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Coronavirus Disease 2019

Youth Sports: What Is Fair Play in the Time of COVID-19?

Best practices for returning kids to competition amid the coronavirus crisis.

Vladimir Vladimirov/iStock
The coronavirus may have thrown even the most seasoned sports parent.
Source: Vladimir Vladimirov/iStock

One month ago, a small high school in New Jersey began summer practices in preparation for the upcoming fall soccer season. Their players were not permitted to train unless they signed waivers and took their temperatures one hour before arrival. Athletes that did not fill out their paperwork on time could not practice. Scrimmages, contact, and passing were a no-go. If an athlete unwittingly passed the ball to a teammate, it was no longer approved for use until disinfected. The high school was compliant with New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association’s rules for return to play during the COVID-19 crisis.

At the very same time one month ago, in a land not so far, far away, an indoor wrestling tournament was hosted in Kansas City, a three-day event that involved more than 2,500 wrestlers and at least 5,000 spectators from 40 states. While the Rocky Mountain Tournament organizers listed a host of safety requirements on their website, it was clear that the tournament was not compliant with the city’s orders. Epidemiologist Zachary Banner of Emory University tweeted he "could hardly design a better super spreader event." Regardless of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommendations, the event was allowed to occur.

Many parents feel powerless, uncertain, and wary of the vast discrepancies in COVID-19 guidelines for our children. Some schools have opened their doors this fall, others offer a hybrid schedule, while others remain online since the spring. When it comes to sports, the discrepancies in guidelines and rules are dizzying. While some schools and clubs have wholly opted out, others hold shortened seasons or are postponing until the spring and even summer. Simultaneously, many club teams are playing regularly, holding tournaments, and traveling to other states, business as usual.

Being a sports parent can be challenging. Sports parents deal with all kinds of uncertainty and chaos regularly, like standing on a sideline for ninety minutes in pouring rain or snow or handling last-minute scheduling change regardless of work, siblings, or other responsibilities. While years of being a sports parent make you mentally resilient and feeling able to maneuver just about any obstacle by the time your oldest plays for high school, the coronavirus may have thrown even the most seasoned sports parent. No one has ever seen anything like this. Are they canceling the season? No spectators? No contact? The CDC laid out guidelines, but there are no clear rules on a national level about proceeding.

Many parents feel forced to make decisions and navigate these new youth sporting experiences on their own. While there is no clear one-size-fits-all answer to how or when kids should return to sports, organizations such as the CDC, local health departments, and the Aspen Institute’s Project Play have created best practices to help in decision making. Here are a few things parents should consider as they return their athletes to youth sports:

Consider your child's medical history and if your child is considered at risk for COVID-19. It would help if you also thought about family members' health in the household, such as obesity, asthma, and other medical conditions. If someone in your home is severely compromised, opting out of sports this season may be the most sound course of action, regardless of its return to play plan.

Know the signs and symptoms of COVID-19. Parents should closely monitor their youth athletes' health daily and educate themselves on what symptoms they should heed. Consider the type of return to play plan the organization your child is playing for has and whether it is comparable to that put forth by the CDC. Examine whether the organization has requirements for hygiene, equipment, physical contact, health checks, and a gradual approach for returning to play. Perhaps, look for teams that are keeping it local.

Don't ignore, minimize, or hide symptoms so your child will not miss practices or games. COVID-19 just might become the new concussion, as athletes may avoid telling their parents and coaches when they are experiencing symptoms because they don't want to miss playing this season. There is still so much to learn about how COVID-19 affects our athletes, and just like a concussion, it is always wise to return to play conservatively.

Teach your child to use this time to train adequately. If they are not permitted to compete with teammates, or be inside a gym, look for alternative ways to keep from deconditioning and staying in shape. Many athletic trainers recommend cross-training using combinations of cardiovascular and weight training to remain conditioned. Many experts warn that coming back to play after months of inactivity or lack of competitive play will spawn increases in physical injuries upon return. They recommend that athletes gradually increase their training time and intensity.

For athletes that cannot return to play this fall, talk to them about the importance of staying active and in shape. Help them come up with a plan to keep them interested and conditioned. Consider training as a family or playing with other siblings to train for contact sports. Get creative. You can find online workouts, train with professionals via Zoom, and use a wall or a rebounder instead of a receiver.

Sports and physical activity are well-known providers of positive mental and physical health benefits. Research has linked regular cardiovascular exercise to a better overall mood, decreased anger, reduced depression, improved sleep, and better overall cognitive functioning. Research has also linked being part of a team to enhanced mental health, social functioning, and coping with stressors. Stanford University psychologists Priyanka B. Carr and Gregory M. Walton concluded that even subtle suggestions of being part of a team increased motivation, enjoyment, perseverance, engagement, and performance level.

Some athletes are playing and participating, as usual, others are on a reduced schedule, and still, others are opting out of playing this fall. For the latter, parents should help their kids stay connected to their teammates, as they may begin to feel lonely, neglected, or exhibit depressive symptoms. A lack of exercise may translate to reduced serotonin levels, the feel-good chemical our brain submits in response to movement. Due to quarantine and a lack of activity, gym time, and opportunities to connect with peers at school, many athletes see a decline in their overall mental health. For athletes who have not returned to sports, a consistent physical exercise routine may be just as essential as maintaining regular contact with their teammates.

Many athletes (and sports parents) may also feel sad and disappointed about a lost season or missed opportunities. Some feel anxious about playing well upon return and worry about losing their position on a team. Confidence may also be an issue when athletes return to the field. Some athletes who have been training may be overly confident, while others who have not been training due to a lack of opportunity to practice may lag.

Let's be empathetic! No one has ever experienced this before. It is crucial to let athletes talk about their feelings of disappointment about the loss of their season, or their anxiety about the future. Let them tell you how they feel without judging or immediately turning their feelings into a positive one. Avoid comparing how they feel to others, e.g., the senior who lost their last track season and graduation ceremony vs. the eighth grader who missed their last middle school championship. Once you think that your athlete has expressed their feelings to you authentically, help them look for alternative ways to view the situation, and recognize the things they can control.

Regardless of how this season is turning up, help your athlete use this time to work on mental skills and wellness exercises such as mindfulness, yoga, or Pilates, all of which can be found online and enjoyed with siblings, teammates, and friends. Times like these are fertile ground for teaching mental resilience and skills necessary to respond to uncertainty. It is a great time to teach athletes how to cope with disappointment, focus on themselves, and grow from this. It is never about one play or one game, or even a season. Learning how to get back up is one of the most vital lessons sports can teach a child, especially during COVID-19 and these ambiguous times.


CDC: Considerations for Youth Sports.…

Aspen Institute Project Play: Coronavirus and Youth Sports.

Carr, P. B., & Walton, G. M. (2014). Cues of working together fuel intrinsic motivation. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 53, 169-184. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.03.015

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