As our world adjusts to the new normal of COVID-19, one casualty has been a loss of organized youth sports. Although in no way comparable to the impact of lives lost, personal boundaries readjusted, or changing educational expectations, the loss of youth sports has had definite consequences on the psyche of parents and children. Parents all over the world are navigating new restrictions and finding ways to give their children opportunities to safely participate in organized activities.
As the wife of a former Division I athlete and former high school coach, I thought I understood how much sports was a part of my life. However, I was in no way prepared for the silence that overtook my home during the pandemic. Nights filled with listening to my husband drone on about missed plays, lost potential, yards gained, buckets scored, goals defended was replaced by...nothing.
We were forced to evaluate elements of our lives that we took for granted and we had to learn to connect without sports. Our four-year-old son, though, has had a much harder time adjusting to our slower world.
Initially, I found new ways to incorporate my son’s need for exploration with the need to remain socially distant. My family further familiarized ourselves with the Jordan River Trail. Like others, we found solace in walking and biking the JRT and other nearby routes.
However, just as the need for competition and contact drew my husband to watch anything ESPN offered, I found myself unexpectedly wanting to watch my own child compete. I missed cheering. And because my own competitive spirit is such that I find it impossible to play even the most innocuous games like Sequence and Connect Four without stomping all over my child’s feelings, I ached to watch him play with his own age mates. So, I was thrilled to stumble upon a group of children near my son’s age dressed in ill-fitting matching shirts and chasing a soccer ball in a nearby neighborhood.
I knew of high school students and professional athletes being approved to play together and I had heard reports of parents of older kids moving across state lines so their children could continue to play, but I did not know young children had commenced organized sports so close to me. I was shocked, scared, and secretly so happy to see kids play that I stopped and watched.
The children clumsily ran across the field and my son and I laughed at eager attempts to score and I quietly cheered for the lone child whose mother had insisted he wear a mask the entire game. The game was joy personified. And terror seized my heart as I watched.
The pandemic has meant that I have had to explain a lot of new concepts to my son. The hardest, though, was explaining that even though children his age were able to participate in a fun-filled game of soccer, he could not. I was still firm in my belief that he would not play, especially without a mask. I thought it was futile for parents to insist children wear a mask throughout the day but not insist the same during a moment of fun. So even while I cheered, I remained conflicted. And scared. And it seems I’m not the only one for whom this issue is complicated.
Just as the Salt Lake City School District took drastic measures to protect youths during this time, Salt Lake County-run recreation centers have cancelled youth programming since mid-February, despite reopening pools and gyms for adults in the summer.
Additionally, The Jayhawks, a local nonprofit basketball league, went from hosting 270 youth athletes aged 8-18 to organizing only a few practices with 20 high school students after the pandemic hit. Out of safety concerns, they limited participation even after health officials allowed larger crowds of people to gather. Jayhawks kept numbers low, enforced strict social distancing guidelines, used pre-temperature checks, provided masks and utilized hand-sanitation stations to protect the youth.
Jayhawks’ coach and co-founder John Satini said, “Kids feel invincible. I remind them that [they] have to be selfless for those the virus may cause to get sick or even kill. [They] have to have a certain etiquette regarding this virus.”
The Salt Lake City Recreation Centers plan to eventually open their facilities back up, with limited amenities being available, using a phased approach. The facility that usually hosts sports such as t-ball, baseball, soccer and Jr. Jazz basketball, is still waiting to get word on when everything else will be made available and what restrictions will be included to minimize participants’ chances of contracting COVID.
In the meantime, I secure the mask around my son’s ears and continue to watch from a distance.