AAP: Steve Christo)

The NRL continues to bulldoze its way toward its once-preposterous May 28 start-up date, even with inevitable problems that will occur when you scribble your strategic plan on the back of an envelope.

The cautious Victorian Government has given AFL fans a reason to believe their footy could soon be back by granting training concessions and if other states fall into line the competition could recommence as soon as June 12.

The A-League remains hopeful of finishing its season months after it was due to end, the rudderless Rugby Australia has some sort of plan for a five-team domestic competition starting in July, while Virat Kohli will be transformed from villain to hero in Australia if he continues to champion an Indian tour next summer, even if it means enduring quarantine.

These professional competitions now seem certain to play relatively soon, even as the likely restriction on gatherings to no more than 100 people in coming months mean local sport seems some way off.

For now, there are very good reasons for community clubs to get players together when they can for a shoot around or a kick if they want to be — in every way — in good shape when grassroots sport resumes.

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