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Advice for summer codes delivering youth sport during COVID-19

COVID-19 has had a huge impact on this year’s winter sport season and there’s plenty the summer codes can learn from their seasonal counterparts.

Alert level restrictions have made event organisation difficult, and running community sport challenging, especially in the Auckland region.

Yet most of New Zealand’s sports codes have successfully found a way through alert levels, giving young kiwis a chance to do what they love.

Heading into the summer sport season, we’ve asked some of our community-run organisations for their insights to help the summer codes enable young people to continue to play sport and have fun.

Health and safety

Top of mind, they say, is health and safety. Creating an environment that still feels safe so kids can continue to have fun playing with their mates.

“Consider the vulnerability of all parties and have protocols and procedures in place for all things to do with your sport,” says Netball Wellington general manager Sue Geale.

Swim school CitySwim, which has more than 350 young swimmers on its books, is of a similar mindset.

“We’ve delivered the stricter health and safety protocols in a relaxed way so that tension and stress isn’t passed on to the children – it’s about keeping the sport fun,” says swim coach Tash Hind.

Have flexibility

Flexibility has been CitySwim’s biggest tool for getting through alert levels.

“Whenever there has been a change in alert levels we’ve discussed, as a team, multiple options and settle on the best compromise for all of our swimmers, allowing them the opportunity to swim without sacrificing their safety.”

It was the same at Netball Wellington, which had a total of 245 teams playing a shortened 10-12-week season.

“We started using the words ‘what about’ and ‘why not’ – by using these words we were able to open our minds to other ways of doing things.

“Sometimes it was something that had to be changed rapidly so it took courage for us to do it and trust in our staff and their skills/knowledge to make the right decisions,” says Sue.

“It was really energising and we will be taking some of this thinking and ideas into 2021.”

Plan for every scenario

Sue says it is vital pandemic plans cover every scenario, risks are identified, and steps are in place as to how they will be mitigated and who will be responsible for managing them.

“You really need to ascertain why you want to try and have your sport continue, albeit different from the norm, and what the drivers are for continuing your competitions and programmes.”

It is important if changes are made to the delivery of competitions and programmes that they are made fairly across the board, and priority isn’t given to particular grades.

Financial implications due to COVID-19 must also be considered, with thought going into whether there’s enough resources to continue and operate safely.

Clear and positive communication

No plan can come to fruition without communication to players, parents, supporters and administrators.

“Communicating the right messages to your community so they are supportive of what you’re trying to achieve and the consequences if they don’t support you is vital,” says Sue.

With more than 300 players in its junior club, Poneke Rugby Club’s Malcolm Gibbs says pushing the message to “be kind” and engaging in a positive way has been beneficial.

“When we first came out of lockdown there was a huge appreciation to be out and playing sport.

“Every weekend people have been appreciative to be out playing sport when other countries – and other parts of New Zealand – weren’t.”

The “be kind” message and clear communication has meant little frustration and anger from parents and supporters in most codes.

“Ongoing comms to our people and on social media to be kind to one another and keep safe has kept things balanced for everyone – our community has simply been thankful to be playing,” says Sue.

Show your appreciation

Thanking volunteers, coaches, teachers, administrators, parents and helpers has also been key.

“Our parents have shown so much support and encouragement, we try to thank them by taking all decisions very seriously and offering chances to make up missed lessons or provide extra opportunities wherever possible,” says Tash.

In netball circles, thanks has been a common word in all communication to clubs, schools, parents and players.

Netball NZ’s Cadbury partnership has even given the code a chance to thank people by giving out blocks of chocolates and calling them champions.

Meanwhile, the “no spectator” rule in alert level two hasn’t been easy for many.

In the swimming pool, Tash says the no spectator rule has been tough for parents, but it has enhanced the relationship and communication between coaches and swimmers.

Replace disappointment with opportunity

The cancellation of local, regional and national tournaments and rep programmes has been another hurdle for our sports organisations.

However, the likes of Netball Wellington turned it into an opportunity.

“Our replacement tournaments have been about having fun and having more players involved, and it’s given a wider group of players an opportunity they wouldn’t normally get and coaches knew it was about being inclusive.”

“We had better numbers attending than what we would have if we had done our normal rep programme and the growth in some of these players has been simply amazing, something we wouldn’t have seen if we had gone through our usual rep trial process.”

Top 10 tips for summer sports

To help summer sport successfully deliver their programmes, some of our winter codes have shared their learnings.

1 – Anticipate changes and plan options in advance. Ensure these plans can be changed quickly so your sport can continue. Make it easy to comply and people won’t mind.

2 – Communicate accurately and in a timely manner. Communicate clearly and be transparent about changes and reasons for changes. Only communicate if you have something meaningful to say.

3 – Follow Government guidelines, connect with your national or regional sporting organisations and work with other entities to stay informed, and link into their resources. You don’t have to invent the protocols.

4 – Be open to changes, be creative and flexible around what you deliver and how you deliver it. Try to provide opportunities across all grades and levels so everyone has an opportunity to play, without sacrificing safety.

5 – Keep your staff informed and part of the decision making so they remain engaged and motivated, and have the right people around you for making the difficult decisions. If you can, have extra coaches or volunteers on hand to avoid over-stressing your team.

6 – Using volunteers is wise, as they want to keep busy mentally and physically. They are there so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

7 – Keep connected and positive with players and supporters via social media and email.

8 – Health and safety of your people are paramount so whatever decision you make, keep this top of mind.

9 – Try to shelter children from the stress of COVID-19 and minimise changes to their environment.

10 – Remain positive but realistic and celebrate when you do get to play. Keep sport fun!

Image Source: NZMRL

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