28 May 2021
Youth sport and wellbeing during the COVID-19 pandemic and Movement Control Order (MCO)
Young people have expressed concern about the decrease in physical activity during the pandemic, with 42% of youth finding it difficult to exercise regularly according to UNICEF. Because a lack of physical activity can negatively impact mental and physical wellbeing – both in the short and long run – it is crucial to encourage sports and movement, even if it means exercising at home. Malaysia’s Ministry of Education launched DidikTV in February 2021, an initiative to deliver education through television, with a variety of classes held from 7 a.m. to midnight. Most days start with workouts as motivation for people to wake up to. Encouraging a balanced schedule and good eating habits ensures that children can stay healthy during this time.
Around the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the flow of life, shifting working environments, and upending “normal” routines. But perhaps one of the most overlooked yet heavily impacted demographic would be children, who have experienced school closures and disruptions in education.
Physical activity and children’s well-being
In March 2020, school closures in Malaysia due to the Movement Control Order (MCO) led to the disruption of education for five million students. One of the consequences of school closures has been decreased physical activity for children. Given the importance of physical activity for physical, emotional, and cognitive well-being of children, some experts have raised concerns regarding the short-term consequences (declines in mental health and attention span, and increases in sleep disruption) and long-term consequences (increases in child obesity, heightened risk of metabolic syndromes, and type-2 diabetes) of less exercise. Studies show that there are associations between physical and psychological health for children, with some research showing causal associations between physical activity and depression. Even young people themselves are worried about their physical wellbeing. According to a survey by UNICEF, 42% of youth find it difficult to exercise regularly, and 27% are concerned about this issue.
During such challenging times, youth sport has arguably filled the ‘exercise void’ that has emerged from this pandemic. Sports clubs around Malaysia have been leveraging technology to stay connected and deliver creative ways to exercise at home. How has the pandemic impacted youth sport, and how have youth clubs adapted? How have Malaysian children engaged in exercise at home? We shed light on three sports: swimming, soccer, and rugby.
Youth swimming: SuperSharkz Swim School
Active on social media (Facebook and Instagram), the SuperSharkz Swim School is a popular swimming school that offers lessons to people of various ages with varying skill levels, including competitive swimming for children with special needs. The school is one of the very few in Malaysia that conduct “water therapy and swimming classes for children with special needs, including autism, Down Syndrome, cerebral palsy, deaf, and mute”. They also provide training for those who wish to acquire specialized certificates. According to their Facebook page, they are not only a swim school, but a “Life school with emphasis not just on technical skills, but also on character-building and positive attitudes”, underscoring the connection between swimming and emotional wellbeing.
During the MCO, SuperSharkz Swim School conducted online exercise classes called “Family Lockdown Workouts”, with a special focus on staying active with family members. From zumba to pop dance and combat, the 30-minute exercise sessions ensured that children were staying healthy at home. They also hosted virtual swim class for the students to ensure that they would continue their swimming routine, practicing their form.
During times when the swim school was re-opened, the staff took strict COVID-19 safety measures, including the usage of face shields by the instructors, limiting class size to 4 students, and enforcing a social distancing of 1m at all times, in and out of the pool.
Children find innovative ways to adapt to indoor exercises throughout the MCO. Photo credit: SuperSharkz Swim School
Youth rugby: KL Tigers Rugby Club
The BFM Podcast interviewed Stephanie Kong, the captain of the women’s team of Kuala Lumper Tigers Rugby Club. Formed in 2014, the club has a diverse group of juniors, men, women and veterans team, totaling around 600 members. During the pandemic, the club posted video trainings via social media. While these video trainings were a way for children to stay active and maintain rugby skill at home, Stephanie also remarked that it was somewhat difficult because rugby is fundamentally a team sport.
When they resumed on-pitch training, the players would go through hand sanitization and temperature checks, and maintain social distancing both on and off pitch. Until the most recent Recovery Movement Control Order (RMCO), they were not allowed to have any contact training, which was a challenge for rugby. The club focused on skills that don’t require close physical contact, such as handling, passing and groundwork. They also creatively used tackle bags and other equipment to simulate similar skills without the contact.
The podcast also delved into the challenges of running a grassroots organization during the pandemic. Given that large fundraising events and big tournaments (e.g. KL Tigers Tens Tournament) were cancelled, they were facing financing difficulties, but remained resilient. With so many players, the club ensured to stay connected through social media – Facebook and Instagram – and communicate via messaging services like WhatsApp.
Youth soccer: Little League Soccer Malaysia
According to the host of Soccer60 podcast Andy Johnston and general manager of Little League Soccer Shazwan Wong, the post-COVID-19 environment for youth football in Malaysia will look different for everybody. Even before the MCO was put into place, the youth teams had already started their own social distancing measures, for instance conducting spaced-out-periods or instating 30-mintute-crossover-periods between young and older players.
Johnston emphasized how well everyone – both coaches and players – have taken to online training, opening our eyes to what is possible in football training. He said that online sessions are by no means a substitute to getting out of the pitch, but nonetheless allows players to do “good quality work” at home and keep their fitness levels up. Johnston said that COVID-19 has allowed people to “become creative” and “become imaginative; these are two skills that are required to play football”.
What can we learn about the future of Youth Sport?
Clubs have remained resilient throughout the pandemic, despite facing financial challenges and being unable to conduct training sessions at full capacity. Children are equally perseverant, staying active at home and developing their skillsets through online sessions. While these virtual trainings cannot fully simulate in-person sports, they open our eyes to the possibilities of technology. Digital platforms will continue to play an important role in engaging players and coaches involved in youth sport.