Why we need to connect and play more than ever this winter

The clocks going back always brings with it a change in the sporting year. In professional sport in this country it is usually a harbinger of the rugby autumn internationals and a time when we can only get our TV fix of golf and tennis from tournaments going on in warmer climes. Socially, it is certainly a time when you don’t want to be teeing off any later than 1pm and the chances for a game of outdoor tennis recede by the day.

Which is why it was particularly alarming to hear the Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) warn this week that at least a third of community indoor tennis centres in Britain are under threat and could soon close because of the restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

The LTA supports a network of 54 centres, which have already suffered huge losses because of Co-vid, and with the latest tier two and three restrictions limiting able-bodied adults to only playing with members of their household or doing one-on-one coaching sessions, the organisation’s chief executive Scott Lloyd is asking the Government for urgent funding.

Last week we at Sportside welcomed the Government’s £100 million package to support public leisure facilities while Sport England also announced a £16.5 million Return to Play Fund to support teams and clubs across the country.

But clearly more is needed and Lloyd voiced his concern, saying: “Community indoor tennis centres play a pivotal role in supporting the physical and mental health of people in their local communities, but Covid-19 has left many in a perilous position.

“The current restrictions across Britain still mean the number of people who can use these centres is significantly less than in normal circumstances and this will continue to have a huge impact on their financial viability as we move into a difficult winter.

“As it stands, a large proportion of CITCs [Community Indoor Tennis Centres] still face the very real prospect of closure, which would be catastrophic for tennis players up and down the country.

“We are calling for Government to deliver a comprehensive Sports Recovery Fund, which is needed to help protect these facilities and other venues with indoor tennis courts, which we know are facing huge challenges over the coming months.”

The chair of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport Julian Knight supported Lloyd’s comments: “Visiting my local tennis centre [in Solihull] with the LTA last Friday brought home to me the immediacy of the issue we face,” he said.

“The centre employs a number of passionate, dedicated employees who deliver a fantastic service in helping to keep the local community active through tennis – a safe and socially distant sport.

“It is imperative that we protect these vital facilities over the coming months and into 2021, as their closure would result in huge vacuums in many communities across the country and have a significant impact on the nation’s health and wellbeing.”

There is frustration in the tennis community that, having been one of the first sports to be allowed to start again after lockdown, the current restrictions have been imposed while indoor exercise classes have been allowed to carry on as before. Community Indoor Tennis Centres expect to lose over £100,000 in the coming weeks under the current restrictions, with there being no clear sign of when they will be lifted.

It is particularly galling for the sport because of the great in-roads that appeared to have been made in participation earlier this year. Court bookings between May and July were up an incredible 372 per cent from the same period last year while participation for September was seven per cent higher than in 2019.

Away from the tennis court there was more disturbing news as Sport England published its Active Lives report this week. In it, the organisation revealed that gains made getting people more active over the past few years and been almost “cancelled out” during the first seven weeks of lockdown.

The study covered the 12 months from mid-May 2019 to mid-May 2020 and the figures showed that more than 3 million people were less active between mid-March and mid-May, compared to the same period a year before.

Only 62.8 percent of adults (28.6m) were classed as active during this period, achieving 150+ minutes of activity a week and more than a quarter of adults (11.6m) were deemed inactive (with less than 30 minutes of physical activity a week).

The survey results also shined a light on the importance of organised sport and access to facilities for specific groups – and that some groups – particularly disabled people, the over 70s, people with long-term health conditions and people from BAME  communities were disproportionately impacted. Meanwhile the proportion of active 16-34-year-olds dropped by 10 per cent during lockdown.

There was an understandable growth in people walking and cycling for leisure while running and fitness classes at home were also seen to be on the increase

The report noted that the fitness sector was “quick to respond” to lockdown with “people able to switch to digital and self-led fitness classes and interval sessions.”

“As a result, numbers held up more than would have been expected,” the report concluded. “Other ways of exercising at home are reflected in the increase in generic fitness training, which includes activities such as press-ups, pull-ups and other bodyweight exercises.”

Tim Hollingsworth, Sport England CEO, said: “It is positive to see how many people turned to new activities during lockdown.

“The report also highlights the challenges this year has brought to those groups who already find it harder than most to be active, with disabled people, people with health conditions and younger people struggling, reminding us of the importance of educational settings, community leisure facilities and team sports that underpin access to activity for so many people across England.”

At Sportside we believe that sport must be available for all and, through our ‘connect and play’ philosophy we will continue to encourage people to join in and get active this winter – even if it is cold, wet and dark out there. We have never needed sport – or connection – more in our lives. Far from inhibiting sport, this pandemic can still bring about a fitter, more healthy society.

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