Sport is so important, to so many people with disabilities, in so many different ways. It helps with their rehabilitation, their social skills, their independence, their confidence and their sense of belonging.
If you’ve had a serious injury or major trauma in your life, then sport can become your escapism, your routine, your happy place, a place where you become physically and mentally stronger. With 70% of disabled people recently admitting they’re motivated to be active to help improve or maintain their physical mental health, it’s not hard to see the negative impact lockdown has had.
COVID-19 has presented a huge challenge for the disabled community and although sport wasn’t top of the list of concerns, the lack of regular exercise, entertainment and social interaction left a void that was impossible to fill. This was keenly felt by everyone from world class para athletes to friends who play wheelchair football once a week for fun.
Thankfully sport and physical activity facilities have started to reopen, and where it’s safe and practical to do so, people are returning to the fields, halls, courts and tracks they’ve missed so much.
From amputee football to wheelchair racing, this article takes a look at the return of disability sport and the happiness it brings to so many of us.
The brilliance of virtual boccia
Sport for those with severe disabilities has suffered the most since lockdown and while grassroots tennis, golf and football have returned, boccia has had to go virtual to survive this ‘new normal’.
Boccia is an action packed inclusive and sociable game. It can be played as a competitive game or for fun with people of all ages and abilities. Hugely enjoyable and easy to learn, the idea of the game of skill and strategy is to throw your balls closest to the ‘jack’, the white ball, to win.
Boccia can be played by people with any disability and it is ideal for those in either power or manual wheelchairs, as the main rule of the game is that players must remain seated throughout.
For these reasons, it might be the most inclusive sport on the planet and allows non-disabled and disabled players to enjoy and play together. You can imagine how many people missed it since COVID-19 cancelled all sports in the late spring.
The Bristol Boccia Club playing their favourite sport before they went virtual due to COVID-19.
When there's a will, there is a way
Despite the restrictions and difficult times we face, many disability sports clubs have been thinking of novel ways to continue to engage with their members during lockdown and the Bristol Boccia Club have been doing just that.
Since lockdown they’ve introduced weekly Zoom calls with their members to allow them to stay in touch, socialise and most importantly take about the sport they love and miss so much.
For many of the members, boccia on a Friday evening is one of the best parts of their week and the only time they can engage in activity and sport. The video calls may not be perfect but it’s a great way for the members to continue to feel part of a team.
The club also have a WhatsApp and email group where they share boccia challenges. These have proved very popular, which members attempt in their own time and then share with the group. This has become a key part of the conversation on the video calls and is a perfect example of the fun, friendly and ever so slightly competitive nature of this brilliant boccia club.
James Pink, a personal injury solicitor and a volunteer at the club has been pleasantly surprised about how successful it’s been. He said: “I wasn’t sure at first whether we would get much engagement from the members on the calls, but we actually have more people on the calls that we do each week at the club and members seem more relaxed and talkative than they do at the club."
“It really shows just how much the members enjoy speaking and socialising together. The calls have really brought out some of their personalities which you do not always see at the club. The Bristol Boccia Club is first and foremost about fun and socialising and the Zoom calls are a great way for that to continue.”
We want to thank all the disability sport teams and clubs who are going above and beyond in challenging times to show that social distancing doesn’t have to be a barrier to people being together.
The golden girl is back on track
Hannah Cockroft put all her rivals on notice when she returned to action in spectacular fashion at the British Wheelchair Athletic Association Grand Prix in Stoke Mandeville.
Despite being away from the track for months, Hannah dominated in what was only her third event back. Our ambassador beat her previous best times and setting a world record pace in all four races she competed in. Sadly the event was not sanctioned by Para Athletics so the times will not be classified as the best in world.
With this meeting being the last of a very challenging 2020 for Hannah, we caught up with her for a quick chat.
How did it feel to get back training on a track after it was put on hold because of lockdown?
I was so happy to get back on a track after being in lockdown! It was difficult to begin with, as my local tracks didn’t open as quickly as tracks in other areas so initially I was travelling around just for access, but I’m back with my club now and it’s so great to have that freedom and challenge back in every session.
How does it feel to be competing again and what has your schedule been like?
My first meet was the Loughborough Open in August. I was the only girl in the race, competing against my two training partners so it didn’t feel like a competition at all because I was left so far behind.
Seriously though, it was great practise heading into the British Championships in September. For both meets it was the first time a wheelchair race had been included, so not only was it exciting to be out on the track seeing how lockdown training had treated me, it was also exciting to see inclusion happening in usually exclusive events, especially in this crazy year.
What do you put your incredible times down to and are you frustrated that they’ll not be classed as Official World Records?
I think my times came down to just enjoying what I was doing. They say distance makes the heart grow fonder, there was no pressure, no expectations and I was just excited to get back to doing what I love.
It’s frustrating that the times won’t officially stand as World Records, but it was great to see what I could do when I was relaxed and I look forward to the opportunity to chase the times again.
What have you learnt most about yourself since lockdown?
I’ve learnt that I get bored very easily - now I understand why I keep myself so busy! But lockdown gave me the opportunity to organise myself and learn how to relax, two things that I've always been terrible at. I feel ready to get busy again now but in control of the things I do.
What is your focus on now?
My focus is all on Tokyo 2021. We’re one year to go again and I’m more excited than ever to get on the start line and recreate my World Record breaking times.
It’s great to see Hannah so positive, refreshed and fired up ahead of some of the biggest races of her career – we just hope there’s a full crowd allowed back in the stadium to cheer on our golden girl next year.
Alfie had an ace up his sleeve in the big apple
Alfie joined Hannah in
creating lockdown videos to keep positive and active during a period he describes as the most difficult of his tennis career.
The relief and joy that came from being back out on a tennis court competitively was there for all to see as Alfie smashed, lobbed and rallied his way to the men’s singles and men’s doubles wheelchair tennis finals at the US Open.
Our ambassador enjoyed a bitter-sweet weekend, losing out to Shingo Kunieda in the wheelchair singles, just 24 hours after winning the doubles title with Gordon Reid.
Hewett and Reid showed why they are the top ranked men’s doubles partnership in the world as they claimed an incredible eighth title together. The British pair saw off French pair Stephane Houdet and Nicolas Peifer 6-4, 6-1.
We spoke to Alfie who, while frustrated at what might have been, ultimately saw the weekend was as a successful one. He said: “Look, I’m still a bit gutted. My first Grand Slam since January, and I was a few points away from being a double champion.
"It’s still been an amazing week and I feel so happy just to be back on court again, especially as so many people back home still can’t play the sport they love because of the pandemic. It’s all eyes on the dirt at Roland-Garros, and I can’t wait to put my all into becoming a singles champion again.”
We’ll certainly be cheering Alfie on when the French Open begins later this month.
Amputee football is about to kick off again
Back in May we had a virtual chat with Owen Coyle Jr., the heartbeat of the England Amputee Football Association and the head coach of the England team. Back when all sport was on hold due to the Coronavirus pandemic, we spoke about their beautiful game and brighter days ahead.
You can read the article here.
As sponsors of the national league, we heard the fantastic news earlier this week that amputee football is coming back. We called Owen to check if the rumours were true and here’s what he had to say:
"Over the past five months, it’s been extremely difficult for the charity but we, like most organisations have gone online with all our delivery, with volunteers working remotely alongside the players at grassroots and international level, following the same programmes.
"Our plans for the upcoming season are to re-launch the England programme which will be from September 2020. We’ve also met with all the national league clubs and are also planning the restart of the new season. Once our adult game is back up and running successfully, we’ll be then ready to restart our junior programme.
"It’s been a real challenge, there’s no getting around it - and the restart is far from straight forward. The restart dates for some of the clubs are proving tricky and the numbers in attendance at league fixtures have to align with government guidance.
"All that really matters is that we’ll make sure every angle is covered and considered before any restart takes place. It’s been a long time, but we’re all very excited to have Amputee Football back!"
We wish Owen and the team all the best and hope as many players as possible can get back to playing as soon as it’s safe to do so.
Safety before sport
We know that many people are desperate to return to sport at all levels and many are still unable to. While the above should encourage many, it’s crucial to focus first of all on the safe return to sport for people with disabilities.
While the return to disability sport and physical activity should be encouraged, specific concerns should be covered on a case-by-case basis depending on the nature of the activity, the environment, and if the participant has any underlying health conditions.
People with a disability who’ve been inactive for some time may have reduced strength, flexibility, balance or overall fitness levels. This should be taken into account when being reintroduced back to recreational sport and physical activity.
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