Covid-19 and School Sport

What impact has Covid-19 had on school sport and what positives can come from the last year? – by Louis Corbin O’Grady.

Even though 2020 seems like it has lasted a decade, there now seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel. Covid-19 has had a huge impact on school sport and as the year draws to a close, it seems appropriate to reflect upon the year gone by and identify some of the silver-linings that this very heavily clouded year has shown us.

I have written the below in regards to my perspective of how Covid-19 has affected the schools which I have been working in. These have both been independent schools, one in Somerset and one in London, and I am aware that situations have been different in every school in the country, these reflections are simply of my experiences over 2020. 

Looking back what feels like a lifetime to the start of the first lockdown in March, when my school closed and all of the pupils disappeared for Easter, I was sure that I would see them again before the summer holidays. As time went on, this was clearly never going to be possible. Going from a summer with hundreds of scheduled cricket fixtures and some exciting teams in the school, to only managing to play one internal school fixture in July, was quite a shock for everyone. Although I do very much look back at this term as lost time, there were still some positives to come out of it. One of those positives would be the creation and sharing of online coaching resources and videos. This is now something that is a part of almost every PE Dept in the country and something which I’m sure will continue to grow. Secondly, I think the forced time away helped to show pupils, parents and teachers just how much we need our sport and left us all feeling very grateful when were allowed to play again. 

As we then moved into September 2020 and with schools reopening, we were able to feel something nearing normality, albeit with strict Covid-19 protocols enforced. These protocols forced us to think and plan differently for the term ahead. Some fantastic new innovations and ideas have come out of this and a real positive was the increased communications between Sport Depts all over the country, with ideas being shared and debated, allowing them to be streamlined. With the limitations around Rugby, many schools introduced cricket or athletics into the programme, something that would not have been so widespread without the pandemic. Generally speaking, it seems that those who were able to offer some cricket in September this year, will now look to offer cricket again in years to come. This may relieve pressure from the on-going battle between cricket and exams and, if Rugby starts in October, may help to prevent the high injury rates that occur on the harder September ground. This may not be how many schools proceed, but shows the start of an epistemological shift away from all schools feeling the need to adhere to traditional independent school sporting programmes. 

Without fixtures, the fear across the country was that we’d have a large drop off in student engagement and motivation, however, from a Hockey point of view, the opposite could not have been truer in our school. We are very fortunate in our school that we are able to access students on Saturdays, before school and After School training sessions, and no fixtures midweek or on Saturdays allowed us to roll out these extra sessions in addition to our normal Games sessions, offering provision for all students to be able to train 3 times a week if they wanted. We were very fortunate to be able to do this due to our facilities and access to the pupils, and I appreciate how lucky we were in being able to do this. What we found is that many of the students who might have, in a normal term, been ‘Non-Squad’ players chose to attend optional After School or Saturday training sessions and have improved drastically as a result, when they might not previously have had the chance to. Therefore, the aim of this term was not to win fixtures, but instead to focus on the holistic development of the pupil’s core attributes. The positive impact that this had was clear to see, as we attracted record attendance for our ‘optional’ clubs. Although an increase in numbers, and especially beginners, is a really positive aspect to come out of this term, it did at times make it more challenging to really stretch the more able. Ways in which we managed this was through encouraging as many as possible to go and play competitive club hockey, and through structuring training sessions to include more time for development of more advanced skills.  

Rugby was much more difficult this term than Hockey or Football, due to difference in the guidelines from the RFU, FA and England Hockey. Hockey and Football present a very low risk because no one is touching the ball, and every interaction is not face to face and less than 3 seconds and therefore considered ‘fleeting’ and low risk, compared to the rucks, scrums, lineouts and general contact of Rugby. Consequently, our Rugby programme ran during the first half of term, before then changing to us offering Football in the second half of term due to the much more lenient guidelines issued by the FA. Our Football programme has been less structured than it would usually be in the ‘normal’ Football term, to allow students the time to engage in lots of relaxed match play before training becomes more intense after Christmas. 

Ultimately, Covid-19 has had a big impact on sport in our school, some negative and some positive. As a community of Sports and PE teachers, it has forced us to overcome the mammoth issues created by adapting, innovating and sharing of ideas through increased communication and scrutiny of traditional and novel practices. It has deprived some pupils a year of competitive fixtures, but for some, it has provided them a full season to develop without pressure, and at their own rate. It has forced people to find new and inventive ways to train, and also resulted in the creation and sharing of online learning resources. It’s reinforced how grateful and privileged we are to be able to engage in sport as we are used to. For many students it’s also created a strong link between sport and fitness aiding their mental and physical well-being. Lastly, and most excitingly for me, it has forced us to question the status quo of our traditional PE and Games programmes and scrutinise our best practices moving forward. I’m certainly not suggesting that everything should and needs to change, but it’s exciting to be able to see the paradoxical shift from religiously sticking to traditions, to the new lens of constant reviewing of our current provisions and sharing of ideas within the worldwide sporting community. 

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This article was written by Louis Gorbin O’Grady, current Head of Hockey at St Dunstan’s College. Louis has previously written pieces on school sport for The Independent Coach Education and PADSIS. Please do get in touch with Louis or I if you’d like to share your experiences with the topics discussed in this piece.

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