Playing it Safe

youth sports during covid-19
Photo: TI-JA/E+/Getty Images

During this pandemic, so many cherished routines have been sacrificed, and the loss of sports is one that really stings for lots of kids. Not only do sports provide a way to stay fit and have fun, but they are also sources of socialization and confidence. And, of course, they are outlets for stress relief for kids who are feeling isolated and fearful in today’s world.

Some of us were able to keep our kids busy in the spring and summer with outdoor activities. Camps were operational with added precautions, and a number of sports teams were thankful to continue some degree of practice time (with or without the ability to compete in matchups). As the weather cools and many sports move indoors, there will be added challenges for organizers, parents and young athletes.

So, we wonder: Will kids be able to stay involved and active, and avoid deconditioning as they await return to the games they love? I checked in with three local experts to see where they stand on the subject of youth sports during COVID-19.

Kids need to play

Alex Jacobs, owner of Coppermine Fieldhouse, oversaw servicing of more than 4,000 sports campers this summer, with abundant protocols including temperature checks, sanitizing stations and controlled drop-off and pickup areas. Masks were mandated in public spaces, but camps were exempted.

Jacobs looked at risks for coronavirus in youth under age 19, and felt confident his crews could manage participants and regulate the environment.

“Coppermine is a private entity, with customers. Everyone who enters the facility has been sent protocols in advance,” he says. “If they want to participate, they will follow protocols. If people understand the amount of caution being put into operations, they will see that it is probably safer to do these organized activities than it is to go to a store or other public places.”

“Kids need to play sports,” Jacobs says. “Parents need this help, too. It’s exhausting, physically and mentally to try, not just to do all the things grownups need to do, but also to manage keeping a child active and involved.”

Parents understand the risk, and the parental feedback collected by Coppermine was overwhelmingly positive, with about 90 percent of parents being all-in, and the other 10 percent feeling extra cautious, he says. The kids who have stopped playing out of caution will not be left behind when things start to normalize again, he believes. Others may use this break as a time to reevaluate whether their sport is still important to them. If they aren’t missing their sport, this can be a great time to discover new interests.

Whatever pastime they choose, however, “becoming dormant is not an option,” he says. “If you want to stay healthy, you have to be active. Staying on lockdown and avoiding sports and exercise denies you of building immunity. You miss out on mental health benefits, endorphins and interaction with other kids. Zoom and FaceTime are OK substitutes, but not a long-term solution.”

And while exercise can be done anywhere, he points out that team dynamics bring additional benefits.

“Being part of a team, that collective effort, the relationships, resolving conflict…kids get life lessons through sports,” Jacobs says.

And young athletes miss the role-model presence of coaches when their sport is sidelined. “Coaches are important mentors for kids, supporting them, pushing them to challenge themselves, giving positive reinforcement, giving opportunities for leadership and confidence,” he says.

As colder weather drives sports indoors, COVID-19 precautions will pose more of a challenge. Jacobs says that with basketball, for example, they will operate fewer courts and might maybe not have spectators. They will keep sanitizing and safety protocols strict, and do whatever they can to keep operating safely.

Kids need to move

Dave Miele, co-owner and director of operations at BEAST Baseball, agrees wholeheartedly that kids should keep playing sports during the pandemic.

“Young athletes must stay active and fit to promote growth in their sport-specific skills, as well as their physical and mental fortitude,” he says. “I believe they can practice any sport they choose, as long as they are following guidelines from state and local officials.”

Parents need to make educated decisions about allowing their athletes to participate or not, he says. And common sense must prevail: If a parent or an athlete has been sick or near someone who is sick, then they simply must stay home.

Most schools have already cancelled fall and winter sports, but athletes can still find ways to practice and even compete if they desire.

“Club and travel-level organizations around the area have plenty of opportunities available for athletes to stay in their game with the absence of school-organized competition,” Miele says. “Gyms are now reopening at limited capacity, too, which gives another option for older athletes to get training. If you’re not comfortable with team organized sports during this time, there are other options for keeping kids moving. Try some type of recreational activity, like running, bike riding, swimming, hiking, kayaking or canoeing, just to name a few.”

Kids need other kids

For those who crave team interaction during the pandemic, there are ways to play safely, says Dr. Robin Motter-Mast, chief of staff and medical director of care transformation at Greater Baltimore Medical Center.

“Youth sports can still be safe, and physical activity is absolutely necessary to support a child’s healthy growth and development,” she says.

When evaluating activities for their child, parents should consider the amount of risk the activity will incur, if your child or someone in your family is at an increased health risk, if the program promote behaviors that reduce possible virus spread, and if it maintains a safe environment.

“Expect all activities, inside or outside, to look a little different,” she says.

Read more: What Kobe represented for sports parents

In Motter-Mast’s opinion, contact sports such as wrestling, football, basketball and lacrosse are the most dangerous for COVID-19 transmission. Tennis, cross country, golf and gymnastics are the least dangerous.

Parents should be compassionate and resourceful to keep their child active and connected with friends and teammates, she says.

“If you or your child is fearful about participation, there are virtual gym classes and personal coaching widely available online, as well online games that encourage movement and provide competition for engagement,” she says.

Youth sports are more than child’s play—they can profoundly affect mental and physical wellbeing, too.

“For children and youth, closures of schools and parks, cancellations of organized sports and recreational activities, and increased accessibility to and time spent on screens may negatively impact their physical activity, leading to a more sedentary lifestyle,” Motter-Mast says. “This may trigger declines in mood and sleep behaviors, and can lead to a further increase in childhood obesity. While sedentary behavior certainly has no effect on the immunity, exercising in moderation is associated with improved immune competency and a reduced risk of illness.

“The bottom line,” she says, “is to keep moving!”

A version of this story appeared in the September 2020 issue of Baltimore’s Child.


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