• Play Like a Champion

Youth Organizations, High Schools Offer Unique Challenges and Solutions to Ongoing Crisis

The world continues its fight against the coronavirus this week as more Americans adjust to the “new normal” designed to mitigate the spread of the virus by staying at home. Our prayers continue to go out to those most affected, those who are sick, those who have lost loved ones, and the heroic doctors, nurses and other workers on the front lines of this battle. Though sports can seem largely insignificant during these difficult times, we also recognize the lack of sports is having a profound impact on children across the country. From the loss of physical activity to the inability for coaches to provide important mentoring and support to children in need, it’s important we assess the impact of the current situation and consider solutions. With that in mind, Play Like a Champion continues to meet with partners and provide resources to assist in this process. Together, we are all stronger.

Thousands of children this week began a new experience of education in the form of virtual learning, trading the in-person classroom they’ve always known for Zoom meetings and online modules. As many teachers learn how to provide online instruction for the first time, youth and high school coaches are finding themselves in a new world as well, learning how to train and develop athletes without being physically present. As schools and sports organizations from coast to coast consider how to provide the physical and mental support that children need during this crisis, Play Like a Champion gathered national partners this week for its third in a series of virtual summits on Youth Sports & COVID-19: How is it Affecting Our Communities?

Following two conversations that focused on the impact of COVID-19 in urban communities, the third online summit gathered a range of youth and high school administrators from across the country. From individual schools to some of the largest CYO’s in America, this diverse group discussed the challenges and opportunities presented by the current situation. The group was presented with three questions:

  1. How have school shut-downs and the restrictions imposed for social distancing affected the children and coaches you work with?

  2. How are you responding to the current situation and how will you continue to respond?

  3. How can Play Like a Champion assist you and your sports communities?

The responses of participants painted a picture of the unique challenges facing youth sports across our country and the creative solutions coaches are using to support athletes during this time. For most youth sports organizations involved, spring seasons have already been canceled, with organizers of multiple leagues suggesting that they are holding out on decisions for summer programming until a timeline for safe participation becomes clearer. These same leagues noted that while the loss of revenue from spring sports fees will certainly hurt, the corresponding lack of expenses will help mitigate short-term financial damage. The greater concern for most seems to be the long-term economic and social effects of the virus: if families either cannot afford to pay for youth sports or are afraid to participate in an activity that involves close contact and crowds, youth sports could feel the financial affect for years to come.

At the epicenter of the outbreak in the United States, the impact of the virus has brought about tragic new challenges for youth sports organizations. “It’s really tough here in New York,” explained Robert Caldera, Executive Director of the Diocese of Brooklyn CYO. “There have been too many deaths and that has hit us here in our diocese, as one of our Athletic Directors (also a former coach) just passed away.” He said that while online grief services have been made available to kids through the school, it’s difficult to process when nobody can be together. Caldera drove home the need for everyone to listen to government guidelines: “Please, I beg of you, follow what they’re asking us to do; and please continue to pray for us, as we’re praying for you.”

At the high school level, administrators acknowledged that while spring sports in most locations are still “postponed” rather than cancelled, they are realistic about the situation and the low odds of a season. That has not stopped them from developing scenarios based on dates when play could resume or getting creative with ideas should summer provide an opportunity. “We’re running on hope,” said Michael Evoy, the Associate Director of the Catholic High School League for the Archdiocese of Detroit. In the interim, high schools in Detroit and elsewhere are working to keep in contact with administrators and coaches while helping coaches do the same with athletes. Evoy hosts a weekly Zoom meeting with Detroit area Athletic Directors, which includes Aaron Babicz of Detroit Catholic Central. Babicz shared excellent examples of his own weekly Zoom meetings for coaches, captains and teams. These meetings include inspirational speakers and timely topics such as overcoming adversity and perseverance. At Adams High School in South Bend, IN, coaches have worked to keep athletes training from a distance while adding some creative methods of competition. Coach Jonathan Freymiller noted that coaches have utilized Zoom while having athletes use a mobile app that splits them into teams and has them compete by submitting their home workouts. That sort of interaction between coaches and athletes may prove to be instrumental as adolescents work through something neither they nor their parents have ever experienced.

At St. Mary’s High School in Annapolis, conversation with athletes led to a powerful opportunity to serve. The school donated the use of 3-D printers to the parent of a student-athlete, which are now being used to make masks to donate to local hospitals. The school put the word out to other regional schools, who were quick to join the effort. “One of the things we’re (always) trying to teach our student-athletes is how they can give back,” said St. Mary’s AD Allison Fondale. “Now, we’re asking them what they can learn from the experience and also how can they give back. How can we think about other people and not just ourselves?” Fondale also noted that she was meeting with team captains on that very topic later in the day. Participants in the summit agreed that opportunities like these may be excellent ways for athletes and teams to learn important lessons.

The idea of giving back may lead to creative ways to get kids back into sports once doing so is safe. Valarie Lloyd oversees both youth and high school athletics in the Archdiocese of Miami, where there is a concern that the expected impact of the virus and a number of low-income communities may create barriers to participation. Lloyd suggested that one possibility may be to create free athletic opportunities for kids by enlisting the help of high school athletes. “It wouldn’t be travel ball,” said Lloyd, “but it would still give the kids an opportunity. Kids need a safe place to go play. I think we could do this for free, using the (equipment) from spring seasons.” Hers was one of several ideas floated as youth and high school leaders brainstorm ideas for engaging children and providing opportunities when we eventually return to play.

For its part, Play Like a Champion is eager to facilitate these conversations and help all youth and high school programs to engage with coaches and athletes now while preparing for what the future holds. “This is going to be hard on us and it’s going to be hard on our children, who take their cues from us,” said Play Like a Champion Founder and Executive Director Dr. Clark Power. “This is a time for all of us to listen to each other, to listen to needs and to (consider) the resources we all have. Do we have ideas we can share to help each other?” To that end, the organization is providing resources like a recent website with ideas to keep kids physically active, while planning several upcoming meetings and webinars.

As Wednesday’s summit drew to a close, the group initiated a discussion on the long-term impact of COVID-19 on youth sports. While it remains far too early to know for sure how the crisis will impact the future of sports in our schools and communities, administrators realize that the implications of a sustained hiatus could be broad and challenging. With economic realities affecting both participants and the schools/organizations that provide sports, many are concerned about how difficult it will be to simply get kids (and coaches) back on the field once that’s possible. Still, the broad view of participants was one of hope, with several noting that sports themselves provide unique lessons and powerful examples that will help our communities recover from this crisis.

For an industry that has seen a dramatic increase in the cost and specialization of sports over the past decade, there is also hope that the current shut-down may give everyone an opportunity to pause and re-evaluate our sports culture. Perhaps the absence of sports will help us to realize that the greatest joy lies in simply being able to participate, rather than the results of a single game; that the greatest benefits can be found in the physical and mental growth that children gain through competition. Perhaps the unique challenges we currently face will force us to find new ways to collaborate with each other in order to provide all children the opportunity to participate and experience the benefits sports offer.

“Changes are coming,” said Power. “We have to be prepared for the stress, uncertainty and loss that is coming to our communities. It’s possible we never go back to the way things were. Perhaps that’s a good thing.” Play Like a Champion remains committed to walking with our partners and re-imagining sports when we do return to play so they might be available to all children.

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