Returning to the sports field as the coronavirus pandemic lingers on has become extraordinarily complex, depending on who you are and where you live. Decisions must be data-driven and specific, as change continues rapidly. Before an athlete S.A.F.E.(ly) returns to play, there are five basic criteria that must be met:
1. Assessment. When possible, screening and testing of all team members and staff must be a priority. This includes testing for fever and other COVID-19 symptoms. Take folks’ temperatures at the field or on the court.
2. Maintain social distancing. Players and staff should always try to stay 6 feet apart, but the type of sport and environment must be considered when implementing safe and effective social distancing strategies.
3. Traveling concerns. Be careful with people who are traveling in or out of town, and be aware of new people coming and going.
4. Face covering. COVID-19 spreads as an aerosol. There is great evidence that wearing a mask makes a difference.
5. Your hands. Wash them frequently — and no high-fives!
With many youth, collegiate and professional sports teams navigating their way back to some form of training for an eventual return-to-play, safety is crucial. A few months “off” from many types of athletic activities can wreak havoc on the body and lead to injury if players jump back in too quickly or without enough preparation. The good news is that there are plenty of S.A.F.E. ways to get back in the game.
Slowly. I know it may seem like a couple months off from a regular sports-training schedule isn’t a long enough time to do any damage, but I assure you, it can be. Especially for athletes who took time “off” during the pandemic and took a break from cardio or other endurance activities, easing back into the rigors of a training schedule is imperative. Take it slow. When starting, don’t max out your body to fatigue while exercising. Instead, gradually increase training time and intervals so that getting back to baseline is methodical and progressive, versus haphazard and all at once. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither was an athlete’s incredible level of conditioning.
Adequately. While a slow and steady approach to training is crucial, so is an adequate total-body focus. In a race to get a season in — no matter how compressed — don’t sacrifice your body for the game. Spot-treating doesn’t create phenomenal athletes. It creates athletes who are far more prone to unnecessary injury because they haven’t taken a total-body approach to train for their sport. Adequate training after time off is a significant factor in reducing the risk of injury. Give your body the time it deserves to get back in the game properly with a focus on total-body fitness and mechanics.
Flexibly. You’d be surprised how rapidly stiffness can set in when an otherwise consistent athlete takes time off from training — yes, even in just a few weeks. As a physician who specializes in the treatment of knee injuries, I can tell you that our body’s joints bear the brunt of muscle inflexibility. I’ve spent my entire career educating countless amateur and professional athletes — from female volleyball players to professional football players — on ACL injury prevention protocols that focus on strengthening the muscles surrounding the knees. So whether you’re a weekend warrior or professional athlete, ease your back into an adequate training schedule and include exercises that focus on restoring and promoting total body flexibility.
Enthusiastically. This last bit of advice is more mental than physical, but it still matters. Maybe the new training protocols in your state or county will make your athletic endeavors a bit foreign at first. Maybe getting back into the game is just a shadow of what you previously knew it to be. Don’t let that get you down. Change is inevitable in life, and those who adapt well to it are the champions. Use this time to focus on your craft with enthusiasm and intention.
With much in flux regarding athletics in a world ravaged by the COVID-19 pandemic, look for ways to change up your routine for the better. Are there new exercises or approaches to honing your skills that you’d like to try? Now might be the perfect time to implement them. Though we’ve been involuntarily forced to reevaluate the way we do just about everything today, athletics could be one area where changes are for the better. So embrace such opportunities with enthusiasm.
Of course, a S.A.F.E. return to sports is only as robust a plan as other health and wellness protocols we should already be engaging in. If the pandemic has taught us nothing else, proper and adequate handwashing is the most formidable defense for an athlete against infection. Additionally, adequate hydration, nutrition and rest are essential illness-fighters and great athlete-makers. Don’t skimp on these foundational building blocks of performance. And don’t shortcut wellness — especially when trying to get back to playing like a champion.
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