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Coronavirus and Youth Sports

By The Aspen Institute, Project Play | March 17, 2020, 12 p.m. (ET)

Content Courtesy of The Aspen Institute, Project Play

Youth sports are a fragmented institution – an estimated $17 billion industry that ordinarily gathers millions of people at thousands of sites across the country daily. How should the range of stakeholders move forward in handling the coronavirus pandemic?

During this difficult time, the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program is collecting information on how the outbreak is impacting youth sports, a focus of our Project Play initiative that helps build healthy communities through sports. We aim to help parents, coaches, administrators, educators and others in the youth sports ecosystem respond to challenges presented by a virus that has major public health implications.

SHOULD YOUTH PLAY SPORTS DURING THE OUTBREAK?

The answer is for now, in most settings, no.

On March 15, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention urged ending gathering of more than 50 people through May 10 to stop the spread of the virus. President Donald Trump has since recommended gatherings should be limited to 10 people through at least March 31. Many states are closing schools, bars, restaurants, gyms and other gathering spots.

In its coronavirus materials, the CDC offers guidance for school settings and community and faith leaders but nothing specifically for sports settings. However, the CDC says that the virus gets spread most frequently among close contacts within about 6 feet — distance that is hard to create in team and some individual sports. Transmission of the virus occurs much more commonly through respiratory droplets than through contact with contaminated surfaces.

In areas where the risk of transmission is high, the CDC recommends the cancellation of community gatherings of any size. So far, coronavirus cases have been found in nearly every state, and at least 20 states and Washington D.C. have issued a state of emergency. The coming weeks are critical in limiting the spread of the virus, which is highly contagious.

On March 13, Sports Illustrated published a Q&A with two doctors on what types of sports activity might be acceptable to participate in. But note: That was before a national emergency was declared by the federal government. The gravity of the crisis, and the importance of social distancing, has only grown since then.

“I absolutely urge all youth sports programs to take a temporary pause for at least two weeks and then reevaluate the situation,” said Dr. Neeru Jayanthi, a sports medicine physician at Emory University who was an adviser on our Healthy Sport Index. “It is so critical to play each of our parts in our efforts to contain this deadly virus.”

Children appear to be less likely than adults to suffer severe complications from the coronavirus, according to the CDC, though it remains unclear whether those with underlying conditions are at elevated risk. The greater concern, said Dr. Andrew Stolbach, an emergency physician and faculty member at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, is that youth will become a carrier for the virus and pass it on to their parents or grandparents.

“We don’t need organized sports now,” said Stolbach, who coaches his son’s wrestling team, which canceled its final state tournament for the weekend of March 14. “This is especially true if you take a bunch of kids to a travel tournament and they stay at hotels. Now we’re just mixing a lot of people again, when what we’re trying to do is slow the trajectory of the virus. Also, hospitals may eventually need auxiliary spaces for patients such as hotel rooms.”

HOW CAN PARENTS KEEP KIDS PHYSICALLY ACTIVE IF SCHOOLS AND SPORTS ARE CLOSED?

Sara Poehlman, a nurturing care expert who works on emergency education and parent programs, stressed that children must move to ensure their physical and mental well-being. “Especially if children are doing distance learning via computer, movement in between periods of study is essential to ensure focus, concentration, and sustained attention,” she said.

Physical routine recommended by Poehlman includes running around the block, jumping jacks, yoga, or a dance party. Screen time may seem like a solution to keep children occupied, but it can be detrimental to their mood and energy when used for a prolonged period of time, she said. Poehlman recommends short intervals of screen time (no binge watching) and to select content that motivates physical activity (dance like a YouTube star) or reinforce learning themes and skills.

“Boys and girls need free, unstructured time for play,” Poehlman said. “If they do have worries, play can be a strategy to work them out. If possible, small groups of children could get together for social learning and play.”

Jayanthi recommends playing in the yard or basement, doing individual activities such as running, riding bikes or playing tennis in an isolated environment. “Do not perpetuate mass gatherings in the hope we can wish away this virus,” he said.

Stolbach advises many of the same activities as Jayanthi. Also: kicking a ball (instead of throwing it, which involves touching of the hand) and organizing a small group of neighborhood kids to play outside while using your best judgment. He cautions against using this time to continue specialized training in sports.

“It’s hard to say you can’t go do batting practice on your own,” he said. “But the more you’re in a public indoor facility that involves a lot of touching, like touching the bat and opening the gate, the more you’re kind of violating the spirit of the physical social isolation we’re trying to encourage in the next few weeks.”

Avoid settings where equipment is shared, including gyms and playground installations.

WHAT ARE WAYS THAT YOUTH CAN EMOTIONALLY COPE WITH THE LOSS OF SPORTS?

This is going to be a difficult and disruptive time for all youth. For those children who play sports, the loss may be even greater and could contribute to higher anxiety and depression.

“The way athletes cope with life is through their sport,” said Dr. Rob Bell, a sport psychology coach. “If sport is okay and we are performing well, then life more easily works itself out. It is when we have severe on-the-field or off-the-field issues that cause our stress levels and anxiety to spike. You’ll need to treat this crisis as a major loss and/or death because the emotions experienced will be similar.”

Bell said that athletes will probably experience sadness, mood swings, or lack of initiative – and that’s normal. The key is to recognize there is nothing wrong with you and allow some time and space every day to grieve. “The worse thing is to simply ignore the emotions you’ll feel because then they will pop up when we least want them to,” Bell said.

Athletes are creatures of habit and crave structure and discipline. So, practice self-care. Keep consistent sleeping schedules. Continue exercising. Eat well and stay hydrated. Maintaining a structure to stay healthy will help avoid athletes going on huge binges of screen time or eating unhealthy food.

Athletes should also stay connected with others virtually. “If I am able to focus on helping someone else out, someone less fortunate, or even connecting with a friend, then I am no longer dwelling on my own problems and circumstance,” Bell said. “If I can focus on others, then the person I am really coaching up is myself.”

Coaches and parents can help too. The Positive Coaching Alliance has tips to help young athletes socially and emotionally during the pandemic.

COACHES CAN:

  • Organize Google hangouts as a way for teammates to connect.
  • Encourage players to communicate about individual workouts they are performing to keep each other motivated.
  • Consider having their team watch a sports movie and then come together virtually to discuss the lessons learned.

PARENTS CAN:

  • Set up routines (schoolwork in the morning, “recess” in the backyard) to help normalize the situation as much as possible.
  • If it allows, play with your child in the sport of their choice in the backyard or driveway, or practice certain skills and drills within the home if possible.

And remember, if you’re an athlete, “be courageous about asking for help,” according to the PCA. If you are feeling overwhelmed, anxious, fearful or depressed, let one of the adults you trust know. Be honest with them. Don’t hesitate to ask for help for fear that your concerns aren’t important.

WHAT THEMES ARE EMERGING IN COMMUNITIES?

We asked readers to share how their youth sports communities are responding. Share your experiences with us on Twitter or Facebook.

After the NBA suspended its season on March 12, nearly every professional and college sports entity followed suit over the next 24 hours. The response from youth sports organizers was less uniform, emblematic of the disjointed nature of the ecosystem. While national sport governing bodies offer recommendations, decision-making in youth sports exists largely at the local and league levels.

Many providers have fallen in line, especially after March 13 when a wave of school closures across the country were announced. That limits access to field and gym space at school sites. The New York Times detailed the heartbreak occurring around the country from cancelled games. Yet too many youth sports organizations have continued to play. Below are themes that have emerged around the country.

USSSA continues to play tournaments: The United States Specialty Sports Association is a major provider of travel team tournaments, particularly in baseball, softball, volleyball, soccer and lacrosse. As of March 16, the USSSA’s Twitter account continued to say it was “currently operating as scheduled and we are responsive to state and local governments. We are implementing an immediate no contact rule/handshaking rule.” Messages left by Project Play to current USSSA staff were not immediately returned.

In Panama City Beach, Florida, the USSSA still held the Luck of the Irish Softball Tournament over the March 14 weekend, according to mypanhandle.com. The tournament usually draws 20 teams, but only seven came due to “a little bit of paranoia,” tournament director Jeff Strode told mypanhandle.com.

There were mixed reactions from parents under the USSSA’s tweet about continuing to play. Some people were pleased that the games continued. “USSSA does not make teams play in their tournaments,” @wgaryjones22 wrote March 12. “If the coaches/parents decide to play in the tournament, then it is on them not USSSA.”

Many others were irate. “When everyone else is shutting things down completely, your response is to just not shake hands. Unbelievable,” @CaseyDaleJones wrote March 12. Another parent, @annie_merchant, wrote on March 13: “This is an irresponsible decision. For the tournament in Maryland this weekend, I imagine there will be more than 250 people at any given point, including my son. The entire state has no school for the next two weeks. MLB and Little League International are being proactive.”

Coaches still want to play in North Carolina, South Carolina: Travel baseball games continued in North Carolina and South Carolina over the March 14 weekend. Greg Lewis, a baseball tournament director for Top Gun Baseball, said the games were shut down once governors in those states announced school closures over the weekend.

“Does it effect the income and the economy and how we make a living? Most definitely it does,” Lewis said. “But bigger picture, you’ve got to do what’s right at the community level as a whole. Teams are still wanting to play and calling like crazy, ‘Is there anywhere to play?’ It’s crazy. I guess they’re not looking at it as big a deal as the media makes it out to be.”

One North Carolina baseball parent, who asked not to be identified, said he did not allow his 14-year-old son to attend travel practice on March 14. Nine of the 12 players attended practice. “I love baseball as much as the next person, but some things are more important,” the parent said. “I think it’s kind of the travel ball mindset. They just want to play at all costs. This is probably our last season.”

Virtual training is taking off: One trend to keep an eye on during the lockdown – virtual training of youth and high school athletes. For example, in Wall Township, New Jersey, the Old Bridge Girls Soccer League came up with free virtual soccer practices to help keep players engaged during this stressful time.

“The kids look forward to their weekly practices with their teammates and us, the coaches,” coach Will Gould told Tap Into Piscataway. “Soccer is a social, team-driven sport and for a lot of the kids, it is an outlet away from their day-to-day stresses. Our hope is that by logging on to our Facebook or Instagram live feed and training along with us and the other players who join, it’ll give the kids a safe place to be and work through this tough time.”

Gymnastics gym remains open in Los Angeles: As of March 15, gymnastics training for kids continued in full force at this gym in Burbank. Spring camps remained open. So did practices and training for kids of all ages and abilities.

“I think it’s crazy,” said one parent, who stopped sending her daughter to the gym. “The point is to keep social distancing, and in gymnastics, the kids are on top of each other and the equipment. There’s no way to stop any illness from being spread by these kids. USA Gymnastics cancelled its state meets and didn’t give any guidance to the member gyms on what to do.”

How Seattle is coping: Seattle has been the epicenter of the initial virus outbreak. There, schools are closed until late April, which puts pressure not just on youth teams that use their facilities but after-school programs. For instance, the area’s prominent Ultimate Frisbee organization (DiscNW) warned its programs that because field permits are cancelled, the league’s insurance will not be in effect until after April 24 at the earliest. Anyone who uses public fields will not be covered.

“We are trying to partner up with local care-giving groups to provide support and small-scale programs that double as affordable childcare,” said Caitlin Pontrella of Parkour Visions, a nonprofit in Seattle. “Parents mostly want to avoid groups but are also stuck with the need for childcare and to balance work.”

What happens to kids in disadvantaged homes? Among the children most affected: those disadvantaged homes. In a note to its network, Coaching Corps, a Bay Area non-profit with programs in 150 communities, highlighted the disproportionate impact on some families. “Millions of parents and caretakers who aren't afforded sick pay or the ability to work from their home are facing the immediate and painful decision to leave their children without the critical support of instructors and institutions that keep them safe, fed, and out of trouble,” CEO Janet Carter wrote, requesting the help of volunteers who are not in high-risk infection areas (signup form here).

In baseball, the Anderson Monarchs team in Philadelphia (where Mo’Ne Davis once played) suspended activities until at least March 23. “We recognize this decision will create inconvenience for many families,” the Monarchs wrote. “We know that many players rely on our program for structure, positive adult and peer interactions, and opportunities for safe, healthy activities. … We feel it’s our duty to make scientifically informed decisions and to keep the greater good in mind at all times.” If the postponement lasts longer, the Monarchs said they may create player instruction, exercise and interaction via web platforms.

Impact on youth sports registrations: One major question that youth sports organizers will have to tackle is potential declines in registration once sports return on a regular basis. It seems likely that registration will decline in the coming weeks and perhaps months, depending on how long it takes to get the threat under control.

LeagueApps processed over 20,000 youth sports registrations on March 13-14, according to Brian Litvack, CEO and founder of LeagueApps. “It’s less than usual, but it’s still an inspiring number,” Litvack said. “That’s a lot of optimistic families ready to take the field soon. In 2008, we all learned that youth sports were ‘recession-proof.’ … In 2020, we’re going to show the world that our sports communities are ‘pandemic-proof.’”

Changing youth sports for the better: As we push forward during this difficult time, it’s worth asking: Could youth sports benefit in the long run due to this shutdown? “In the long term, I hope this shutdown sparks the return of free play for more kids,” said Jon Solomon, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program editorial director. “I’ve been pleasantly surprised in my neighborhood to see so many kids outside riding bikes and scooters, shooting baskets, and going for walks – while keeping appropriate social distancing. With no organized sports taking up their time and energy, they’re playing on their terms. The key will be parents recognizing this happening and allowing it to continue in the future.”

Tom Farrey, executive director of the Sports & Society Program, said the time away will make the public more fully appreciate the role that sport plays in building healthy communities. “My hope is that when play resumes, we don’t just go back to the same old, same ole,” Farrey said. “That we do so with more balance, incorporating some of the things we learned and habits we formed during the hiatus, and with a heightened respect for the needs of the kids who are currently pushed out and locked out of sports due to cost, ability or zip code.”


Project Play will continue to periodically update this page. Email jon.solomon@aspeninstitute.org with information about your youth sports experience during the coronavirus outbreak.

Last updated: March 17, 2020