Let's Get Back to the Game!
Who among us has not missed youth sports and looked forward to returning to youth sports? The playing. The outdoors. Pushing our limits and enjoying teamwork with friends… Adults, we might not miss the driving around, but there is no substitute for the joy, laughter, and conversation that comes into our homes as a result of a youth sports program. Kids miss their friends, the game, getting to run around, and even showing off a little from time to time with a well placed ball. Our culture has taken a serious hit when youth sports were sidelines and in many places around the world, it’s time to get back to it!
As we build our programs for the Spring, Summer, and Fall seasons, we will do well to remember some important considerations returning to play. Getting and keeping kids safe and game ready is a big deal. It doesn’t happen by paying a fee, ordering a uniform, and showing up for practice. The stuff that happens below the waterline is more important than ever right now and if we don’t openly address these things today, we’ll be looking at injuries tomorrow. I’m not understating this point.
Important For Returning to Youth Sports
Let’s lay out a short list if important considerations returning to youth sports. We’ll talk about each one in a little more detail in a minute, but for right now, let’s prime the mental pump.
- Kids have been away from sports for many months
- Some kids got COVID
- Social norms have changed
- People who were in seasonal jobs like coaching and being a referee may not be there
- Volunteers and volunteerism has changed
- Gear may not have been maintained
This is a simple six-pack of considerations we didn’t have to think about when programming the Fall of 2019 season. We’re all affected by a year+ long pandemic now and these things (and more) are definitely on the planning table today – or they should be!
Being Away from Sports
I chose to talk about this one up front because 1. there is probably the most to say about this and 2. this is the one that will surely lead to injuries when kids, coaches and an army of volunteers return to fields for the first time. This one point can be the source for several articles by itself, by I know you and you know where I’m going with this.
Some Kids Got COVID
An article in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) titled Return to Play for Athletes After Coronavirus Disease 2019 Infection—Making High-Stakes Recommendations as Data Evolve talks about how COVID may affect the hearts of patients who have previously had the disease. Even in asymptomatic cases – cases where the patient had no symptoms – autopsies have revealed that in up to 60% of post COVID patients may have ongoing inflammation of the heart muscle. It is not yet clear how medically significant this will be in the long term – especially in kids under the age of 15 where very little data exists. Most cases are not expected to lead to sudden cardiac death – a condition that is more statistically prevalent in high school aged kids – but there is a possibility – perhaps even a probability that sudden cardiac death will become more important post-COVID than it was before COVID.
On this issue alone, it may be a wise move to add recognition and treatment of sudden cardiac death to the onboarding courses we typically require for coaches to take. I’ve added it as a highly suggested course to my Club’s curriculum, and am considering making it a mandatory course.
I didn’t take this course myself until I started coached high school aged kids, but in a post-COVID world, I’m thinking it’s a good idea for all coaches.
Other Physical Player Issues
Along the same lines, knee injuries, repetitive and stress injuries, back injuries, and even injuries due to bad or forgotten technique (like headers, for example), are all more important than ever to pay attention to. Parents, coaches, athletic trainers, and administrators all need to step back into the youth sports arena with an eye firmly fixed on safety. This may mean longer and more gentle pre-season conditioning. It may mean education campaigns and curriculum adjustments.
The opposite of gradual return to play and being careful is compressed pre-season training and quick return to games. I’m hearing many clubs and schools offering compressed seasons to “get sports in.” This typically looks like a quick pre-season conditioning and 6 weeks of games. Schools are in some cases moving Fall sports up into the Spring because kids missed Fall 2020. Overlapping or piling on multiple sports on top of one another can introduce a new range of issues – including repetitive and stress injuries – that we should all be thinking carefully about.
Mental Issues Returning to Youth Sports
Our physical bodies aren’t the only things that have been locked away for over a year. Our brains, social lives, and perceptions of how the world really is have also been put in a time capsule and may have either atrophied or will be forced to adjust as we learn our way through new normal. On March 13th, 2021, CNN published an article titled 9 things that weren’t scary before the pandemic but are now. In that article, they talk about 9 things that may be scary in a post-COVID world – at least for a little while. They don’t all apply to returning to youth sports, but being out and about in any way can put these into play. I would argue that sitting next to other, for example, doesn’t only apply to eating out at restaurants, but can also apply to the sidelines of a soccer game. Here are the nine items that list:
- 1Eye contact
- 2Being among crowds
- 3Shaking hands and hugging
- 4Flirting or getting asked on a date
- 5New intimate relationships
- 6Sharing public spaces
- 7Sharing objects to help others
- 8Cosmetic and spa services
- 9Going back to work
While items 4, 5, and 8 don’t often have direct correlation to returning to youth sports, fist bumps, shared benches and bleachers, car pooling, sharing a game ball, wearing training bibs, contested headers, and mixing up water bottles do. These items will be on most people’s minds as we take to the fields again. It’s a good idea to address them in our returning to youth sports guidelines.
What Can We Do?
Getting back on the field starts well before a season opening practice. To make COVID and post- COVID safe environments, coaches need training, parents need education, kids need to get their bodies moving, and volunteers need to turn out.
I’m amending my coach onboarding training starter pack to include one additional course in recognizing and responding to sudden cardiac death for all age groups. The new minimum safety training kit I use to onboard new coaches now looks like this:
Sponsor Club, School, or State
Usually free, but may require a small fee
Every 12 months
NCSI or similar
~$20 to the Club, School, or State
Every 24 months
State source, BSA, Darkness to Light, NFHS, or County Schools
From free to ~$50
Every 12 months
CDC Heads Up or Approved USYS, USC, or NFHS course
Fundamentals of Coaching
Digital Coaching Center (USYS), United Soccer Coaches, or NFHS
Free to ~$35
Sudden Cardiac Death Awareness and Response
Every 12 months
If you’re reading as a parent, you’re not a passive observer in this process if you’re a member of a local community club. If you’re paying huge sums of money (in the thousands) for your kid to play in a profit-driven organization, then you can take a seat and pay your money for someone else to have all the fun. But if you’re taking advantage of a community volunteer driven nonprofit club, it’s time to step up. These clubs have even more to keep an eye on now that we’re returning to youth sports after a long pause and serious illness. They will be ramping up training for on-field volunteers, adding extra eyes and brains to help direct the flow of people safely around fields, watching for safe distancing of parents and players during practices and games, cleaning gear more often (or for some for the first time), washing training bibs, keeping water bottles separated, and trying to show an organized face to what can get a little crazy behind the scenes. Raise your hand! Volunteers are needed more than ever.
If you’re reading as a player, you’re definitely not a passive observer either. It’s time to start getting your body back into shape to handle competition. Eat right. Get yourself on a healthy sleep schedule. Start stretching and playing outside. Run when you can. Work your core. Climb hills. Hike. Swim. Kick a ball with friends. Toss a Frisbee. Do what it takes to get your body off the couch, out of your house, and into the sunshine!
There are some awesome games on the horizon. Let’s get ready for them now!
Returning to youth sports is something we all want to see happen – the sooner the better. We’re going to have to be patient with the process or accept the risks for injury or even turning families away from youth sports all together. Neither injury nor turning families away are good or acceptable options, so let’s spend a little setting up the field, getting the support stuff back online, and getting our bodies ready for the fun to come!
- Udelson JE, Curtis MA, Rowin EJ. Return to Play for Athletes After Coronavirus Disease 2019 Infection—Making High-Stakes Recommendations as Data Evolve. JAMA Cardiol. 2021;6(2):136–138. doi:10.1001/jamacardio.2020.5896
- Rogers, Story by Kristen, and Ada Wood. “9 Anxiety-Inducing Social Interactions as the World Reopens.” CNN, Cable News Network, 13 Mar. 2021, www.cnn.com/2021/03/13/health/pandemic-anniversary-nervousness-wellness/index.html.
- The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Returning to Sports After a COVID-19 Infection.” Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 12 Aug. 2020, www.chop.edu/news/health-tip/returning-to-sports-after-a-covid-19-Infection.
- Lee, David, and Eugene Chung. “Sports Participation and Sudden Cardiac Arrest.” American College of Cardiology, 28 June 2016, www.acc.org/latest-in-cardiology/articles/2016/06/28/07/06/sports-participation-and-sudden-cardiac-arrest.
The Soccer Sidelines Podcast by David Dejewski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.Based on a work at https://thesoccersidelines.com.