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Team Sunderland Futsal and Netball on the impact of COVID-19 and their restart plans

Futsal coach Tony Loftus and Lucy Brooks of Team Sunderland Netball told SportsByte about the effects of the pandemic on those involved in their respective sports and the exciting prospect of a return to competitive action.

Along with so many other areas of society, COVID-19 has hit sport hard – altering it, at best; halting it all together, at worst.

That’s still brought the best out of an awful lot of people, however. There have been some creative adaptations made to allow training to continue, while plans are increasingly being made for a phased restarting of more competitive play.

The return of grassroots sports from March 29 represented the first step in that process for many and Team Sunderland are aiming for a restart of their own on April 12, after the university’s Easter break.

As Loftus explained, Futsal’s nature has meant alterations in training have been required.

“With Futsal being an indoor sport, we haven’t been able to train correctly since the first lockdown in March 2020,” he said.

“We had to adapt and continue to train at the MUGA [Multi-Use Games Area] outdoors which had a massive impact on the sport and the development of the club and also individual players’ growth.

“However, the team adapted really well and continued to give their all, which was then put to a stop again in November.”

Netball have also had to work around significant limitations.

“We were last able to train on December 2. However, with England Netball’s guidance stating that only 30 people are allowed on a court at one time, some of the girls are yet to meet one another (Zoom not counting),” said Brooks.

“The last matches played by all three teams were back in the 2019/20 season which seems so long ago! We ended that season very strong, so hopefully that momentum will still be carried over when match play returns.”

The pandemic has also brought about numerous challenges to both our physical and mental health, of course. Sport being halted – or limited – at various points has been a significant contributor to those difficulties.

“When the first lockdown began, the lack of sport really impacted a lot of the squad. Some girls went from training four or five times a week, to nothing at all, and with the lack of netball facilities in the community it would be hard to keep training in a garden,” remembered Brooks.

“Regarding mental health, it has been difficult for everyone – not seeing your teammates every week and just generally being stuck at home really made things hard,” she explained.

Loftus was also in little doubt about the importance of sport on this front.

“A lot of players, coaches and spectators use sport as a support mechanism to help them deal with mental health. It just gives them the freedom to enjoy something which they love and to be involved with close friends, teammates and also family,” he said.

“No matter what the duration is – this being 30 minutes or 90 minutes – people always have a smile on their face and forget about the struggles they are facing.

“Due to COVID taking this away we have seen a massive spike in mental health. Our team are always willing to support one another with this and we have seen them come even closer and grow a special family bond during this difficult time.”

Alongside these challenges, promoting and growing the sport has also become significantly trickier.

“Due to Futsal being an indoor sport, this has massively impacted its growth and showcasing this to spectators and also to the new students at the university,” Loftus said.

“We had a massive increase in people being interested in the sport this year but COVID stopped this short. So, we are hoping that once this ends, and we can get back indoors, we can push forward once again.

“On another note, due to COVID, unfortunately the English FA removed the funding for the England International Futsal team which is a massive blow for players’ progression and targets!”

The wide-ranging impacts on sports themselves and participants have, potentially, made the value of a return to action all the more significant.

“When the world feels so chaotic and uncertain, taking that time out for yourself to exercise has such a huge impact on your mental wellbeing, for boosting your spirit and your mood, and just helping you to cope,” said Brooks.

There will also, likely, be challenges. It will inevitably take time to regain pre-lockdown fitness levels.

“Due to players being out of the sport for some time, people have not kept as active as they would have liked to. This, in turn, being a mental state and also physical,” said Loftus.

“We need to be ready for the return, use all the energy that we have and keep this as positive as possible. This means starting sessions with fun, energetic games and including fitness to help people get back to their peak fitness,” he continued.

As training again becomes possible, there is a palpable desire to make the most of whatever circumstances present themselves.

“We have already been putting plans in place to support the return of Futsal. We are fully aware that we are nowhere near the end goal of being able to train at our full potential and in the conditions in which to showcase this amazing sport,” Loftus said.

“However, our teams are all itching to get back together and push on – even if it means training on grass or again at the MUGA. The lads just want a ball at their feet and a smile on their faces.

“We are looking into plans of pushing through the full year and not breaking up at the end of term. This is to support training and team progression, and mainly to keep the team active and not to have a further break!

“We all have our pens out, are marking the calendar days off one by one, and are ready to jump onto any court or pitch that is put in front of us!”

Brooks is also looking forward to the upcoming restart, although there has still been plenty going on over recent months on the Netball front.

“Well Netball hasn’t really stopped this season! From September, when outdoor sport was allowed – we were training two groups for two hours a week,” she remembered.

“But when lockdown 2 started and when Christmas break began, coach Natalie Connor (ex England and Superleague player) set up a program of two training sessions a week to keep our mental and physical health up during lockdown. These sessions were a mix of fitness and wellbeing sessions.

“With the restrictions starting to ease now, we’re planning on returning to court on April 12 – with a full summer program planned.”

Where to find UoS Futsal, UoS Netball and Team Sunderland on social media:

Facebook: Futsal – University of Sunderland/University of Sunderland Netball/Team Sunderland at University of Sunderland

Instagram: @futsaluos/@uos_netball/@team_sunderland