Recognising and responding to trauma: the role of sport in 2020 and beyond

Recognising and responding to trauma: the role of sport in 2020 and beyond

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused huge upheaval in our communities. Now the acute phase of the pandemic has passed, sport must consider not only how to return, but how to do so in a trauma-informed manner.

On Thursday 12 March, the World Health Organisation (WHO) made the assessment that given coronavirus cases had been recorded in over 100 countries, and increasingly these were not linked to international travel, COVID-19 should be characterised as a pandemic.

At this time, countries around the world were in various states of lockdown, shutting whole sectors of the economy, closing schools and instructing people to stay at home all to reduce transmission of the virus.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also had a serious impact on all aspects of sport. Major sporting events have been cancelled and grassroots sports organisations and clubs have closed. The loss of spectator revenue, sponsorship and membership fees is negatively affecting the future of the sector and in some cases the existence of professional and grassroots sport.

The impact of working from home, being furloughed, unemployment, home-schooling of children, being unable to spend time with extended family, friends and colleagues and take part in sport is yet to be fully understood. But we know many individuals have experienced fear, worry, stress and anxiety due to their changing circumstances and the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic.

These feelings are normal responses to very real or even potential threats to our livelihoods, but in the absence of resilient factors, they could cause negative adaptations – more commonly known as survival or coping mechanisms – than can have negative knock-on effects in terms of health and wellbeing both for the individual but also other family members and close friends.

For example, whilst spending more time at home will have brought some families closer together, home is not likely to be a safe place for survivors of domestic abuse. An early feature of the lockdown in the UK was a rise in calls to domestic violence charities, perhaps fuelled by increasing consumption of alcohol.

Social distancing, self-isolation and shielding may also have been used as tools of coercive and controlling behaviour by perpetrators of domestic abuse, shutting down routes to safety and support and causing significant trauma.

Women are often framed as the sole victims of domestic abuse but a new UK government bill, that has just passed the commons, will ensure that children who saw, heard or experienced the effects of domestic abuse will be treated as victims under law – a clear, positive step in recognising trauma and a powerful reminder about the hidden harm suffered by some young people.

Domestic abuse is a very severe form of trauma that can have devastating effects on individuals and families, but less visible traumas and adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) within the home environment associated with lockdown may be much more difficult to measure, understand and respond to – and other forms of trauma may not manifest immediately.

As nations now tentatively roll back lockdown measures, and we emerge from our collective enforced hibernation, what has happened behind closed doors may not always be obvious, but we may discover that individual and group behaviour has changed – and this requires sport and sports coaches to adapt.

Before our underfunded grassroots sport sector limps back out onto the pitch, sport has a moment to consider its approach to coaching and how we can ensure that we create environments that are sensitive to the needs of participants and what they may have experienced during lockdown and recognise that COVID-19 could be a cause of prolonged or extreme stress due to broken routines, stretched coping mechanisms, strained relationships, violence and loss of loved ones.

Sport has an important role to play in helping our communities recover in a post-COVID-19 world. The supportive relationships and safe environments that sport provides can help improve physical and mental health and reverse the harm from adversity and trauma resulting in lifelong benefits for individuals, families and the wider community. Research suggests that among individuals affected by trauma, team sports participation is associated with better mental health outcomes making it essential that when it is safe to return in full, sport is leveraged not just to increase physical activity levels but also to help heal individuals affected by the pandemic and other associated traumas.

Healthy Stadia is now providing sports organisations with specialist training on trauma-informed and ACE-aware sports participation. The training is designed to complement more established training on safeguarding children, young people and vulnerable adults. To find out when we’re running our next training session, please click here, or email:

Michael Viggars

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