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How To Handle Youth Sports During COVID-19

An expert offers advice on what parents should know about signing their children up for sports.
An expert offers advice on what parents should know about signing their children up for sports. Photo Credit: Phelps Hospital

The relaunch of youth sports in the setting of COVID poses many challenges to sports medicine professionals and parents alike. Sports play a central role in our family, and with three active young boys, the pandemic has drastically altered this part of our lives.

My 9-year-old son is a competitive swimmer. Before the pandemic hit New York he had just qualified for Junior Olympics, a goal he had worked so hard to achieve. When the first wave of COVID-19 forced the cancellation of his competition he was devastated—and then the rest of his season was canceled, too. Before long, our two younger boys saw two soccer seasons and their school swim team end abruptly. Like many families, summer plans full of sports camps changed drastically.

Luckily, as the world finds its new normal and we prepare for school reopening, sports are also on the horizon. And like many parents, my wife and I have had to decide if we’re comfortable letting the boys return to organized sports during the pandemic.

Taking away athletics indefinitely from kids carries its own risks because it becomes a big part of who they are and how they look at themselves. Sports have so many physiological benefits—promoting bone growth and cardiovascular health—but after months spent cooped up inside, the social and emotional benefits they offer could be more important now than ever.

Yet, the question remains—is it safe?

Here we’ve hit our first hurdle. The answer is that it depends on the sport and level of play, as well as the level of community spread in an area. But, here’s our starting point: the more people, the closer and longer the physical interaction, and the more shared objects, the higher the risk will be.

Hurdle 1: Contact vs. non-contact

When close contact is integral to the game, the risk remains high. Remember, your child’s risk of exposure is as high as the highest risk child—or most careless—in that group. As a result, return to competitive play for moderate-to-high contact sports like football, basketball, and wrestling will carry the highest risk.

While the argument can be made that some sports can be modified to make it safer, the fact remains that it doesn’t remove the risk. So what can parents do? For these higher-risk sports, a safer alternative may be a return to play at a non-contact level of participation where you can ensure social distancing is maintained and your child can wear a mask whenever possible. Other options include organized skills training in an individual or small group setting.

Hurdle 2: Are their protocols enough?

When you are assessing the risk of spread in a sport, make sure your school/club/team has protocols in place that address:

  • Supervision: Before signing your child up, find out what level of supervision there will be. The younger the child, the greater the need to monitor for risky behaviors.
  • Screening: At a minimum, players should receive daily temperature checks prior to exposure to the rest of the children, as well as regular symptom checks, travel history, and exposure history.
  • Limiting numbers: More players on the field and spectators in the stands means the higher the chance of virus spread. Leagues should have plans to limit team size and crowd size.
  • Travel: Teams that travel outside of your immediate community will increase your child’s risk of exposure to COVID—particularly if other teams come from an area with high levels of the virus. Staying local gives you a better chance to know the other players, their families, and their views on the virus.
  • At-risk families: Those with underlying medical conditions or who are in contact with at-risk family members should be extra cautious.

Hurdle 3: Enforcing protocols

Team coaches and administrators need to enforce their protocols for them to be effective. Perhaps even more importantly, you should take time with other parents to discuss their understanding and approach to the virus. To me, that is an indication of whether any of the above protocols will be maintained—especially if you are not able to always be present.

To make sure you clear this final hurdle, give your child the tools to take control of the situation. Here are some safety tactics to help lower their risk:

  • Avoid shared objects. Kids should carry their own gear and come already wearing their uniform. Bring individual snacks and water.
  • Avoid locker rooms. Coaches should limit the number of people present at any one time. The combination of poor ventilation, enclosed space, and masks likely being off makes it a very high risk area for transmission.
  • Hand hygiene. Wash hands before and after games and activities, and after touching any shared objects. Parents should reinforce the use of soap and water for at least 20 seconds and, for older children, the safe use of hand sanitizer.
  • Discourage spitting. Encourage your kids to cough and sneeze into the inside of their elbow or a tissue.
  • Wear a mask, even during play. While challenging for younger players or during intense aerobic activity, masks should be worn as much as possible—most importantly when they can’t maintain proper distance from other players. Provide information on the proper use, removal, and washing of masks. If the team chooses to wear masks, avoid prolonged masked activity in hot weather. Allowance for increased rest periods and substitutions may help to mitigate this concern. For athletes with asthma or other respiratory illnesses, mask use may not be feasible.
  • Practice social distancing. Players should keep masks on and remain socially distanced on the sideline. For example, the NCAA has recommended that athletes should carry masks on the field, replacing it before approaching the sideline or holding discussions with coaches or referees.
  • Limit to one parent present at practices and games. This is a tough one, but a necessary step in ensuring we do everything we can to reduce the spread of this virus.

Ultimately—after many family discussions about safety—our family decided to let our son participate in swim camps this summer. We felt confident that we’d given him the tools and lessons to practice his sport safely. But more than that, as parents we learned first-hand that if you’re going to let your child participate, you have to be confident in those running the league and, most importantly, do your homework. Understand that no matter what you do, returning to youth sports is a calculated risk. In our family we feel the social, physical, and psychological benefits of sports activities outweigh the risk to our “inner bubble,” but that may not be true for all families.

If teams are unable to put in place or maintain safety measures during competition or team-based activities, there are plenty of resources online to help your child keep active and engaged in conditioning and drills. This will help them maintain their baseline cardiovascular and musculoskeletal health, and reduce their risk for injury if and when we’re able to return to sports at a more normal level.

Disclaimer: Participation and reopening of youth sports may vary based on local and state guidance. Furthermore, there are discrepancies in the risk classification for certain sports across New York state, NCAA, and CDC guidelines. The article above is not intended as strict guidance, but rather to provide parents a framework to use when making decisions for their family’s participation in sports. As with all activities in the setting of COVID, these discussions must take place with full consideration for individual family variables, such as the number of high-risk individuals (elderly, ill, or immunocompromised) in your home or social network.

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