Parasports in the time of Coronavirus – restart and reset on hold
Parasports in the time of Coronavirus – restart and reset on hold
Sports help us achieve a balanced life, are a driver of inclusion in society, a hobby, a way to meet people or to foster rehabilitation – the benefits of sports are endless. But then came the coronavirus pandemic and threw a monkey wrench in the best-laid plans and has brought things to a complete standstill. Well, not quite. To overcome the challenges resulting from the pandemic, sports clubs and associations had to get creative. Reinhard Schneider, Chairman of the Rehabilitation and Sports Association of People with Disabilities in North-Rhine Westphalia (BRSNW), knows about the future challenges disability sports face due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the impact on sports associations. REHACARE.com spoke to him and took stock of a pandemic year.
Such images feel as if they were a lifetime ago. Who still misses it, the smell of gyms? The feeling of doing sports together with others? Digital offerings – no matter how good – cannot replace the bio-psycho-social aspects of sport.
Mr. Schneider, the coronavirus has put a crimp in everyone’s lifestyle, especially when it comes to recreation activities. Sports clubs and their members had to get creative to keep pursuing their hobby. What is your assessment after a year of pandemic from the perspective of club and recreational sports?
Reinhard Schneider: The coronavirus pandemic has been a major challenge for all sports clubs and associations. The first lockdown in the spring of 2020 created a new and unprecedented situation for the many sports clubs in Germany and their members. Regular sports events and operations had to be canceled, requiring new alternatives to exercise, games, and sports. The sports clubs got very creative and found many ways to stay in touch with their members.
Apart from creating home training programs and routines, clubs also offered online exercise and instructive training videos. The members were inspired to keep moving and got healthy distractions in these unprecedented times even though the biopsychosocial model of sports, which plays an important role in disability sports, could not be implemented via in-person events.
After the first lockdown, many people were happy to practice sports in person at a facility again. The sports clubs made this possible by taking protective measures and developing smart strategies for hygiene compliance. Contact tracing, cleaning and disinfection protocols, social and physical distancing were just as much part of the sports activities as the hope that infection rates will go down and the curve will slowly flatten again. Because of this, the clubs had considerable additional expenditures, also in terms of staff.
During the second lockdown in early November, some sports clubs were better prepared thanks to the first lockdown and re-implemented their already tried-and-tested concepts or created additional options based on the published best practices.
Despite their valiant efforts to stay in touch with their members in a variety of ways, clubs have seen a marked decline in membership. One reason is that many members had faced financial challenges – due to implemented short-time work, for example – which forced many to cancel their membership. Once the coronavirus pandemic is behind us, clubs must develop targeted measures to court and win back lost members and get them excited about exercising in a club environment again.
Bernhard Schneider, Chairman of the Rehabilitation and Sports Association of People with Disabilities in North-Rhine Westphalia e. V.
For a while, rehabilitation programs were still ongoing, but due to the current numbers and statistics, this is no longer the case. How does this affect those who depend on this type of activity for their health?
Schneider: Rehabilitation sport is a so-called supplementary medical rehabilitation benefit as outlined in the Social Code SGB IX, the legal basis of rehabilitation in Germany, and requires a physician’s prescription. At the beginning of the pandemic, rehabilitation programs were still an option as these programs were otherwise not a separate category in the Coronavirus Infection Protection Measures Ordinances of the respective state governments. Once other sports were stopped, rehabilitation programs followed suit. As a result, the group participants could no longer work on their personal rehabilitation goals and benefit from the positive biopsychosocial aspects of rehabilitation sports.
That being said, rehabilitation programs have an added component to consider besides these aspects. As defined by the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), due to their disabilities, chronic diseases and age structure, many participants are at a high risk for a serious infection if they catch COVID-19 and thus require special protection. Especially during the second lockdown, which particularly aimed at reducing social contacts, it makes sense that a continuation of rehabilitation programs would not have helped in successfully controlling and preventing infections, given that most options are done in groups of 15 to 20 participants. Health insurance providers took measures to create alternative options, but these were difficult or even impossible to implement, depending on the type of disability. Examples include those groups that target people with learning difficulties (so-called cognitive impairments) or those with severe or multiple disabilities.
What ways did the BRSNW and other sports associations for people with disabilities find during this difficult time to keep active?
Schneider: Our first step as an association was to coordinate our efforts with the decision-makers of the State Chancellery, the Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs of North Rhine-Westphalia (MAGS) and the State Sport Federation of North Rhine-Westphalia (LSB NRW) to draw attention to the special challenges for our clubs. We regularly issued coronavirus updates that included the current requirements of the Coronavirus Infection Protection Measures Ordinances and information on available assistance.
We have also expanded our own services and included several online seminars which were very well received. Topics run the gamut from how to get involved in various parasports, the German Sports Badge for People with Disabilities to club development.
We also created online learning modules to facilitate training, continuing education and qualifications of trainers and instructors. Between the two lockdowns, we also held several in-person events to meet the pent-up demands of the clubs. The German Olympic Sports Federation (DOSB) and the German Disabled Sports Association (DBS) also created special options for license renewals to support the clubs.
We currently publish a special newsletter with tips and tricks and information to facilitate a return to sport in the clubs after the lockdown.
The clubs themselves have put out great hands-on options for their members, ranging from online lessons to online bingo events to letter-writing campaigns to support athletes.
The highlight of Tokyo 2020: That was the declared athletic goal for many athletes. Corona did not destroy this dream, but made the conditions more difficult – not only for the para-athletes.
Could this open the door to new opportunities in the future?
Schneider: Many changes that originated in response to the coronavirus pandemic have been developed with a long-term application in mind. Although this could never replace the social interaction out on the field or in the sports halls, the online services will continue to complement the broad portfolio of the BRNSW in the future. For example, communication at short notice with the clubs or within the committees and agencies can be handled via online meetings to save time and resources – especially as it pertains to volunteers. Even if the bulk of training and continuing education will remain in an in-person classroom setting, we will continue to use several blended learning modules in the future.
Do you consider 2020 and 2021 lost years from a sport’s perspective?
Schneider: Generally, we should not think of 2020 as a lost year because it brought us many new experiences. Of course, the fact that the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed and did not take place has definitely been a challenge for competitive athletes. After all, the four-year cycle marks the culmination of a multi-year preparation and high point of an athlete’s career, and both aspects had to be adjusted. It remains to be seen how the Olympic and Paralympic Games will play out this year and what impact the many training restrictions will have had on the individual athletes.
The pandemic brings new challenges to disability sports and rehabilitation: we must prepare for the fact that groups will now also include participants with impairments after getting COVID-19. It is imperative to develop concepts that indicate how we should deal with this new disease as it pertains to exercise, games, and sports activities. It also remains to be seen how people have made it through this unprecedented year and what limitations they may have suffered due to lack of exercise. This is where we are tasked with motivating and inspiring people to start exercising again and become actively involved in the BRSNW and its sports clubs and associations. That being said, playing sports together, interacting, getting fit and having fun exercising are now more important than ever!