Sports facilities: Back in the game

Thanks to Covid-19, indoor sports are out, and outdoor sports are in, for the autumn term. Emma Dance looks at what universities are doing to ensure their provision is fit for purpose

Universities across the country are now reopening, with staff and students all adjusting to a new, more ‘Covid-compliant’ life on campus. After all, there are few aspects of university life that haven’t been, at least in some way, affected by the pandemic, with changes to everything from the way lectures are delivered, to catering and living arrangements and, of course, extra-curricular activities – including sport.

The benefits of exercise, to both physical and mental health, are well documented. In fact, a recent study by UK Active shows that students who regularly take part in some sort of physical activity tend to feel happier, more satisfied with life, more optimistic about their future, less isolated, and are less likely to suffer from anxiety, than those who consider themselves to be “inactive”.

And when you take into account the increase in mental health issues as a result of Covid, too, it’s clear that sport is, perhaps, more important to student wellbeing than ever before.

Covid-19 has blocked-off non-essentials at universities to prove what is essential. Student wellbeing is essential. So, this is precisely the time to be supporting and directing resources to university sports clubs that can engage in outdoor activities safely in order to enhance student wellbeing – Professor David Lavallee

David Lavallee, professor of duty of care in sport at Abertay University, says, “Sports are significantly important at universities because of their wide-ranging benefits, including physical wellbeing, mental wellbeing, individual development and social and community development.

“However, many people are now asking: what is the purpose of sport in universities? In answering this question, it is a million miles away from ‘sweating the asset’ (for example, renting out sports facilities for children’s birthday parties on campus) and even further away from ‘wow factor’ facilities that, at best, now provide very limited opportunities for the advantaged who can afford it and, at worst, are vanity projects that may now prevent universities delivering their core activities in academia for students.

“Covid-19 has blocked-off non-essentials at universities to prove what is essential. Student wellbeing is essential. So, this is precisely the time to be supporting and directing resources to university sports clubs that can engage in outdoor activities safely in order to enhance student wellbeing.”

But with many sporting activities either taking place indoors (such as working out in the gym, exercise classes, badminton, squash, etc) or involving at least some physical contact, the increased risk of infection is obvious. Throw into the mix, too, the panting and sweating that comes with physical exertion and the risks become higher still.

So, in the months leading up to the start of the new term, universities have been working to find ways to continue to be able to offer students the chance to take part in a wide range of sporting activities, while still ensuring their safety.

“We have had to be agile and responsive,” says John Steele, director of sport at Loughborough University. “At least for the moment, with things like social distancing, and the guidelines from the government and all the different sporting bodies to consider, things will be different.

“We are looking at what we are doing in terms of safety, and being creative and forward-thinking about how we can use the facilities we have.

Giving a good sporting experience is very important to us here at Loughborough. Many students here don’t see sport as a secondary thing – it’s why they chose us, and they expect an experience.”

Stephen Baddeley, director of sport at the University of Bath, agrees. “As a university with a proud sporting history, we know how important it is to have a balance between sport and academics – not just for those student-athletes pursuing both careers but in maintaining a healthy lifestyle too,” he says.
“We at Team Bath are passionate about using the power of sport to positively enhance the student experience and are adapting to the new government and university guidelines to continue providing those opportunities during the 2020–21 academic year.”

Giving a good sporting experience is very important to us here at Loughborough. Many students here don’t see sport as a secondary thing – it’s why they chose us, and they expect an experience

Evidence suggests, at least for now, that the risk of contracting Covid-19 is significantly lower outside than in, so outdoor facilities will have a bigger part to play in the student sport offering than ever before.
“Our outdoor facilities have always been a significant part of our student sports offering, both competitively and recreationally,” continues Stephen.

“The SU Bath runs nearly 50 student sports clubs at the university, which means that our outdoor
400m athletics track, tennis courts and pitches – including 15 grass pitches plus all-weather, artificial and floodlit surfaces – are traditionally in regular use for training and fixtures. We also have a beach volleyball court on campus which, along with the other outdoor facilities, is available for recreational use as part of our fitness and wellbeing offering. There are several more grass pitches at The Sulis Club, which is about a mile away from campus.

“Those facilities will be particularly important during the year ahead as we adapt to social-distancing guidelines within the Sports Training Village.

“We have added new, fresh-air fitness sessions to our extensive timetable of group exercise classes (as well as a new virtual offering that is accessible by Team Bath members, including those studying remotely this year) and sports that usually train indoors, such as netball, will be utilising the outdoor space for some skills and fitness sessions before play can resume indoors.

“As with our indoor facilities at the £35m Team Bath Sports Training Village, we regularly invest in our outdoor facilities and this year have opened a new 3G artificial training pitch which will allow for year-round training, whatever the weather.

We are also upgrading the lighting on our artificial pitches and our sand-based hockey pitch is currently being completely resurfaced, with work due to be completed in time for the new student term. We are always seeking to improve our facilities and have other active feasibility studies taking place right now.”

They are taking a similar approach at Loughborough, too, as John explains. “We have got some cutting-edge outdoor facilities so we are looking at other ways that they can be used. For example, whether we can hold outdoor fitness sessions on the football pitch.

We are trying to be creative, and think about ways that we can do more activities outside as it’s far safer.
“We’re also offering a more blended approach, with an increased online offering, so students can exercise at home if they don’t want to use the facilities.

“At the moment, it’s about looking at what we have got and using it differently rather than getting new equipment or facilities.

“At the moment, when nobody really knows how things are going to work in the coming months, we are not in the position to make permanent changes.

“This is making us think very differently, and I think we will learn a lot from it.”


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