No-one could have been prepared for the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

and, more especially, the restrictions of a hard lockdown. Many of us found the limitations on our ability to leave the house and exercise hugely frustrating. Some of us tried to make the best of a bad situation, running half marathons in loops around our properties.

For elite athletes, however, these restrictions went far beyond frustration. They took huge physical and mental strain as their very livelihoods were put under threat with their ability to train curtailed.

HG Physio clinical director and sports physio, Brent Grimsley, unpacks some of the challenges faced by elite athletes during the COVID pandemic and chats with Para-olympian Tyrone Pillay about his experience of the national lockdown.

Tyrone Pillay is a Para-Olympian from the Rio Para-Olympics. He won a bronze medal at the 2016 Para-Olympics in shotput and is currently the SA and African record holder. He has been competing for over 10 years at international level.

Para-Olympian Tyrone Pillay wins bronze medal

Para-Olympian Tyrone Pillay

Tyrone admits that his day to day training has been really affected by COVID. He would usually train for over 6 hours a day and during lockdown battled to even get in an hour a day. He really battled with none of the structure and routine he was used to.

Brent caught up with Tyrone to ask him a bit about how he has coped mentally and physically through this tough time, and the important role that sports physiotherapy has played in his ability to keep performance goals on track. Here is what Tyrone had to say in response to the following questions;

How have you been affected Physically by COVID?

COVID has affected me from the point that I’m having to do things that I don’t normally do. I think the constant sitting has really affected me and the lack of activity. I picked up a neck issue due the constant sitting which resulted in massive headache and change of my posture. I also had to do some cycling on my wife’s bike on a trainer, which resulted in a back injury due to a much smaller bike frame.

Brent: “Ty had to use home exercise equipment that was not suited for him. Unfortunately, not all athletes are equipped at home to do heavy lifting and conditioning as what they would in a high-performance gym environment like our gym at Prime High Performance Centre. This and the prolonged sitting caused his Hip flexors to shorten and created lower back pain and neck strain.

He was in a conditioning block aimed to peak at Olympics. This kept his back extensors and core strong. Then to suddenly stop from a controlled high level of training to sitting a lot, created muscle imbalances.”

How have you been affected mentally as an athlete by COVID?

At the start I was not affected mentally as I was focused and very busy trying to keep myself occupied, but by week 5 I started to struggle and lots of things were going through my mind.

Also, when you see other athletes training and going about things like normal while you stuck in lockdown, it can really get to you, but I always think of what my psychologist says, focus on the controllable and not on the uncontrollable.

Brent: “I have seen that athletes really struggle with identity in this time. I have seen this before in elite athletes after retirement. Suddenly, everything you trained for your whole life, everything people and the media see you as, becomes obsolete as you have no goal to work towards. A lot of uncertainty to when sports will resume, if there will be an Olympics next year or not, salary and sponsors being cut and not getting the adrenaline ‘fix’ on a weekly basis with competing and training have led to real psychological issues in athletes who are normally mentally strong.”


As a Para-Olympic athlete, what do you expect from your Physio in this time?

I always need Physio, up to twice a week normally. I guess the issues with disabled athletes is that our bodies always go out and lose alignment very easily. I also needed advice initially on my injury with social distancing being adhered to. Thus, Telehealth consults. I also require feedback sessions on how I’m doing and if I have been experiencing any issues physically. So, the advice on how to improve mobility and flexibility. Luckily, I have been able to see Brent at the Prime Human Performance institute for treatment during this time under extremely strict infection control policies.

Brent: “ It is important for you as a sports physio to understand that suddenly these high profile athletes, who never sit much and are always fit and strong physically and mentally, become the same as our chronic neck and back patients who are passive and have stress related tension. Our job is to help get them active again, get them loading correctly, maintain their flexibility and mobility and look after them mentally by being supportive and positive during this time. Avoid language that creates negativity. Create small goals for them and build it up as the lock down eases and they head back into sport.”

Tyrone, any advice for athletes and their Physios how to cope during this time?

This time has been a difficult one for everyone and I think it’s about staying positive and keeping in a good mind space. Think positively and think about how things will turn around and how we will be going forward from here much stronger.

Brent: “Ty and I did an Instagram live interview about these topics, which was really well received worldwide. We realized how many people are really struggling physically and mentally during this time. Try and keep well informed, stay away from media hype, avoid negative speaking, and keep the hope alive. South Africans are tough, we can adapt to anything. It’s a new normal and that’s okay for now.”


More about Brent:

Sports physio Brent Grimsley currently works as Chief Physiotherapist at Prime Human Performance institute at Moses Mabidha stadium in Durban where he looks after Elite High-Performance athletes and various professional teams in multiple sporting codes. He is also involved with Physio services for big sporting events like Comrades marathon and manages some of the current top 5 finishers.

After finishing his degree Cum Laude at Free State University, Brent joined HG Physio and The Sharks rugby union where he was contracted for 12 years as a team Physio. During this time, he became partner in HG Physio and has helped grow the company to 10 practices and 52 staff.

Brent has almost 20 years of experience as a sports physiotherapist in the greater Durban area. He is passionate about working with athletes from pros to weekend warriors and sporty children. He also enjoys teaching other medical professionals in injury management of muscle strains, ligament tears, taping and rehab prescription. He is currently on the National Executive board of the South African Society of Physiotherapy and served on various medical executive boards including the South African Sports Medicine association. If you are looking for a sports physiotherapist, contact Brent Grimsley at Prime Human Performance centre on 031 940 5556.

To read the full Physio SA magazine please click here