2020: The End of Sports...Or A New Beginning?
There's been a little hiatus since my last post...during which the ENTIRE WORLD fell apart! Unless you've been living in a different dimension, you are probably up to speed on the current events of the world and that COVID-19 has changed our lives in insurmountable ways. This past week numerous schools and universities cancelled in person learning and many sports for the Fall season. To say this is devastating is an understatement. Teachers, parents, administrators and kids are all extremely stressed and frantically figuring out how to adapt so the best possible solution can be found for a situation with no possible "win". Unfortunately there just isn't a good solution that solves all problems, and our brains just can't seem to handle this additional stress placed upon them.
I worry most about our youth. Not only is COVID-19 hitting ages 20-29 the hardest right now, but that age group is already at a high risk of mental illness. Suicide is a leading cause of death for ages 10-29. Many kids need in person learning and sports to allow them to escape their home environment and surround themselves with positive role models. That being said, forcing kids to go to school in person and stick to extreme regimens, be exposed to a high stress environment, and have to battle the risk of contracting an unknown virus or exposing someone else to the virus is not good for their mental health either. Speaking of this virus: we know the youth population is least at risk for having symptoms, but we do not know what the long term implications of this virus will be. There have been reports of stroke, myocarditis, and possible permanent lung disease in younger populations due to COVID-19, and while the numbers are low -- there are deaths happening to this age group. I also understand it from the administration side: there is a lot of risk allowing kids to participate in sports at this time, and there are a lot of protocols that will be hard to follow should they proceed with sports. It's hard enough for our fully developed adult brains to process all this, much less throw all this on children, teens and young adults whose brains haven't fully developed. One death from COVID-19 is too much, yet one death from suicide or drug overdose is also too much. There is no solution that makes this a great option for all, and no solution in which someone is not stressed or put at risk. So what do we do?
The point of this post is not to debate the potential options and ways for schools and organizations to handle the situation at hand. There isn't a clear answer and that's not what I'm trained to talk about! :) My background is in sport science, so my point is to look at what Sports can do for us as a whole.
Sports are amazing. While some may think they are just a game, Sports are actually very different than games (Trust me, there are whole fields of study about this in Kinesiology). Sports are designed to teach us how to obtain a skill, set goals, work together as a team, communicate, lead, and be active while having fun. Sports give us skills that allow us to develop into effective leaders, have values, adapt and transition when life changes. It allows us to put our differences aside to work together toward a common goal. Athletes learn to rise to a challenge, and how to adapt if we fail. The best benefit: it allows our brain and body to be healthy and work properly. Sports and physical exercise can prevent and reverse chronic disease. Exercise is extremely effective at helping to manage depression and anxiety. The increased blood flow and neural connections that happen when you play a sport help our brains develop and advance in extremely healthy ways that will help us live longer, healthier lives. Can you obtain all these benefits by doing other skills/hobbies and exercising on your own? Sure, but I bet any former athlete will tell you that it's not the same. There is something about playing a sport that is different. It may be the energy you feel as you work day in and day out over years with your team, the memories you have of those big moments, or maybe the little things no one talks about like the undivided support you get from your team, or the chats with your coach in the hallway after practice. It's a safe environment that (theoretically) lifts you up, pushes you to grow in healthy ways, and teaches you how to have fun while working hard.
It's a safe environment that (theoretically) lifts you up, pushes you to grow in healthy ways, and teaches you how to have fun while working hard.
Unfortunately sports have changed over the years. Youth sports are no longer neighborhood games and recreation leagues where kids can try out multiple sports in a low stress environment over multiple years. Specialization is no longer optional and limited to those kids with potential for college or the pros, but is now a requirement in many sports in order to play at the Jr. High and High School Level. It seems like if you aren't on a travel team by age 8, playing year round in multiple states, then you can pretty much forget about playing on the varsity team in 11th grade. I could go on for pages about the implication this may have on kids growth and motor development, as well as their mental health. We are seeing burn out at higher rates and younger ages. The pressure on kids to succeed is so high at such a young age that sports are no longer fun and is costing our athletes their mental health. The cost, time and extensiveness of many sports are limiting access from many kids to even try them, much less develop their skills over time to do well in the sport. Let's not even discuss college and professional sports, where so many external business factors like player rankings and fantasy scores impact how the game is played and players are structured. Sports have changed over time and not necessarily in a good way.
2020 may have ended sports as we know it...but maybe in some ways it's a good thing! In the last couple of months I've seen baseball leagues return to "sandlot" style games in town, watched kids play basketball in their driveways, and observed more pick up soccer games in the park. Kids and parents are going out and playing sports for the love of the game again (and because the only thing to do is go outside). Even professional sports have modified seasons. Maybe a silver lining of this virus is healing some of the craziness that has developed in sports, and will lead to a new beginning and newfound love of the game again.
It's inevitable that not all will be able to experience the joy of sports in a relaxed environment. I feel horrible for all the high school and college kids out there who aren't getting their senior year of competition, and I hope we can come up with a solution to allow them some sense of "normal" to complete their athletic career. It's important to remember the environment that sports provide: one that lifts players up, helps them grow in healthy ways while working on a common goal. Hopefully parents, teachers/coaches and neighborhoods will be able to create a safe, low-risk way to re-create that environment for our athletes. This might look like spending more 1:1 time with your kids practicing their skills, creating inter-squad "scrimmage" leagues of small groups, changing some of the rules to involve less direct contact, or perhaps just sitting down with your kids and listening to what they have to say about the situation. All of our mental health needs attention right now, but this age population has particularly high need. Let's help these kids see this as a potential way to set new goals and dreams, while properly grieving the ones that are lost.
Let's help these kids see this as a potential way to set new goals and dreams, while properly grieving the ones that are lost.
It's very easy to say "but we can't gather!" right now. And you are right. This is a very difficult and unsure time for everyone. Many have been affected by COVID-19 in one way or another, and there are varying levels of contact that each person finds acceptable based on their circumstance. I do not advise anyone to reach out of their current comfort zone or level of protection right now. I do propose to you to take a moment to look at your current lifestyle. How are you handling all of this in front of your athletes? What energy are they picking up from you? How much 1:1 time are you spending with each other, or getting outside in some fresh air? You may not be able to change the school or venue environment, but you can change your environment at home. Talk to each other, find the silver lining in this dark time, and create a new goal you can work on together as a team or family -- and actually get outside to work on it.
I hope at the end of all this we will see more family football games in the front yard. Neighborhood roller hockey games at the end of the block. Free throw and skill contests held at home or done virtually with teammates. Maybe even a new sport arise out of all this from an innovative mind. New traditions being made and a new love of sports being cultured. Darwin has been quoted as saying "It's not the strongest of the species, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one most adaptable to change". I think it's time for sports to adapt.