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10 Things We've Learned about Youth and High-School Sports during the Pandemic

by Linda Flanagan


The turning point for many Americans in our understanding of Covid-19’s potential devastation happened on the evening of March 11. That night, the NBA Board of Governors suspended the rest of the professional basketball season. A player on the Utah Jazz had tested positive for the virus, and suddenly no one seemed safe. A day later, the MLB called off spring training and the NCAA shut down March Madness, along with all other collegiate championships—the first time in its history. After that, the entire sports world spun to a stop. Every state cancelled its high-school’s spring sports season (and moved over to distance learning), and the estimated 45 million younger kids who play youth soccer, lacrosse, baseball, and every other organized sport were met with the same disorienting news: organized play was off.

Now seven months into the pandemic, after a summer and fall of stops, starts, and modifications to the game, we’ve learned a few things about the pandemic’s wider impact on high-school and youth sports. There’s good news, bad news, and lingering uncertainty. (With thanks, as always, to the Aspen Institute Sports and Society Program for its sturdy data on youth-sports happenings.)

  1. The pandemic has exacerbated some of the most pernicious trends in kids’ sports, especially related to access and inequality. “The income gap will accelerate,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director at the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program. Children in low-income areas have fewer sports opportunities than they did before the pandemic, while kids in higher-income communities—where they already have greater access and more sports options—are returning sooner.

  2. Many kids have lost interest in sports altogether, and getting them back will take work. According to a survey conducted by the Aspen Institute, three out of ten kids who used to participate in sports no longer wish to. “Staying at home is the new normal,” said Travis Dorsch, Director of the Families in Sport Lab at Utah State University, who helped conduct the survey. Dorsch spoke about these findings during an interview at Project Play, the Aspen Institute initiative to repair youth sports. “The bounce-back won’t be automatic or fast,” he added.

  3. Among kids who do participate in athletics, they’re competing and practicing a lot less. The Aspen survey reports that kids aged 6-18 play an average of 6.5 fewer hours per week during the pandemic than they did before it. Most of the that reduction (almost 5 hours) came out of organized practices and games rather than unstructured, free play, which dropped about an hour per week. As expected, outdoor individual sports like golf and cycling were far less affected than most other sports.

  4. It’s not clear if sports are a vector for spreading the virus. A recent study of 207 high schools conducted by the University of Wisconsin found no greater rate of Covid transmission among athletes than non-athletes. But various cases around the country suggest otherwise. In Shelby County, Tennessee, 83% of the 500 positive cases there were linked to sports participation at K-12 schools and colleges. In Dedham, Massachusetts, officials attributed a recent rise in cases of the virus there to youth sports teams, though celebrating before and after games, rather than play itself, appeared to be the cause. Six infectious disease doctors who evaluated the Wisconsin study expressed doubt over its sanguine conclusions.

  5. The variation in states’ response to the pandemic has generated turmoil and exposed the absence of governance in youth sports. Some kids living in states with stricter virus protocols and diminished interscholastic sports options cross into neighboring states with looser guidelines. In California, for example, where competitive sports are cancelled, some kids are commuting regularly to Arizona, where play is allowed. Independent travel teams continue to host and attend tournaments, sometimes in different states, and with varied adherence to (and enforcement of) safety guidelines. This jagged, de-centralized response to the pandemic compels parents to balance their children’s desire to play—which can be urgent—with the need to preserve the family’s health.

  6. Though no state or national body is tracking this data, anecdotal information suggests that many older coaches are retiring from the job rather than taking a chance on their health during a pandemic. A September New York Times article shares stories of middle, high-school, and collegiate coaches who are leaving their teams out of fear of the virus. “I’m just afraid; I don’t want to be playing Russian roulette,” said Joe Bustos, a 57-year-old high-school basketball from Arizona with two state championships to his name. According to the Times, about 30 high-school and club coaches have died from covid-related causes.

  7. A complete picture of how the pandemic affects kids’ mental health is lacking, as the research so far is mixed. A study of 3,243 high-school athletes conducted by the University of Wisconsin, for example, revealed that 68% reported symptoms of anxiety and depression, a 37% jump over previous years. The study’s authors suggest that the kids who have lost sports have also missed out on the mental health benefits that go with them. But when the Institute of Family Studies examined teenagers as a whole—not just those who played sports—they found the opposite result. Among the 1,523 kids they surveyed, signs of poor mental health dropped in 2020 as compared to 2018. The researchers attribute that improvement in some teenagers to better sleep and closer family connections. There’s an important caveat here, though: teenagers’ mental health suffered in households that were economically fragile. A reminder to coaches from Dr. Tim McGuire at the University of Wisconsin: team meetings with the coach, even if done remotely, are enormously powerful for kids.

  8. Disruptions at colleges and universities could trickle down to youth sports. Suddenly strapped for revenue, colleges have done away with hundreds of varsity teams at every level. The loss of these teams—along with the potential for scholarships and admissions advantages that have gone with them—could alter the way families approach youth sports. Parents may be less likely to invest inordinate time and money in their kids’ organized play, and children may be lukewarm about specializing early in one narrow activity. The good news here, according to Tom Farrey, the director of the Aspen Institute Sports & Society program, is that varsity sports will likely morph into club and intramural programs, which deliver roughly the same positive life outcomes as their varsity counterparts.   

  9. Some pandemic-induced changes are likely here to stay. Group snacks might be gone for good, and the way kids are transported will likely change. New protocols for spectators and referees may remain. More hand sanitizing, equipment cleaning, and zoom sessions with the coach will likely be the norm. Also, pre-participation physicals might adapt to include a look at the cardiac muscle among those who’ve had the virus, as well as a mental health-screen.

  10. The pandemic has exposed the need for reform in the youth sports ecosystem. The fragmented and chaotic response to the virus at every level of play; the continuing problem of unequal access to sports; and the accelerated withdrawal of kids from organized play all underscore the need to rethink how the country provides sports opportunities to children. "It’s time to reimagine youth sports,” Travis Dorsch said.

Linda Flanagan, a PCA Chapter Board Member and supporter, is an avid runner and former high-school cross-country coach. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Should Kids Play Sports? to be published by Portfolio/Penguin Random House. You can follow Linda on Twitter @LindaFlanagan2.