Feature Article - November 2020
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Comeback Kids

Youth Sports Programming Amidst a Pandemic

By Rick Dandes

After months of shutdown because of the coronavirus, there is cautious optimism among those who fund, manage and run youth sports programs that leagues can resume and kids can play safely.

"Organized sports are starting to return for youth of all ages, though as of September, they are still half as active as they were prior to the pandemic," said Jon Solomon, editorial director, Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. "Parents are more willing to let their children play, and to spend money to support those activities, despite increasing concerns about the risks of COVID-19 transmission as well as transportation and scheduling concerns with school starting up again."

Meanwhile, Solomon noted, a growing number of youths have no interest in returning to the primary sport they played pre-pandemic—nearly three in 10 now, according to a national survey of parents conducted by the Aspen Institute.

A year ago, Aspen's Project Play program provided insights on how common it is for kids to quit sports, while sharing resources to keep them playing. But no one could have envisioned that every child would be "retired" by March 2020, Solomon said.

"Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, four out of 10 youth sports families saw their child play their primary sport at least four days per week," he explained, "so the change was a jolt for many families. By September 2020, many parts of the country were back to playing sports, but which sports returned still varied by state and local communities."

Solomon revealed other notable takeaways from the survey: One of the most popular activities for youth was bicycling, he said. While kids have significantly decreased their hours in most sports and activities during the pandemic, bicycling stayed about the same (9.1 hours per week during COVID-19, compared with 10.5 hours per week before COVID-19). Bicycling went from the 16th-most popular activity pre-pandemic to No. 3 in hours spent during COVID-19, behind only tackle and flag football.

Of the 21 sports and activities tracked by the Aspen Institute survey, parents reported increased hours by their child in 10 of them between June 2020 and September 2020. Some of the changes in time spent could be due to the sports calendar evolving to different seasons.

"Kids spent 29% more time on baseball in September than in June," Solomon noted. "Soccer moved slower with a 4% increase over those three months. Tackle football was up 10%. Basketball, a contact sport often played indoors during the winter, was down 10%. The average child spends about 6.5 hours less per week on sports during COVID-19. Free play, practices and competitions have all significantly declined. Time spent on games has declined by 59%, and practice hours are down 54% during the pandemic, though both saw increases in September 2020 compared to June 2020."

"The pandemic has had a major effect on all of our activities at the YMCA, especially programming," said Bonita McDowell, CEO of the Greater Susquehanna Valley YMCA.

"One example of that was how the shutdown affected our swim team, which is comprised of really talented youth-age swimmers. They had national swim meets right around the corner, and then it was canceled."

What was sad, McDowell explained, is that these youths often get scholarships at Division 1 universities through their performances at the nationals. "They were not able to finish out their senior season with YMCA Swimming. It was really unfortunate for them to miss out on that. Nationals is what they swim for all year as they grow up—looking for the chance to compete at that level of competition."

It was a shame to see track and field, baseball, and softball seasons canceled at the high school level as well, McDowell said. With those sports opportunities not there, the YMCA began thinking about what kids could do during that free time. "Our solution was to do a lot of virtual coaching—offering ideas on ways for kids to be active on their own, wherever they are. We thought about coaching them on training that they can do alone, workouts they can do on their own. For swimmers, the challenge was, what kind of training can they do outside the pool? So there was still a lot of coaching going on, mostly for our older kids. The younger kids, we did what we could."

Hard Hit

The Youth Sports Foundation in Muscatine, Iowa, is a private, nonprofit organization running youth sports in Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa and Eastern Nebraska. When the pandemic first hit, said president and co-founder Jim Miller, "our co-ed track-and-field program, which is in the spring, got shut down. In February we tried to be optimistic. Even in March. We kept moving the programs scheduled for spring back a month, then another month, until it got to the point where we realized we were not going to be able to have the programs up and running. All spring and summer programs had to be canceled. We had to give refunds because typically we do our registration in February for spring programs. That money had to go back to parents, and when you are nonprofit you rely on those registration fees and donations."

The other problem that Miller had involved grants. "When I go out to get funding for the new year, we usually start in December and January. By February, we had already gotten some grants. When the pandemic hit, the people who handed out the grants called and said they were going to take those funds and redirect it to the COVID fight. As an American, how can I argue with what could help, considering what was going on in March? That really hurt us as well. Grant funding, and no programs. I didn't know where we were going to be."

As states shut down, the foundation got enormous numbers of requests for refunds from parents and from some of the leagues. "It's amazing how in our region, the decisions made by colleges to play or not to play affects parents in youth programs," Miller said." When the Big 10 shut down and originally said they were not going to play football, the number of phone calls we got asking for refunds was significant. This was a very difficult time for us. Things have gotten better for us in the fall."