Feature Article - November 2020
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Comeback Kids

Youth Sports Programming Amidst a Pandemic

By Rick Dandes

Up & Running, Carefully

The youth sports landscape has become clogged with challenges, as recreation professionals continue to revamp and rethink their youth programming during these unprecedented times, said John Engh, executive director, National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS).

In many states, Engh said, "outdoor youth sports programs like baseball, softball and soccer are up and running in a variety of forms, ranging from strictly skill-based practice sessions providing young athletes with the chance to at least be back on the field, to the actual playing of games and, in some cases, even tournaments—all with social distancing guidelines and assorted safety protocols in place."

At NAYS, where the focus is on out-of-school recreational youth sports programs, "We encouraged youth sports administrators to use the most up-to-date information to set safety standards," Engh said. "Additionally, we encourage those youth sports leaders to serve as a conduit to ensure the volunteer youth sports organizations get the information."

Miller wishes he had some of that information back last spring. "We did not do anything virtually," he said. "I wasn't sure what I could do virtually with our track program in the summer or for our running summer sports camps. Our staff did talk about virtual programming."

Miller contracts out YSF tech work, but that will change, he said. "Going forward, our board of directors has realized that it is essential. We need to use technology. Our coaches and board meetings were accessible on the Zoom platform, but as far as programming goes, at the time when the pandemic first hit, we just weren't set up for that. We are looking into that now. We are looking to work with colleges on creating programs."

Miller did get kids to register for fall football, volleyball and cheerleading programs, and those are going along "pretty good," he said. "The football programs are operating with COVID guidelines that are in place. We had some cheerleading. But our volleyball got canceled altogether. We are only at about a third of where we were last year when it comes to our fall activities."

Meanwhile, all summer Miller and his staff worked with health officials on COVID guidelines—a difficult task, he explained, "because we use schools for our game sites and they all had different guidelines, so we were having to deal with that by individual district. Municipalities also had mandates and recommendations. It was a challenge, but we are playing some football, girls are cheerleading, and that was better than not having anything at all."

Miller is optimistic about Spring and Summer 2021 youth leagues. "We are planning for things to be normal," he said. "We hope there will be a vaccine available in 2021. I know there will continue to be guidelines that we'll have to follow. But I told my staff to plan for a season like we normally do, and we'll adjust on the fly as needed."

Going through the pandemic last spring and summer taught the staff at YSF some things so they feel more prepared to adjust if they can't have a normal year.

"Here in Iowa," Miller said, "high school football has proceeded as normal, and that has been great. This past summer we ran a lot of youth baseball and softball and we have not seen COVID cases. In our fall Danville, Iowa, football program, however, I had to shut it down because we had five kids testing positive for COVID. We took it down for 10 days before re-evaluating the program."

Miller is taking things as they come, something all youth programs, no matter where they are, will have to do, he said. "Here we have guidelines, and we'll shut a program down if we need to and add extra weeks to the season for that team. We are doing what we need to do to keep kids safe. I think we'll be OK for spring and summer. I hope our donations come back because if they don't, that will kill us. We had to lay off three staffers. It's still a fluid situation."

Coaches, players and parents have all been great knowing that from this week to next week it could all change in an instant, Miller said. "Everyone is flexible. We have had a six-week football season, but it could be longer if needed. Right now things are good and we are being positive."