How the pandemic impacted youth sports (for the better)

The pandemic is responsible for changing nearly every facet of our lives. As life went virtual, it also returned to simplicity, pushing us to consider what’s most important.

Much of the focus on the mental health impacts of COVID-19 centered around adults, who were forced to weather difficult transitions to remote work, furloughs, or unemployment. There was also a steady dialogue surrounding teens, who experienced a complete overhaul of their school environments, social activities, and major life events like prom and graduation.

Young children don’t always express discomfort, stress, and depression in the same way as adolescents, but interruptions in their daily routines and access to resources like education, food, and care all took a toll on their psychological well-being — increasing their risk of developmental delays and health issues. As parents, teachers, and coaches looked for ways to bring children vital social interaction and mental stimulation during distancing, every outlet had to be reimagined.

Before the pandemic, youth sports were a source of friendly competition and the foundation for a future of athletic achievement. During the pandemic, they became vital and treasured opportunities for social interaction, needed physical activity, and fun in a world that had become isolating and uncertain. Today, we have an obligation to welcome a new evolution of youth sports that brings children widespread opportunities to build both a successful athletic career and a happier, more fulfilled future – but to do so, we must maintain several important changes that resulted from the pandemic.

Youth sports have forever changed for the better

COVID-19 reminded us not only of the importance of making the most of difficult situations, but also how youth sports can enhance and support children’s mental health and development. At the end of 2020, 73.7% of children who were not involved in sports exhibited signs of anxiety, compared to 18% of children who did participate in youth sports. Furthermore, 68.6% of children who did not play sports reported experiencing depression, compared to 42.1% of child athletes. In a world that was becoming increasingly small and scary for kids, sports became a last beacon of normalcy for many of them – but the way we had to approach it as coaches and mentors was far from business-as-usual. From re-focusing on fun to finding new ways to connect, we had to reconsider all that youth sports could mean.

A love of the game was rekindled: For athletes at any level, the joy of playing can often get lost amid the stress of competing or making the cut during tryout season. In fact, the No. 1 reason kids drop out of sports is because they aren’t enjoying themselves. The pandemic made everyone realize what we were taking for granted, and in youth sports, children finally had an opportunity to focus solely on having fun again. We saw a completely new level of engagement from our players after diverging from traditional training methods. Everything became about getting the kids involved, and as a result, they started practicing in their backyards, basements, and even bedrooms for the sheer love of the game. That kind of enthusiasm is an integral part of keeping children involved in sports; in turn, it helps to improve their self-esteem, goal-setting, and leadership skills, which are all more important than the score at the end of the day. Incorporating games and challenges into your in-person training routine is a great way to continue keeping engagement high, while still giving kids the opportunity to have fun.

Kids found new ways to stay connected: During a time when everything from jobs to grocery shopping to events shifted online, innovation was key to keeping kids involved. More than ever, the internet – and social media in particular – plays a huge role in children’s lives, so why not use it to our advantage when it comes to encouraging physical activity? Keeping children active should be a sweeping goal across both in-person and digital platforms, especially when it comes to promoting mental health. A recent study found that children who don’t exercise are twice as likely to experience anxiety, depression, and other mental health problems. Meeting them where they are helps get them engaged and excited about sports. Incorporating fun video activities and challenges can be more than just a solution to a pandemic, it can become a routine part of practice that keeps kids moving, communicating, and having fun.

Coaches became more accessible: Where coaches have historically been great motivators, they haven’t always been the best communicators – but COVID-19 challenged everyone to become better at working and talking together. Over-communication became not only desirable, but essential over the past year and a half, and conversations that used to be difficult to have with parents became a regular responsibility. Being more accessible as individuals allows coaches and parents to band together and provide children with a stronger, united support network. More than just key players in keeping children safe and healthy, accessible coaches can make all the difference in the world for adolescents. Surveys have even found that coaches have the power to impact development and help young children feel comforted and understood, which is something we should all strive to provide.

Reinventing the game

We all experienced loss and change during the pandemic, but these feelings also serve to remind us of the importance of human connection, health, and hope. In putting forth our best effort at maintaining the emphasis on practice and the competitive joy of youth soccer, we were able to see firsthand the role of sports in inspiring children’s confidence, and in turn, how we can all rethink our priorities. As sports leagues, parents, and communities, we are now in a position to learn from and continue the positive changes we have made throughout the pandemic to reshape the future of youth sports in a way that benefit our children’s mental health, boosts their development, and provides them with the support network they need to thrive.

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(Brad Davis was born in St. Charles and grew up playing in the Scott Gallagher youth system before attending Chaminade High School and Saint Louis University. After two collegiate seasons he was selected as the third overall pick in the 2002 MLS SuperDraft. Davis went on to amass 392 appearances with 57 goals and 123 assists in MLS over a 15-year playing career. He earned 17 caps for the USA including a start against Germany in the 2014 World Cup. He's two-time MLS Cup winner (2006 & 2007) six-time MLS All-Star Team election.)

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