Youth sports organizations and parents face hard decisions during COVID-19 situation

Welcome to the summer of youth sports in America in 2020, the year of the virus. Anxious parents are balancing the threat of exposing their kids against a desire to return to childhood normalcy, to let them run and play outside with friends and teammates. 

Several parents contacted High Plains Pundit about what they perceived as a lack of social distancing and COVID-19 preparedness during the Skip Ferrell Memorial soccer tournament hosted by Amarillo Soccer Association at John Stiff Park this past Saturday. Hundreds of spectators and players attended the tournament.

Some of the concerns parents pointed out were:

1. A lack of social distancing in the spectator areas where teams and their entourages set up camp between games.

2. Not enough social distancing between spectators during many of the games. During some of the games, large numbers of spectators were allowed to watch from the player bench side of the field.

3. Soccer balls were not sanitized before the start of games. Parents felt ASA should have provided game balls for the tournament.

4. Not enough hand washing stations were provided for the large number of people present at the tournament. 

5. Parents felt the city and ASA should have provided hand sanitation stations placed throughout the tournament area.

ASA did provide COVID-19 awareness handouts to all of the coaches during sign in for the tournament. The organization also has several links concerning COVID-19 awareness on its website and the tournament page. 

After games, many of the teams chose not shake hands. Most players touched elbows with the opposing team to congratulate each other. 

All of the parents who contacted High Plains Pundit have asked to remain anonymous for this story. They do not want their children to be face any possible negative situations with other players or coaches. 

"It is important that we remain vigilant against this pandemic. Let’s be better. Let’s not simply roll out the same old, same old and think we will have a different result. This is our chance to do better for our children," one parent told High Plains Pundit. 

Another parent noted this is "uncharted waters" for everyone.

"Use this time to develop and study a different model, a better model. If you do, we will thrive in the post-pandemic youth sports world.

"Youth sports are inherently more adaptable in the way that they can change the rules and regulations of the game, how they can have regionality to where they can be conducted and how they can quickly pause and restart activities.

"I think the adaptability and the flexibility of how youth sports are implemented, so to speak, actually works to their benefit," the parent said.

High Plains Pundit reached out to Amarillo Soccer Association and the City of Amarillo for comment. Neither ASA or the city responded to our request by the publishing deadline for this article. 

US Youth Soccer CEO Skip Gilbert spoke of the anxiety the COVID-19 situation has brought. His organization oversees an estimated 3 million players and every one of those players' respective seasons is naturally dealing with a question mark looming overhead.

"I think it's one of those that, when you're looking at the ceiling at 2 in the morning going, you know, playing the 'what if' scenarios, you're worried," Gilbert said. "But when I put on my hat every day and I'm talking to staff and talking to parents, you want to be as hopeful as possible."

Results of a new study into the perception and expectation about the resumption of youth sports amid the coronavirus pandemic were released after surveying more than 10,000 people across 45 states in the United States. The survey, which was conducted by the IUPUI Sports Innovation Institute and the Grand Park Research Hub, was published in the Sports Innovation Journal.

Participants in the study identified several critical or expected changes for youth sports during the pandemic. Some of those changed include:

Sanitization of facilities, playing areas, and equipment should be done before, during, and after activities.

Social-distancing guidelines should be promoted and monitored.

There should be limited personal contact between players.

Only people under the age of 65 with no underlying conditions should be admitted to an event.

Health and contact information questionnaires are expected to be used.

The suggestions from the study are not binding to any youth sports organizations, but serve as information for youth sports organizations to make their own determinations.

In addition to the suggested changes, the study also found that parents of recreational athletes were more accepting of the restrictions than parents of travel athletes. Parents of travel athletes have an increased level of comfort as the summer season begins. 42 percent of parents of travel athletes supported a return to activity in the month of May, but 76 percent support returning in August.

The U.S. Soccer Federation released return-to-play guidelines for youth soccer from COVID-19, recommending a phased approach with individual and small-group trainings to start and no travel tournaments in different regions even once games resume.

The guidelines are the most detailed recommendations produced by a national organization for soccer, which is one of the most popular sports for youth in the U.S. U.S. Soccer, the national governing body for the sport, says its guidelines are intended for consideration by national and state soccer associations, clubs, players, coaches, referees and parents, while always deferring to local and state public health authorities on specific modifications. (Read the U.S. Soccer guidelines here.)

“The guidelines take a conservative approach,” said Dr. George Chiampas, U.S. Soccer chief medical officer and an emergency medicine doctor at Northwestern University. “We can’t get this wrong. There’s no room for mistakes. We want, as a sport, to have a tone of responsibility and we want the phases to move forward. If we go back because of things outside of our sport or what the club does, that’s out of our hands. But as clubs and as a sport, we want to do everything we can so kids can be active and interact and have social components in their life.”

Chiampas said U.S. Soccer created the recommendations based off various sources, including the federation’s safety education platforms, guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Education and World Health Organization, recommendations by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, and the Aspen Institute’s Project Play resources. Among U.S. Soccer’s recommendations: No multiday youth soccer tournaments that require overnight stays in different regions.

Overnight tournaments can involve youth sharing rooms and using shared transportation for extended periods of time, making them “a larger risk and a significant risk than single-day matches where you can go play a match and come home and be in your home environment,” Chiampas said.

Travel soccer tournaments are very popular in the sport and a revenue generator for organizers and local communities. For instance, the US Youth Soccer tournament database currently lists 22 tournaments for the month of June, located in Texas, Indiana, Maryland, Colorado, New York, Virginia, New Jersey and Utah.

“We understand the economics of sport, but it starts with the health and safety,” Chiampas said. “If for the next eight to 12 months this is what we have to do – travel for a day and come back, with no multiday tournaments so kids and parents don’t die – I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to follow this.”

Gilbert, whose organization released guidelines in mid-May, said the U.S. Soccer recommendations are a “thoughtful, logical projection of return to play.” However, US Youth Soccer is not taking the same position that clubs should restrict from traveling to overnight tournaments, citing different rates of COVID-19 cases in different communities.

“From a logical progression, it makes all the sense in the world (to restrict travel) if safety is the absolute priority,” Gilbert said. “I think from a guideline perspective, every club is going to make up their mind on what’s in the best interest of their kids. … If I’m in Connecticut and want to travel to a tournament in Massachusetts, fine, let’s go. You can’t really say no to that. At some point, this country has to start getting back to normal, unless there’s a medical reason why we can’t. Every organization is going to have a different spin on it. We have 55 different state soccer associations and 55 different levels of return to play.”