What happened to campus sport during Covid-19?

As restrictions ease to allow amateur sport back on campus, Maria Moxey wonders what happened to student sport and its benefits during the lockdowns.

Maria Moxey is a Teaching Fellow in Student Engagement in Higher Education at the University of Winchester

For many students, being part of a sports club alongside their studies is core to university life.

Their weekly routine revolves around Wednesday afternoons being dedicated to matches followed by the evening social, and the rest of the week is taken up with training and squeezing in lectures and assessments around their commitment to the team.

In a “normal” academic year, the student experience kick starts with Freshers’ Fair where students sign up to a large array of clubs and head to trials and welcome sessions. Before even stepping foot in their first lecture, many students will have unknowingly already made what will become their friends for life and joined groups which will define their university experience.

The role of extracurricular involvement in enhancing the student experience is well understood. Benefits range from building a sense of community, escapism from the stress of higher education assessments, as well as providing students with the opportunity for developing valuable skills such as leadership, confidence and teamwork among others.

Through the highs and lows, sport club membership offers a unique opportunity for students to form a special and lasting bond with each other and their university – a rich engagement which assists in retention, student experience and belonging.

But what has happened to campus sport during Covid-19? I am a Teaching Fellow in student engagement at the University of Winchester, where I embarked on a PhD in 2017 to research the role of campus sport in higher education through interviewing students. 2020-21 were my planned years for data collection, and I never foresaw my research would be interrupted and take a new direction due to the global pandemic.

Lockdown round 1

March 2020 saw the British University College Sport (BUCS) season come to an abrupt close. Many final year students had their swan song swept away as final matches were cancelled and league titles were decided where possible, while for others, their years’ worth of hard work went unrecognised.

For many, BUCS finals will be the highest level of sporting performance they will ever reach, and just like that, their university sports career ended without warning. With the weekly routine of training, matches, and socials being core to university life, committees turned to virtual ways of staying connected.

Teams replicated their weekly structure by holding virtual competitions, home workouts, and Wednesday night socials consisted of themed fancy dress and online quizzes. The cancellation of the notorious “Sports Tour” abroad provided the perfect opportunity for clubs to demonstrate their resilience and competitive spirit, and in their thousands raised money for charity while “running to Croatia” by logging miles ran. This online engagement proved to be a welcomed distraction from Covid-19, and an excellent way for members to still feel connected and a part of university despite having to return home.

Return to normality?

September 2020 offered a taste of normality as students returned to university (for better or worse). Concerns were growing over the impact online teaching was having on students’ learning as well as their feeling of community and overall student experience with such limited social interaction.

With an array of Covid-19 safety measures in place, sports clubs returned to some form of physical activity. While sport wasn’t in its usual format, it did provide a crucial opportunity for first years to meet other students and become integrated into the university community. Students reported that this provided a much-needed opportunity for first years and older students alike to share their struggles and make new friends.

With all sights set on a January start for the BUCS season, this had the potential to provide clubs, coaches and administrators, the best preseason to date. In fact, this delayed start to the season could have given clubs the opportunity to run recreational leagues and work on improving their offer across all levels, as opposed to being under pressure to get BUCS squads selected, kit ordered and be ready to play in the usual three-week (if you’re lucky) turnaround.

But November 2020 saw another national lockdown and a third in January since returning to university after Christmas and an end to adult sporting activities. Still, the bond has remained between sports club members, especially as it is commonplace to live with teammates. This has been a saving grace for many and has played a pivotal role in helping students to maintain a connection with their sports club, and in turn, their university.

Something as simple as knowing that there is another house of netball, rugby or frisbee students along your road, or seeing another student wearing their club hoodie in the local supermarket has played a part in providing a shared connection or sense of nostalgia over what university life once was.

More importantly, students have reported how their teammates are a support network, which is crucial for their mental wellbeing. Even when sport in its physical form has been taken away, sports club members are still reaping the emotional and psychological benefits of membership.

New in town

For first year undergrads however, their experience has been vastly different. They have not been welcomed in with the usual (for better or worse) rituals and traditions and the bonds have not formed as tight. As individuals have grown tired of online quizzes and screen time to stay connected, club committees have had to become creative with keeping members engaged and should be commended for their efforts in utilising very different skills to the roles they initially were voted in to perform.

For example, many clubs have maintained engagement through increasing community work and fundraising for charities. Many also used social media platforms and “group chats” to check in on teammates and offer support. For first years though, might the lack of physical involvement have had a detrimental effect on their transition into university life?

What’s next?

What effect will Covid-19 have on university sports clubs? Will the quirks, rituals and traditions die out having not taken place for a year? Will members have the same sense of pride and affiliation having spent a year off representing their university in the notorious BUCS leagues? Students’ and Athletic Unions nationwide now look ahead with some concerns.

Yes, sport will return, but are the numbers who have remained registered with teams high enough? Have enough first years been recruited to make up the future committee teams? Is loyalty as high and will the Wednesday evening socials that make up so much of many SUs income be the same again?

Whatever happens, it is clear that sport provides far more than physical exercise for university students, and universities must too worry about a changing place of sport on our campus due to Covid-19. Sport leads to belonging, satisfaction and retention – therefore the speed and format in which these rich engagements return should be a priority.

It’s the close-knit bond between teammates that has been pivotal during these uncertain times, and that should be celebrated by all those involved. What is more, the potential psychological, emotional, and physical benefits of sports club membership should not be underestimated.

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