By Prof Simone Fullagar / May 2020

Recovery and regeneration in community sport

Elite and community sport organisations have been hit hard by the coronavirus shut down and the recovery process presents a range of challenges going forward.

National principles have recently been circulated and guidelines developed to support planning and risk management for the resumption of sport through stepped levels (A-B-C). Acknowledging that recovery will not necessarily follow a linear trajectory, the Australian Institute of Sport has urged sport organisations to focus on educating athletes and staff, assessing the sport environment to minimise risk and adapting training schedules to accommodate social distancing. While these are crucial measures, the current pause in play also presents an opportunity to consider the broader societal context that is shaping the recovery of community sport, alongside community recovery through sport.

The transition process raises a number of ethical decisions for sport administrators with respect to safe and inclusive provision that does not exacerbate distress, discrimination or re-inscribe privilege through unconscious bias (hypermasculinity and gender stereotypes, whiteness, heteronormativity).

The economic pressures on sport are immense given the loss of revenue, sponsorship and grassroots fundraising activity. While the media spotlight has largely focused on professional sports (such as the men’s NRL) pushing to resume play, it has also revealed the vulnerabilities in the sport sector related to governance problems and business models closely tied to media broadcasting and live games.

A host of issues have arisen for the National Rugby League (NRL) with the departure of CEO Todd Greenberg, male players being fined for breaching physical distancing regulations (a further disincentive for sponsors) and public concerns about why a contact sport would be able to restart amidst a pandemic. This intense focus on the men’s NRL has overshadowed reports that a significant number of clubs will cancel their NRLW involvement next season in the absence of a more equitable and sustainable funding model for women. The NRL scenario has fuelled public debate about the tensions that characterise the management of sport in relation to community benefit, protecting players, staff and spectators from the risk of contagion and the implications of precarious business models, particularly for future investment in women’s sport.

Shifting sport patterns and contexts

At the community level with the cessation of play, we see many sport organisations facing a perfect storm of immediate impacts and longer-term threats that will require context responsive strategies from governing bodies, clubs, policy makers and sponsors to shape the recovery process.

During the shut down some sports have been able to continue (controversially, such as golf) in states that have allowed play with physical distancing. Unsurprisingly, esports are booming, bicycle sales are soaring and permitted forms of individual ‘exercise’ have offered some freedom of movement in relation to home confinement (running, surfing, along with virtual fitness, dance and yoga). The desire to exercise outdoors has presented some urban planning challenges related to the limited capacity of existing walking and cycling paths to accommodate increased use, potential user conflict and the need for community infrastructure to support alternatives to car based commuting. Being at home has also intensified risk for women in relation to male violence and coercive control, while isolation and disconnection have been associated with the rising curve of distress and mental health problems for all genders.

The recovery process for community sport will need to respond to the changing social and personal contexts of participation and volunteering; increased unemployment and inequality, reduced household spending, heightened anxieties about risk and shifting desires for physical/social contact.

In addition, there is the likelihood of altered leisure habits and digital networks emerging from home confinement. It remains to be seen whether the enthusiasm for individual exercise continues (and digitally mediated provision) when restrictions are eased.

A recent report on the impact of the pandemic on the Australian fitness industry identified that less than 10% of clients had transitioned to virtual platforms or one-on-one training. Organised sport has been grappling for some time with the issue of declining participation and the emergence of more informal and lifestyle sports — such trends could very well be exacerbated by COVID-19. As a social experiment home confinement has generated innovative responses that are connecting and organising people in different ways through digital technologies — Zoom fitness sessions, self-tracking apps as social platforms, virtual cycling tours on stationary bikes, Tik-Tok skill sessions with elite athletes and networked communities creating informal sport-care-support economies (like Surfing Mums).

There is much to be learned from this diverse engagement with digital technologies that could enhance the return of play, and also it serves as a reminder about the digital divide that creates inequities for particular groups and geographic areas.

Understanding the affective dynamics of recovery

Responding to the shifting economic, social and affective relations that are changing sport environments and cultures, will require strategy and leadership that does not assume recovery is a rational process of returning to business as usual. There are important insights to be gleaned from the diverse body of research across different fields (sociology, feminism, business, psychology, anthropology, social work etc) on the complex affective dynamics of recovery from disasters, adversity and crises. A key take away from this literature is the point that recovery is not a linear or rational process for individuals, organisations or societies. While the risk management thinking that informs sport policy guidelines and implementation practices focuses on what needs to be done, it tends to ignore the issue of how people will negotiate changing sport contexts.

The affective dimension of sport will require greater attention in research, policy and practice as the pandemic has intensified anxiety and range of emotions that are likely to have an ongoing impact in some form on participants, spectators, staff and volunteers. Contemporary management scholarship has recognised the significant role of ‘affect’ in organisations, however, this dimension remains rather neglected in sport research and policy, with a few exceptions. Profound disruption and trauma needs to be understood holistically in terms of the relationships that connect and disconnect people and sport in particular ways. While it is commonly recognised that sport is driven by passion and emotional intensity, Australian policies have not yet engaged more deeply with issues such as trauma and mental ill health compared with other countries.

As part of a stepped process, sport managers and policy makers will need to respond to the interrelated meaning of recovery that connects the management of sport and the recovery of everyday lives through sport (mental health and emotional wellbeing, connectedness, equity).

There is a growing body of research that examines the significant role of sport in community recovery from disasters, such as, the Christchurch earthquake, flooding in Queensland and international conflict zones. The recent Australian bushfires also provide many practical examples of how sport organisations supported community building and spaces for connection, emotional support, sharing experience, processing trauma through embodied movement and creating routines for adults and children. Unlike external threats that are contained events (bushfires, earthquakes) or embroiled with conflict (wars, displacement of people), sport is a potential vector for the coronavirus as an invisible threat.

Sweaty bodies move in close proximity, equipment and surfaces can transmit the virus and mass gatherings of spectators and participants are sites of contagion. COVID-19 has thoroughly entangled the future management of sport with the issues of health risk and anxiety for some time to come. As with previous epidemics, such as HIV, sport has had to improve risk management practices while also combatting the social impact of stigmatising particular groups.

Recognising the affective power of sport to both unite and divide people can enable sport professionals, volunteers, sponsors and policy makers to more closely attune to the emotional landscape of recovery in the unique circumstances of COVID-19.

In my own research on the gender norms and relations shaping women’s recovery from mental ill health, sport and physical culture were not always ‘empowering’, rather these practices and places can negatively or positively impact on wellbeing and engagement over an individual’s lifetime.

The sharp increase of calls to mental health support lines is a clear signal that sport organisations will need to respond by developing policies, upskilling staff and volunteers, and initiating strategies that foster connection and challenge the negative effects of stereotypes (gender, race, sexuality, disability etc). The mental health of coaches is also an issue requiring further attention (#lookafteryourcoach campaign) given the critical role they play in supporting participants and responding to organisational requirements, family expectations and often demanding schedules with little or no pay.

In order to contribute to mental health promotion, help-seeking and suicide prevention sport has a role to play in changing harmful norms about ‘real men’ and ‘proper women’ through developing inclusive language and recognising gender and sexual diversity.

Maintaining a focus on gender equity

Sport organisations will need to be more sensitised to issues of inclusion or risk not retaining pre-COVID-19 participation levels and hence decline. Maintaining a focus on gender equity will be crucial given the momentum that has grown around women’s participation and leadership in Australian sport over the last five years. Alarm bells are already ringing in the United Kingdom with a Sport England survey indicating that 42 per cent of women have reported a drop in physical activity levels during the pandemic.

Women and girls have contributed to growth that is vital to the survival of organised sport as participants, officials and volunteers. In recent years, male dominated sports (AFL, NRL, cricket and football) have reported substantial increases in the grassroots participation of women and girls. Mothers also exercise significant influence over their children’s future sport and leisure choices in the household budget. The issue of gender balance in sport governance and leadership is still a significant problem, although state governments that have invested in this agenda are showing positive change. In times of crisis gender equity often falls to the wayside as pressing issues are addressed in haste, yet it is at such times organisational responsesneed to include diverse voices, leadership approaches and not default to a universalised masculine world view.

The International Working Group on Women and Sport recently put out a call for action to drive positive change in response to five areas of concern for women and girls due to COVID-19; negative impacts on physical and emotional wellbeing, increased violence and poverty impacting upon safety and reducing participation, as well as a lack of equity in resource allocation, leadership opportunity and decision making structures. They identify the risk of a return to a ‘business as usual’ rebuilding process and urge a re-imagining of sport with a focus on inclusion to avoid funds being diverted into men’s competitions.

To strengthen their focus on equity, sport organisations need to move beyond a singular focus on gender to embrace a more intersectional understanding of how gender inequities intersect with ethnicity, income, sexuality, age and disability etc. For example, the racist abuse that has been directed at women and girls of Asian descent through COVID-19 is likely to further undermine their confidence in public sport spaces, and exacerbate the lower pre-epidemic participation rates of women from culturally diverse and Indigenous communities.

Australian sport has recently been confronted with ongoing issues of racism against Indigenous athletes through media and social media discussions of several documentaries about former Australian of the Year and AFL player Adam Goodes. The recovery process brings with it an opportunity to articulate the values driving sport organisations and to develop more ‘joined up’ thinking to bring different policy and research agendas into more meaningful dialogue. How can sport add value to and also benefit from deeper engagement with health/mental health, infrastructure development, ageing, parks, housing development, violence prevention, education and so on? One example that stands out in relation to Queensland is the need to connect the role of sport in the new Activate! Queensland 2019–2029 policy with the extensive work happening to prevent violence against women, children and LGBTIQ communities (in light of the tragic murder of Hannah Clarke and her children and intensification of domestic violence in the pandemic).

Practical innovations for equitable participation and wellbeing

New risk management practices that incorporate physical distancing will be more challenging for certain sports but they may also act as a catalyst for thinking about how to re-engage participants with different forms. In response to the national Sport2030 plan and state-based policies that promote the health benefits of physical activity, Australians sports have modified formats and rules to create broader opportunities for juniors (AFL AusKick), women returning after children (Soccer Mums), seniors (Cardio Tennis, Walking Netball/Football) and participants with various disAbilities.

These innovations could inform various ‘sport starter’ programmes to engage new and past participants with physical distancing designed into new formats. One of the key challenges will be funding shortfalls as the cost of membership and equipment will become an even greater barrier for participants and clubs will likely face increased costs associated. Without targeted funding to support innovative provision, there will be a risk of increasing inequalities in sport participation in relation to income, gender, ethnicity, age, sexual and gender identity.

Funding could be directed towards equitable participation to kick start non-contact sports (the move to level B), such as a relative newcomer in Australia — Pickleball — that is rapidly growing and inclusive of different genders, ages and abilities. Pickleball offers low cost opportunities to learn the sport in a social setting using communal equipment that is provided by the club and repurposed tennis courts (using specific paddles, nets, balls). Risk reduction measures would likely require players to purchase their own paddles that are quite expensive, or at the least clubs will need to limit paddle sharing with increased hygiene measures. Subsiding such costs could enable ‘quick wins’ to enable community sports to rebuild momentum and broaden their reach to realise physical and mental health benefits in an equitable way.

Renewal in recovery

This period of renewal will be crucial in terms of the processes that are used to engage key stakeholders to avoid falling into a ‘business as usual’ mode that fails to adapt to a changing world. Sport will need to embrace digital technology and consider how staff and volunteers can be upskilled and supported to harness online engagement. While the immediate operational demands of organising competitions, preparing fields and recruiting volunteers, will be time consuming, it will be vitally important to focus on rebuilding organisational culture and clarifying the values that drive organisations. Processes that seek to be inclusive of a diverse range of voices and focus on what is important to stakeholders will enable a more engaged, robust culture to emerge. Top down only strategies are likely to miss the mark in a rapidly changing world.

Attention will need to be paid to the changing social, economic and affective relations that shape sport participation and consideration given to what lessons can be learnt from the ‘hiatus’ to inform future directions via inclusive, solution-oriented processes.

There are a variety of research informed processes and frameworks that sport organisations could draw upon to refresh their organisational culture, strategy and leadership approaches. Examples include models such as, Appreciative Inquiry, that seek to generate values driven, solution focussed thinking within an organisation, or feminist leadership that seeks to transform power relations or organisational learning approaches that embrace participatory co-design. Time spent on the process of exploring what recovery means for sport will enable organisations to consider not only key risk management measures but also the role they will play a post-COVID-19 world.

Professor Simone FullagarProfessor Simone Fullagar, Professor Simone Fullagar is Chair of the Sport and Gender Equity research hub at Griffith University, Australia. She is a leading feminist researcher and educator who has published widely on matters of gender equity, social and organisational change related to sport, leisure and mental health.