Covid-19 has impacted every aspect of life, and youth sports is no exception. Many parents fear participation in youth sports could result in infections for the player or other members of the family. Considering this, it is understandable why youth sports participation has slowed during the pandemic.
But even if the slowdown in sign-ups continues into 2022, you can still work toward growing participation in your league. Kids need youth sports opportunities in their community. What’s necessary is not a pause as much as a reimagining of how youth sports is conducted in order to make activities Covid-safe in 2022 and beyond.
Prior to the pandemic, approximately 45 million children played sports each year in the United States and 7.9 million teens played high school sports. As a result of the disruptions caused by COVID, these numbers have declined significantly as communities have had to cancel sports - in some cases for two consecutive seasons. This lack of opportunities for team sports can have negative effects on kids’ social, mental, and physical health.
Practicing team sports by yourself or in a small group can only go so far. Frequent Covid-related season cancellations mean players don’t get needed skill development and in game experience. This setback is even more difficult for high school athletes who may be participating in team sports for the last time.
Beyond sports skills, sports participation can make a big impact on kids off of the field. Youth sports are also a critical way to build friendships, understand how to communicate with peers and adults, develop sportsmanship skills, and learn teamwork.
There's no substitute for the teamwork skills built on the youth sports field.
The Covid-19 pandemic, and the necessary sheltering rules that come along with it, has caused what many refer to as a “second pandemic of loneliness,” which affects kids as much as adults. An April 2021 Washington Post/University of Maryland survey found 46 percent of parents say the disruption was detrimental to their children's health. That same 46 percent note that their children's performance in school suffered as a result of the pandemic.
Reimagining sports means finding ways kids can continue to get the social interaction and practice time they need, while minimizing unnecessary exposures.
Heading into 2022, sports organizations should still be prepared to adopt social distancing practices when needed. Make sure to follow any guidelines in your community and keep up with local health regulations.
As vaccination rates increase and case counts continue to decline, organizations should expect that most parents will be excited to get back on the field as normal.
When considering how to return to youth sports, coaches should continue to be prepared for practice or game cancellations. For example, coaches can develop individual skill-building drills that can be done at home. In a worst case scenario if practices need to be cancelled, players will still have an organized practice plan to replace in-person sessions.
Meanwhile, higher risk activities involving competition with teams from local or different areas require more consideration. For larger leagues, think about factors like:
Spectators: While spectators are important in supporting athletes, team managers should limit nonessential visitors at practices and games whenever possible.
Athlete Adherence to Protocols: Coaches must consider whether their players can follow new safety protocols. Younger athletes may not understand the importance and thus not follow procedures as closely. If team members are not able to comply with restrictions, staff should wait to return.
High-Risk Members: Coaches with compromised immune systems are prone to much worse reactions, making them a risk that should be considered before returning to the field. If risk is high for an individual, look for ways to get coaches involved in your league without being in crowded indoor spaces.
Community Infection Levels: Your coaches and staff should closely monitor infection levels in their community. Any team in an area where infections are high should keep a close eye on local guidelines and follow any recommendations from local experts.
Getting players back in the game and growing your league will be a challenge in a post-Covid world, no doubt about it. But, returning to the field can be done safely.
Making decisions with your board and gathering feedback within your community is a great way to help develop your plan to return to sports. Be sure to over-communicate on your social media accounts and on your website. You should post any Covid related policies that your organization has, list your refund policy in the case of cancellations, and communicate that your organization will follow local guidelines related to the pandemic.
Using simple common sense measures is a great way to communicate to parents that returning to sports is safe for their children, For example, coaches should limit physical contact between players to game-time situations whenever possible and require players to skip practice if they are not feeling well.
Finally, keep a close eye on local recommendations regularly. Developing at home practice plans for players can be a great option if you have to cancel practices or games for part of your season.