Jason Hellwig, Swimming Victoria CEO, and Karen Pearce, Executive Manager Growth and Inclusion at Football Victoria discuss how their respective organisations are handling the COVID-19 pandemic, the lessons they have learned so far and the positives to be taken out of this unexpected situation.

The timing of the COVID-19 pandemic was particularly bad for winter sports in Australia with the start of competitions interrupted.

“All grassroots football is suspended until May 31 at least and it is disappointing because we were well on track to exceed 2019 numbers,” said Pearce.

“However, at this stage we have only lost a small number of games. The Football Victoria Competitions team is working hard on a variety of scenarios under a modified format that ensures the integrity of the football season so it is important to understand that football is currently suspended, not cancelled.”

Hellwig understands that Swimming Victoria were lucky to be coming out of season when the restrictions ramped up but his organisation still had to respond rapidly and in unconventional ways.

“Pools are shut down so obviously that is huge for us,” Hellwig said. “Immediately, we realised we had to accelerate our ability to support staff online and then deliver services for our members quickly but still in an informed way.

“We have fiduciary obligations as well which forced us to game-plan several scenarios to maintain the long-term future of the business. Amidst all of that is the human element which involves ensuring the well-being of our staff, Swimming Victoria members and making sure they feel they are being supported.”

Football Victoria made the difficult decision at the start of April to stand down more than half of their workforce for an initial three-month period, temporarily moving to a smaller team of operational staff on reduced hours and pay.

The focus of that skeleton staff is to provide ongoing support to clubs, scenario plan for the resumption of sanctioned competitions and participation programs as well as core finance and operation functions.

“It was vital that the organisation remained agile, responsive and financially sustainable so once COVID-19 subsides, we are ready to provide the vital services our community needs to resume football as quickly as possible,” said Pearce.

While communication was always vital, both organisations are finding it to be the most essential aspect of their work during this time.

“We are in constant communication to our clubs through FAQ’s, surveys, advice, guidelines, social media activations and most importantly, via phone calls and video conferences which allows time to provide updates, feedback, clarifications and receive questions,” said Pearce.

“The loss of revenue that has occurred during this pandemic will hit football incredibly hard. Some of our Gippsland clubs are doing it particularly tough due to the devastating bushfires so ongoing strategic support in this area is imperative for long-term sustainability.

“We have also shared our communications to and from all levels of government so our clubs are aware of the support we are seeking to help the resumption of football.”

Having moved into a lockdown situation, Swimming Victoria are utilising webinars to keep their members up to date and have brainstormed concepts such as dry-land activities to keep their community connected. The third phase of their response now involves formulating a plan for when the restrictions begin to unwind.

“That part may be more complicated than the initial lockdown due to possible divergence between state and federal governments and the capacity of different clubs to enact the rules that will be necessary for everyone to get back in the pool,” said Hellwig.

“We are no different to any other sport or industry in that there will invariably be losses of participants, coaches or clubs. But we need to be able to support where we can and encourage members to find another coach or club and keep them in the pool however possible.

“The role of the coach is going to be very important. In swimming, the coach sits at the epicentre of the swimmers’ experience and we have used this opportunity to help our coaches adapt to different modes of teaching including focusing on developing the students’ skills of evolving into an adult. That continual evolution of the coach’s toolkit is an example of a real positive to be taken from this time.”

Challenges arise for Football Victoria in the timing of resumption of play and how that will intersect with other sports with the possibility of winter and summer sports overlapping.

“Some our clubs have access to grounds all year round while others do not for a variety of reasons,” said Pearce. “Collaboration is key and we are working with Sport and Recreation Victoria, Vicsport, Local Government Authorities and the winter sport network to find a fair and balanced approach that will ensure all sports can resume in some form.

“Where we don’t have competition, we must support the re-invigoration of football via social activations to bring the current membership back as well as provide a place for new members to gather and enjoy the game.”

Hellwig echoed those sentiments, reinforcing the concept of Sticking With Your Sport.

“We need people to stick right now, it is an investment not just for the immediate period of service but in the long term and a show of faith of what you get from participating in your chosen sport. The emotional aspect of playing sport together is powerful and that will see us succeed on the other side, as long as we do the right things as leaders. That includes empathising with what people are going through and committing to support them as much as we can.”

Like all of society, Hellwig and Pearce are longing for the moment that we can return to some sense of normalcy, both in a professional and personal sense.

“I’m looking forward to watching people enjoying swimming again, in a competition sense as well as just jumping in a pool,” said Hellwig. “I can’t wait to look at people not through a virtual screen and I really want to say thankyou to a lot of people in person who have helped us so far.”

“We are all eager for football to return, I love my job and I miss the football family,” added Pearce. “When this is over, we will be more appreciative of the simpler things and hopefully not always caught up in the busy-ness of life that can consume us on a daily basis.

“See you on the new side; I can’t wait.”

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