Getting kids off the bench and staying active during a global pandemic

woman and her daughter exercising and staying strong together
Dinah Bryant
Mon 23 Mar

It seems the smoke haze of the bushfire season was just a warm-up to a much bigger and volatile game in 2020. Millions of kids in Australia, and let’s face it worldwide, have been benched for this season… Sadly, there’s no timekeeper for this game; no one knows when the final siren will blow or what the result will be.

Around 60% of children regularly participate (at least once a week) in organised physical activity outside of school hours. It’s the time of the year where we should see hundreds of kids on netball courts, soccer fields and football ovals, but the Saturday morning hot shoe shuffle to a myriad of sports has been replaced with lazy sleep-ins. With so many busy families normally running from school to sport and spending complete weekends at sporting venues, a rest from sport isn’t necessarily a bad thing—for a week or two—but indefinitely…then it gets tricky. So how do we keep our kids fit, active and healthy—physically and mentally—during a global pandemic that has benched kids all over the world?

I’m a mum of four very active children (one whose life goal is to represent his country in swimming) ranging in ages 13 down to four. I chose not to return to work after baby number four to allow for extra-curricular activities, which are all largely sport. Like many families, we don’t have a free afternoon after school and our week comprises endless trips to swimming, netball, basketball, AFL and cheerleading. As much as I’d like to curl up in a heap some afternoons, I wouldn’t have it any other way. My kids love being active and love their sporting friendship groups (not to mention I have some fabulous sports parents I love to socialise on the sideline with!). Sport is part of their ‘normal’, so what happens when their ‘normal’ is taken away?

We live in Canberra. In the past two weeks we have seen the basketball season axed, netball postponed after only one week of grading, representative sport postponed and cancelled, our cheerleading gym forced to close and more recently all of our swimming pools shut. In addition to this schools in the ACT, as in other states, will now go pupil free.

It’s a tricky time for sporting organisations, from the elite to the grassroots. And while there was communication last week from government that some community sport may still take place, in a varied format (i.e. reducing the number of spectators, social distancing, no handshakes, and increased hygiene and sanitising); many sporting organisations made their decisions based on those of their governing or peak body. Hence, when governing sports bodies like Netball Australia or Football Federation Australia suspend all activity, the grassroots organisations that fall under their governance are forced to follow. Changes in the ferocity of the virus in the last week now make it impossible for these events to be held.

I completely understand the decisions being made by governments and sporting bodies in such unprecedented times, the health and safety of our community far outweighs a footy match, netball game or swim meet. My worry however, is the physical and mental health of kids (and parents) with so much sport cancelled. I’m already witnessing my eldest boredom eat, given he’s usually so busy. And while the thought of no school is attractive to my kids at the moment, that novelty will soon wear off (and there’s still online schooling!).

The benefits of sport for children are well documented: reduced risk of obesity; increased cardiovascular fitness; healthy growth of bones, muscles, ligaments and tendons; improved coordination and balance; improved sleep; mental health benefits, such as greater confidence and social skills; improved personal skills, including cooperation and leadership.

When we take away a weekly routine that is fun, enjoyed, healthy and stimulating, it has an impact, add to that that it’s due to a global pandemic, mental stability is invariably impacted. In fact, Lifeline has reported a spike in calls for assistance noting more than 20 per cent of all calls made to its crisis line currently are due to fears over COVID-19.

As a mum who is used to the daily rush to get four kids to school, then to sport, then homework, shower, dinner, bed, repeat…I too am feeling flat and empty. I went for a run yesterday afternoon (social distancing intact) to see if that would help…it did, a little, until I started stewing about the fact that my kids, kids across the nation, are missing out on so much physical activity at the moment. I panic about fitness levels and a return to competitive sport completely out of condition. I worry about the fun and laughter they miss with friends in their teams. It’s a stilly thing to stew about, considering we are still permitted (for now) to still go outside, unlike those in many countries who are in complete lockdown.

BUT there is a big HOWEVER…what gives me hope is the surge of activity online to help keep kids fit and active and work on specific sports skills during this time. While I am often battling to keep the kids’ screen time down, it’s those very screens that may be our saving grace over the coming weeks and months.

While many kids are feeling ripped off because their finals were approaching and are now cancelled, or they’d just got a qualifying time for a state/national event and now that’s cancelled, or their netball season was about to start but they didn’t even get to put a bib on…there is hope.

Sporting and fitness organisations (along with online education/teaching companies) all over the country are snapping up the opportunity to promote online training and fitness resources. My eldest daughter is a representative netball player; her coach is preparing an online coaching kit that will enable her to continue her training until she can move from the bench to the court. There has been talk of videoing the kids doing their home training and then sharing it with others in the team. This allows the physical activity and social interaction to continue. Likewise, a Netball Coaching Resources page on Facebook has seen a jump in traffic as it shares lots of skill-building videos for kids to try at home. Netball Australia has also announced it will partner with netball fitness organisation NETFIT to deliver live and free online netball workouts and programs to netballers. And this is happening across a broad range of sports.

For me personally, as a cheer coach, I have a closed Facebook page for my squad and will be posting little drills the kids can be working on at home. I’ll also be using online resources for swimming dryland activities for my swimmer kids that we can do in the lounge room and the backyard.

Think back 20 years ago, we wouldn’t have had the technology or capacity to do this. As the saying goes, every cloud has a silver lining and it appears the online/virtual world is the silver lining for sport during this global pandemic.

While it’s not ideal, nothing in the world is at the moment. But physical activity is so important, for our bodies and also our mind; and keeping a clear head in uncertain times is important.

Unless you’ve been placed in isolation walking the dog, going for a bike ride or a walk or run around the block are all still options (at this stage, keeping in mind our social distancing).  

Take the time to ask your local sports club what you can be doing at home to stay fit and active, they will likely respond with links to numerous online resources that can help keep your kids happy, fit and active during these difficult times…and mums and dads might find it fun to join in too.

Don’t let being benched during COVID-19 get you down…a new season will commence one day soon and there’s plenty of ways to ensure our kids are fit and healthy when that happens!