Will COVID Kill Youth Sports? CDC Guidelines Emphasize 'Individual Skills,' Rather Than 'Competition'

By Susan Jones | May 20, 2020 | 8:25am EDT
Youth football, such as this game in Manchester, Vermont, has been a rite of fall until now. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)
Youth football, such as this game in Manchester, Vermont, has been a rite of fall until now. (Photo by Tim Graham/Getty Images)

(CNSNews.com) - There's no "I" in "team," as the saying goes, but there is now, because of the coronavirus pandemic. "I" now stands for "individual," as in having young athletes "work on individual skills, rather than on competition."

The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Tuesday released a flurry of new guidance for schools, summer camps, businesses, and youth sports (but not for churches) to consider as they reopen.

The goal of all the guidance is to keep people as far apart as the setting allows; to wash hands frequently; to have players stay home if they're sick; and to limit the sharing of objects touched by others.

The guidance on youth sports is particularly daunting, with its emphasis on protecting "players, families and communities." But how do you keep young football players, baseball players, soccer players and other athletes six feet apart?

According to the CDC, "There are a number of actions youth sports organizations can take to help lower the risk of COVID-19 exposure and reduce the spread during competition and practice. The more people a child or coach interacts with, the closer the physical interaction, the more sharing of equipment there is by multiple players, and the longer that interaction, the higher the risk of COVID-19 spread."

CDC assesses the risk, as follows:

-- Lowest Risk: Performing skill-building drills or conditioning at home, alone or with family members.

-- Increasing Risk: Team-based practice.

-- More Risk: Within-team competition.

-- Even More Risk: Full competition between teams from the same local geographic area.

-- Highest Risk: Full competition between teams from different geographic areas.

CDC advises that if youth sports cannot abide by social distancing during competition, "they may consider...limiting participation to within-team competition only (for example, scrimmages between members of the same team) or team-based practices only.

Similarly, if organizations are unable to achieve social distancing during team-based activities, they may choose "individual or at-home activities, especially if any members of the team are at high-risk for severe illness."

Much of the guidance involves the physical closeness of players, and the length of time that players are close to each other or to staff.

"Sports that require frequent closeness between players may make it more difficult to maintain social distancing, compared to sports where players are not close to each other. For close-contact sports (e.g., wrestling, basketball), play may be modified to safely increase distance between players.

(Note: The CDC omitted youth football when talking about close contact sports, but certainly football falls in that category.)

To achieve social distancing, CDC recommends:

-- Identifying adult staff members or volunteers to help maintain social distancing among youth, coaches, umpires/referees, and spectators (if state and local directives allow for spectators).

-- Spacing players at least 6 feet apart on the field while participating in the sport (e.g., during warmup, skill building activities, simulation drills)

-- Discouraging unnecessary physical contact, such as high fives, handshakes, fist bumps, or hugs.

-- Prioritizing outdoor, as opposed to indoor, practice and play as much as possible.

-- Creating distance between players when explaining drills or the rules of the game.

-- If keeping physical distance is difficult with players in competition or group practice, consider relying on individual skill work and drills.

-- Encourage players to wait in their cars with guardians until just before the beginning of a practice, warm-up, or game, instead of forming a group.

-- Limit the use of carpools or van pools. When riding in an automobile to a sports event, encourage players to ride to the sports event with persons living in their same household.

-- If practices or competition facilities must be shared, consider increasing the amount of time between practices and competitions to allow for one group to leave before another group enters the facility. If possible, allow time for cleaning and/or disinfecting.

-- Provide physical guides, such as signs and tape on floors or playing fields, to make sure that coaches and players remain at least 6 feet apart.

-- Close shared spaces such as locker rooms, if possible; otherwise, stagger use and clean and disinfect between use.

-- Limit the number of players sitting in confined player seating areas (e.g., dugouts) by allowing players to spread out into spectator areas if more space is available (e.g., if spectators are not allowed).

Other suggestions include limiting full contact only in game-time situations; and decreasing the number of competitions during a season; decreasing team sizes; limiting nonessential visitors, spectators, volunteers; limiting travel outside the community; forbidding spitting.

Although masks and face coverings may be "challenging for players to wear while playing sports," they "should be worn by coaches, youth sports staff, officials, parents, and spectators as much as possible."

Buried in the long list of "considerations" is this advice for youth sports employees -- the coaches and staff – on “coping and resilience."

-- Encourage employees to take breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, including social media if they are feeling overwhelmed or distressed.

-- Promote healthy eating, exercising, getting sleep, and finding time to unwind.

-- Encourage employees to talk with people they trust about their concerns and how they are feeling.

-- Consider posting signs for the national distress hotline...

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