Notwithstanding the fact that collaboration, communication and co-operation have been crucial components in the response to the Covid-19 pandemic fault lines have emerged both nationally and internationally with critical reappraisals, protests, demonstrations and legal challenges taking place against various governmental responses.  In Ireland it was notable that members of the economic and business communities began to query the wisdom of medics only making decisions that impacted so severely on business activity and now it is notable that some voices from the world of sport – in particular the GAA – are offering opinions publically about matters such as field closures and the possibility of teams returning to action.

The sport predicament is interesting for linguistic reasons as much as for practical reasons in the sense that the words play, sport and game get used interchangeably in a manner that can lead to confusion and/or misunderstanding. For example, what is play, what is sport, what is a game? Do we play a sport or do we play a game? Or do we play both? Can we play a sport, and in particular a team sport, without playing a game? And if so can we do so responsibly and safely while ensuring social distancing? The answers to these questions may provide an exit strategy for the current predicament for athletes, teams, coaches, managers, governing bodies and indeed society.


To quote none other than Humpty Dumpty from Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll “when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.” In the modern era the words play, sport and game are prime examples of words with different chosen meanings for different people so in an attempt to address issues around sporting activity in the current Covid era perhaps it might be helpful if we revisited and reappraised our use of these key terms and went back to basics with regard to definitions, practices and perhaps even etymology.

When we use the term playing sport we traditionally refer to taking part in sport e.g. I play tennis. In the Covid era however we may wish to at least consider another definition of play which is equally applicable in a sport setting and possibly closer to the true definition of play i.e. to engage in activity for enjoyment and recreation rather than a serious or practical purpose (source: Oxford Dictionary). In fact as things stand we might have to do more than merely consider this approach if we are to insist on not returning to contact sport until a vaccine is found, if it is.

Appraising and experiencing the playing of sport from this perspective – as opposed to paying it lip service – will require a completely different approach from all protagonists from that used in the past; one that doesn’t see engaging in sporting activity as a means to an end (competing and/or winning) but as sport for sport’s sake. In other words as a purer form of athletic activity that reverts to first principles. It will require planning, innovation and creativity on the part of coaches and managers and it will require flexibility and tolerance on the part of players. Buy in on all sides will be needed as well as a doubling down on the motivational reasons why people participate in sport in the first place.

Let’s for a moment look at that point and ask what motivates people to participate in sport? There are of course many reasons but in a study conducted by Dr. Martha Ewing and Dr. Vern Seefeldt of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University they asked 26,000 students aged 10 to 18 years about their reasons for participating in sport, why they quit, and how they feel about winning. The study found that ‘fun’ is the pivotal reason for being in sport — and lack of fun is a leading reason for dropping out. Can players – young and old – have fun playing sport in small groups without playing games? I don’t know but I would proffer that they can. I certainly did in childhood and do in adulthood when honing my hurling skills with small groups of friends. Furthermore in addition to fun I would suggest that practicing skills in a safe, supportive and well regulated environment without physical contact would also do wonders for self-esteemanxiety management, and confidence and for regaining a sense of identity, meaning or purpose in cases where they may have waned. Psychiatrist and play advocate Stuart Brown would appear to agree having claimed that “play is surely practice for the body, exercise for the feelings, and training for the mind.”

The cognitive and social developmental benefits of play for children have been well documented. They include imagining, thinking, problem solving, learning, social bonding, enjoyment and so on. What aren’t as well documented are the benefits of play for adults. “The only kind [of adult play] we honour is competitive play,” according to Bowen F. White MD, a medical doctor and author of Why Normal Isn’t Healthy. Whereas this may unfortunately be true and perhaps something that as a society we would do well to revisit it should be noted that play in adulthood is now a credible research topic and that commercially the primary consumer demographic for video and board games has shifted from children and teenagers to adults in their twenties, thirties and forties.

Dave Neale and colleagues while researching the neuroscientific component of play claimed that there are three key attributes common to most definitions of play: play is enjoyable; voluntary; and done for its own sake. This of course means that the lone hurler tapping a sliotar against a ball wall can be considered to be playing. It means that 2, 3, or 4 Gaelic footballers kicking a football in a field can be considered to be playing. It means that sport can be played by practicing its skills and not only by playing its associated game with its associated set of rules.

But what is sport? In etymological terms sport comes from the Old French word desporter with des meaning “away” and porter meaning “to carry.” The concept refers to seeking amusement or leisure and more literally to “carry away” (the mind from serious matter). Timely and pertinent no doubt.  A contemporary definition of sport according to is: an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature. Note often, not always. Note also no mention of game. And game, what actually is it? According to Webster’s dictionary a game is: a physical or mental competition conducted according to rules with the participants in direct opposition to each other. Therefore to answer a question posed earlier, can we play sport, and in particular a team sport, without playing a game? In other words while maintaining social distancing. The answer in etymological, definitional and practical terms appears to be yes.

So in the knowledge that everybody involved in the complex decision making process around the return to sporting activity is sincere and doing their best in their attempts to keep people safe during this period of uncertainty perhaps it is worth at least considering that sporting activity in contact sports could in fact take place without physical contact and without games.  Albeit on a voluntary and recreational basis with strict adherence to medical guidelines. It is also perhaps at least worth considering that by playing sport – as opposed to playing games – in a controlled setting that physical, intellectual, emotional, and social dividends could accrue for so many people either knowingly or unknowingly and that crucially in these sombre times that fun may be their common denominator. The outcome could be transformative.

Cogbeh provides a range of Cognitive Behavioural Services in person and online to athletes and sportspeople.

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