COVID-19 Continues to Pose Risks to Youth Sports

Kids sitting by swimming pool

For many people, playing sports is an important part of their childhood and young adult experience whether they go on to join the NBA or be captain of their neighborhood basketball team. Playing sports has many benefits for young people including supporting mental health, improving cognitive abilities, boosting physical health, refining motor skills, and providing a place to develop teamwork and problem solving skills.

Unfortunately, we also know that not enough kids are getting access to all these benefits through regular physical activity and participation in sports. A 2018 study showed that only 5% of American youth were able to get 60 minutes of daily exercise, the federally recommended amount. Even more alarming, youth physical activity and health vary greatly by race, gender, and ability. Nationally, white and Asian children have better physical health outcomes than their Black and Latinx peers, girls often sharply decrease their physical activity levels during adolescence, and youth with disabilities are significantly less active than other kids.

Volleyball players

The current COVID-19 pandemic has only served to worsen these trends. Some reports show that the time children spend playing sports dropped by nearly 50% after the pandemic started and more than 36 million athletes between the ages of 6 and 17 in the U.S. had to stop playing organized sports entirely in Spring 2020. While private sports programs have largely reopened, many school-based sports and community recreation initiatives are being cut as local government budgets shrink under the pressure of COVID-19 response measures.

As parents and players weigh the relative risks and benefits of participating in regular athletic activities, there are many aspects of the situation to consider including the frequency and nature of player contact in different types of sports, the ability to safely distance between playing time on the bench or sideline, and the feasibility of regularly cleaning gear or providing individualized equipment. During the winter months, many kids usually play a range of indoor sports such as volleyball, basketball, and swimming. This has prompted even more questions for parents, coaches, and administrators because indoor courts and gyms offer less ventilation and space for distancing than outdoor fields and stadiums.

Kids with basketball

Unfortunately, there’s no one easy answer that applies to all sports participation in all settings. Safety, in this case, is very context dependent. One thing that has become clear, however, is that managing player interactions in locker rooms and on the bench can be just as important as maintaining safety standards on the field or the court.

We know that there are significant benefits related to sports participation for kids but we also know that COVID-19 has introduced a high level of risk to those activities. It’s important that we work to keep kids active, healthy, and engaged in their community as much as possible as we navigate this new territory together. Every family, athlete, school, coach, and community program will have to make their own decision about the best way to move forward. As they make those choices, the Center for Disease Control and the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative offer good resources for up-to-date, data-based information related to youth sports and the ongoing pandemic.