Mental health experts say get creative to maintain the health benefits of group sport during COVID-19

The impact on mental health of cancelling group sport can sometimes be overlooked. Photo: Shutterstock
The impact on mental health of cancelling group sport can sometimes be overlooked. Photo: Shutterstock

As community sporting groups are forced to cancel competitions across the country due to COVID-19, health experts are encouraging people to explore creative ways to maintain the mental health benefits team sports offer.

Many of the nation's group sports leagues had intended to salvage their seasons, however, challenges around social distancing restrictions, sponsor losses and inadequate volunteer numbers to implement COVID-19 safety protocols, have contributed to the cancelling of the 2020 season for many regional associations.

But it is feared this could have wider reaching implications than just affecting exercise and fitness levels, with the loss of mental health benefits from interacting with a team sometimes overlooked.

Beyond Blue lead clinical advisor Dr Grant Blashki said human connection was an important factor in maintaining good mental health. For some, team sports provided a support network they might not get elsewhere.

"We know there are lots of benefits of sport and exercise for mental health - there's all the benefits of the actual exercise, which is good for depression, anxiety and for managing stress," Dr Blashki said.

"There's also all the social connection, which helps you keep a routine and learn a lot of life lessons from group sports, like teamwork, leadership and dealing with setbacks.

"So in this time, where we're limited by the social distancing requirements, I think we have to be a little more creative and look for other ways we can still get that sense of connection with our teammates and still get the benefits of exercise."

Putting new routines in place, such as regular virtual catch-ups, or socially distanced get-togethers in a green space, are just some ways Dr Blashki said could help with the disruption and support mental health.

"Try to build in a little bit of that routine that we would usually get from sport, if you were spectators at the footy or you play, you're missing out on that connection. So on the night that was supposed to be training have a zoom call or have a socially-distanced catch up once a week, so you can maintain those connections.

"What I say to a lot of people is if you're isolated, try and make a routine to catch up. So, [if training used to be on a Tuesday night] Tuesday night is going to automatically be catch-up night with your friends," Dr Blashki said.

"There's no reason you can't stay in touch online, through Facebook groups, and online comps or virtual sporting comps, so you can still have a sense of connection with those teammates."

Dr Blashki said some clubs were embracing virtual training, where the team all got online at the same time and worked out together. While it was something they could do it their own time, Dr Blashki said the point was they could see each other and maintain a sense of connection to the team.

Other groups, like regional AFL club Rokewood-Corindhap, embraced social media and an unwavering sense of humour to keep up connections with their teammates.

A tongue-in-cheek video the club made during lockdown about ways to keep fit around the farm went viral.

While some people might have zoom fatigue and are sick of looking at faces through a screen, the alternative of not making time for those social connections could have negative effects on mental health.

"It's not perfect, but we're lucky we have the technology at the moment, so we can maintain a strong sense of connection," Dr Blashki said.

"All the studies have shown us that social connections really does contribute to mental wellbeing and I think this pandemic has really reminded us how much we do need that everyday connection.

"I think the message for people with sport is, we love it, people will get back out there, this is temporary, but in the meantime, we are going to have to be a bit creative about it."

For more information and advice concerning mental health and wellbeing is available on the Beyond Blue website at www.beyondblue.org.au

The government is also encouraging people to maintain their health and wellbeing during the pandemic with the Find Your 30 campaign, which encourages people to find practical ways to do 30 minutes of physical activity daily to help build a healthier lifestyle.

If you need assistance, please contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636