The British & Irish Lions tour to South Africa in 2021 is unique in that the battle is not just between the hosts and the touring team, over eight matches or three tests, but also against the reality of life in a ‘bio-bubble’, that while necessary, completely changes the core characteristics of a tour, writes Mark Keohane.
The word ‘bio-bubble’ has become commonplace in sport in the past year, but I don’t think fans will ever have an appreciation of the sacrifice and the mental strains of living in a ‘bio-bubble’.
I certainly didn’t understand just how restrictive a world it is until I helped put together a publishing magazine of the Dos and Don’ts for the players involved in the British & Irish Lions eight-match tour of South Africa, which started on Saturday evening at Emirates Airline Park in Johannesburg with a 56-14 win.
The planning that has gone into securing a bio-bubble environment cannot be overstated. The attention to detail, the unpacking of every possible Covid-related scenario and, in the case of the tour, every trip by bus from the team hotel to the training venue and match venue, and the daily operational nature of an existence in the bio-bubble, is so foreign to the layperson.
South Africans can relate to being in Covid Level 5 lockdown and the emotional strain of this lack of movement, shackled sense of everything and robotic nature of one’s existence.
Now take that Level 5 lockdown and double it, triple it or even quadruple it because what the Lions and Springbok players will go through in the next six weeks will test the mental resolve of each individual and management member like they’ve never been tested on a rugby field.
The Proteas cricketer Quinton de Kock in the past few weeks spoke of the stresses of life in a sporting bubble.
De Kock, who quit the Proteas captaincy and took time away from the game, has been in stunning form for the Proteas on the tour to the West Indies, and he said he never resigned because of the demands of leadership, but more because of a struggle to cope with living in that sporting bio-bubble.
De Kock’s personality, like so many in sport, is not geared to restriction and to robotic routine, in which there is no escape and social interaction or engagement.
It has been 20 months between Test matches for the Springboks, who played Georgia in Pretoria last Friday night, but the victory for Siya Kolisi and his world champion Springboks was not in the result but in what the players already have survived by way of the bio-bubble. Take a bow Siya and your Boks. Take a bow to Conor Murray and your British and Irish Lions.
Any player who is part of this series has made the most incredible sacrifice to be a prisoner of sorts to his chosen profession and as supporters of the game, there has to be gratitude from those of us being treated to a Test match and there has to be acknowledgement of what every player will be battling each day they wake up in the bio-bubble.
Paddy Upton, professional cricket coach but more renowned for his work with sports people as a mental conditioning coach, has been vocal about the education required to lessen the mental strains on players and the long-term effects it could have on sporting careers of those who have spent extended periods of the year in these bio-bubbles, which confine players and athletes to hotel rooms.
Some teams, where possible, have accommodated families in the bio-bubble but it isn’t always practical, both logistically and from the family’s perspective with children at schools and partners working.
“We haven’t done enough research to get feedback from different players as to what were their unique challenges,” Upton told the India Times.
“We have all these medical people saying we can approve this drug and that drug until we have done the trials, but have we gathered the research? I don’t think we have seen the fallout yet.
“There is a potential we will see more mental problems and illness because of extended bio-bubbles.”
Upton said extroverts and senior players would likely struggle more within the bio-bubble because they were used to space and freedom of movement, while the senior players were accustomed to a more family inclusive touring environment than younger players in the infancy of their professional careers.
But that didn’t make it easy or easier for any younger player who has the pressure of being new to international sport and wants to immediately perform and make an impact. This youngster ordinarily may have relied on a strong external support structure, and being confined to this regulated and structured insular bio-bubble could make for a very lonely experience.
Sports mental health doctors, quoted in numerous articles across the world, talk consistently of players and athletes suffering increased frustration, loss of motivation and despondency.
Boredom is big because the bedroom, which ordinarily would be the player’s escape, is now the player’s everything. It is the one place in which the player is deemed to be safe, if not necessarily sane.
Team managements have had to be creative to maximise being at the training ground because once back at the hotel, there is no room for creativity because the Covid bio-bubble rules are regulations and not requests.
Players who have experienced extended bio-bubbles speak about the difficulties in adapting to what is seemingly normal afterwards and also the mental anguish of the uncertainty around whether matches or events will actually take place.
Mental health issues are ever-present in professional sport and being in a bio-bubble only magnifies the pressure on the players, who in the instance of the Lions tour face three Covid tests within seven days, including one test on the match days.
The players have no physical access to the outside world while in the bio-bubble.
They can’t stay with family or leave the bio-bubble to visit family or friends, or have any family or friends visit the hotel.
They can’t leave the hotel or training venue for a jog or for a walk or for a coffee. Their only movement outside of the hotel is to the training field and to the match venue.
Earlier in the week I wrote that ‘crowd or no crowds’, the rugby will be special and that while we can bemoan the lack of a stadium audience, we still have the luxury of the on-field performers in the Springboks and British & Irish Lions.
For that alone, we must be grateful, especially when we consider what each player is going through mentally to make every match possible.
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