The Effect of Face Masks and Face Coverings on Sport Performance

Katherine Wright


The purpose of my project was to research the effect of COVID masks and protective face coverings on athletic performance, and develop a mask capable of being attached to a football helmet without restricting eye-sight or breathing capabilities. By researching how different materials affected virus protection, air flow, and sight interference, I was able to choose a material to implement into my design. I chose a Gauge 8 Marine Vinyl material to directly attach to a helmet because it can safely block liquid droplets from the player’s breath, but is still clear to see through and flexible in order to bend to the curve of the helmet’s mask. The masks are designed to be cleaned once per quarter of the game. It is important to keep players safe from not only potential virus spread, but by also not restricting their vision or breath during dangerous contact sports.


With the rising number of COVID-19 cases, the main focus of the public should be to actively fight against the spread of the disease by wearing appropriate face coverings and maintaining social distance. However, regular life and activities need to resume, while keeping everyone safe. This includes aspects of everyday life, like sporting events, both participating and spectating. The main issue with wearing face masks and coverings in sports is the possibility of restricting breath during high levels of activity, or the mask potentially moving and blocking eyesight, which can be extremely dangerous during high contact play. Specifically, American football is a full contact, highly aerobic sport. As stated in “A Physiological Review of American Football,” “Football players must have an aerobic capacity to provide power throughout a prolonged, intermittent duration and to recover quickly in short pauses. Maximum anaerobic power is also necessary to perform powerful movements and quick start acceleration” (Pincivero 2). This means any hindering of breath or restriction of oxygen could be harmful to the player’s performance or health. This makes it difficult to maintain virus safety guidelines due to that even a simple face mask can frustrate players resulting in difficulty getting in air.

Materials and Methods

The three main types of face coverings used in a non-hospital setting are cotton masks, disposable surgical masks, and plastic face shields. Cotton masks are sewn out of multiple layers of fabric and typically include a replaceable filter. Surgical masks are meant for one-use-wear and are to be disposed of after taking off. This can cause these to be an expensive option. Plastic face shields are less common for everyday activities and sit off the face, intending to block any outgoing or incoming droplets.


Different types of masks provide different effectiveness and benefits. Depending on the activity or circumstance, cotton masks, surgical masks, or plastic face coverings can allow for varying levels of virus protection and breathing restriction. In football, players need optimal focus and no physical restriction in order to safely play during their high contact games. Cotton masks have been proven to be very effective only in multiple layers. They are cheap, breathable, and easy to wash or replace. However, they are not sweat-wicking, and can slide on a player’s face during active play, which poses a danger to the player if it were to restrict their eyesight in a play. Cotton masks still have a chance to effect heart rate during exercise. Dr. Bryant of the American Council on Exercise stated “You should anticipate that it will be about eight to 10 beats higher per minute when you wear a mask than when you do not” in “Exercising While Wearing a Mask” of the NY Times (Reynolds 1). Increases like these can quicken fatigue and lengthen recovery time for intense players. Disposable surgical masks provide adequate virus protection and breath-ability for users. In a study testing the affect of a surgical mask on heart rate during exercise, 10 adults wore a standard surgical mask during treadmill exercises and recorded heart rate changes and rated their comfort. Wearing the masks resulted in a higher average heart rate than when not wearing one, especially towards the end of each exercise (Li, Y 1). However, surgical masks propose the same cons as cotton masks as they would move around the face and be difficult to put a helmet on over them. Surgical masks are also meant to be disposable after one use, so they are not as cheap as cotton masks.

In terms of football and keeping players safe, a plastic face covering attached to the helmet is the best choice for the high level sport. A face guard attachment is cleanable, breathable, clear and able to be seen through, and removes the danger of a mask slipping on the player’s face. The shield can block any droplets or sprays from exiting or entering the helmet. In order to design one, structure of the helmet and face guard had to be taken into account.

Designing an attachable mask for a football helmet required taking certain constraints into consideration. In order to accommodate the flexibility needed to wrap around the face guard, a clear vinyl plastic material was chosen. This material allows for customization and strong attachment points as well. I focused on six attachment points on the guard in order to ensure security. With button clasps, the mask can be taken off and cleaned or disinfected. The most important aspect is the fact that it in no way restricts a player’s breathing or obstructs eyesight. Almost all current football helmets already include an eye shield for blocking glare. This attachment will be a natural extension of that in order to block any droplets coming from a players mouth, nose, or sweat.


Until life returns to normal, preventive safety measures need to be taken seriously and actively implemented. Returning to normal activities will require adjustments. More research and development will be needed to ensure complete protection from potential virus spread during sports. I concluded that a plastic face shield attached to the face guard of a football helmet is the most ideal way to maximize protection while not inhibiting athletes. In the future, I plan to streamline my design for efficient production and quick disinfecting in between plays.


  • Li, Y., Tokura, H., Guo, Y. et al. Effects of wearing N95 and surgical facemasks on heart rate, thermal stress and subjective sensations. Int Arch Occup Environ Health 78, 501–509 (2005).
  • Pincivero, D.M., Bompa, T.O. A Physiological Review of American Football. Sports Med 23, 247–260 (1997).
  • Reynolds, Gretchen. Exercising While Wearing a Mask. 17 June 2020,
  • Raymond J. Roberge (2016) Face shields for infection control: A review, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, 13:4, 235-242, DOI: 10.1080/15459624.2015.1095302