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."

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."

Back to the Y

When the Susquehanna Valley YMCA re-opened its facilities, they had many recommendations and protocols to consider. McDowell decided to open slowly, allowing people to come in and use equipment as it was. "That's always a good idea. It was before we actually restarted our programs," McDowell said. "We blocked off and separated the cardio equipment so that there was none within six feet of each other. People could come in and feel safe knowing they could use our cardio equipment. We did that with all our equipment in our fitness centers. We didn't allow the gymnasiums to be used quite yet. We just opened for exercise. That is how we started."

The way the YMCA progressed was deliberate and thoughtful, so that staff knew they could take the next step in their cleaning processes and all the protocols and guidelines that they would be following when their programs began. "How we did this," McDowell explained, "was by being open just for fitness members. Then we began our exercise classes led by instructors, cycling and the body exercise classes."

The Y continued doing virtual classes during the whole shutdown, "and I'm proud of that," McDowell said. "Not every Y was able to do that but we did, from the beginning of the closure. Our instructors worked from their homes teaching classes on Facebook Live. So, if you were a member of the Y, you would get the authority to log into that Facebook Live class while it was being taught in real time by our instructors. We had a lot of good feedback about that. People were happy that they had an opportunity to be working out."

McDowell said that overall, they are about at 50% of their members back. Daily utilization is about 40%, compared to a year ago.

Youth swim programs are also back, she said. "We just brought back youth swim and lessons [in October]. Other youth sports are back as well, but only after setting up guidelines. Things are different. Parents aren't bringing their children in and sitting in the gym watching their kids like they used to. They bring them to the door, the instructor takes their temperature, makes sure their hands are washed and that they are masked. Then they go to the gym and participate in the program (participants don't wear masks while in play). When they are through, the instructor brings the kids back to the door, where parents pick them up."

Following guidelines, the YMCA is limiting the people in the facilities, and limiting exposure by doing that. "We make sure the kids are sanitizing their hands at sanitizing stations we've placed in our facilities," she said. "We have taken our time bringing things back. We wanted to see how schools planned their re-opening and once they did, we felt comfortable. Another thing is our classes are smaller, compared to what it was before."

When McDowell was putting together all these guidelines, protocols and procedures, she used what was recommended by the CDC and the department of health. "Every state is different," she said. "We shared experiences with other Ys around the country. We had webinars, and Zoom meetings with other CEOs. It was great to get guidance from other CEOs and see how they dealt with their individual challenges. The YMCA made welcome-back videos for kids so that they'd know what to expect when they returned—virtual tours."

It's tough to accurately plan ahead because the pandemic is unpredictable, McDowell said. "Things are so fluid, even when we plan our budget for next year. Usually our budget is done in October for the next year. We are not doing a traditional budget process timeline. We are going to do it by quarter. By season. There is no way right now that we would know what summer 2021 is going to look like.

"I heard another YMCA CEO say, 'We're going to bring back members one at a time.'" McDowell said. "It is going to take that time to communicate with members and people in our communities that things are safe." RM



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