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Youth sports may seem like a small concern in the context of the rising coronavirus death toll, but sports are a big deal and a lifeline for many kids.
Amber Faust and her husband are not letting their daughter Piper, 13, play soccer this coming season for the school team because of the threat of the virus.
“She understands: My husband’s a medic, so our family is probably going to get it," said Faust, who believes her family will probably be fine. "But she understands that we don’t want to be reckless and we don’t want to pass it on to someone whose mom or grandma isn’t going to be fine,” Faust, who lives in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, told TODAY Parents.
It’s a blow for Piper, who loves the game.
“She leaves practice every day giggling and smiling and sweaty and red, but smiling,” her mom said.
Cristen Carlson initially decided her son, George, 17, a rising high school senior in Woodstock, Illinois, could play, but changed her mind when her 19-year-old daughter started to feel ill and had to get a COVID test. Her test was negative and she's fine, but it changed Carlson's thinking.
“While it is sad to see him miss this season, I cannot support him in his football journey,” she told TODAY. “He will just have to get recruited some other way. The game isn’t worth risking your health."
George would like to play football in college, but his fall season has been canceled and the Illinois High School Association announced football would be moved to the spring.
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“I was really looking forward to senior year. To not play, I’d be really saddened by that,” George told TODAY about the possibility of not playing this fall. “It’s such a big thing for a senior to play their last year in football because of senior night and homecoming and all these big things, to not play it would be a huge disappointment to me.”
For teens who have been working toward a sports scholarship to college or who hope to play beyond high school, the cancellation of a season can feel especially devastating.
“Anybody who is evaluating kids’ commitment to their sport or their level of engagement will recognize that, ‘Well, yeah, you didn’t play sports in fall of 2020, that doesn’t mean you don’t care about your sport.' We know that other things happened,” Chuck Kalish, director for Science at the Society for Research in Child Development in Washington, D.C., told TODAY.
“Help the kids understand that everybody will be understanding that this is a hard time,” he added.
Leagues and teams have recommended masks and instituted social distancing guidelines, but there are no guarantees. Former Major League Baseball player Curtis Granderson thinks baseball is a good sport for kids during the pandemic because “there is limited contact,” but he wonders if playing makes sense in the big scheme of things.
“As we put in all these rules and regulations, we have to start asking ourselves, ‘For what?’ These kids are 7, 8, 10, 12, 16, even older than that,” he told TODAY.
“It’s, like, OK, if they miss a summer of it, I know as a kid you can’t see a year down the line — ‘Oh, no, the world is over! This is the worst thing ever!’ — but at the same time if we miss a little bit of time or try to force to get back, is it worth it to get out there with all these different modifications and changes to try to prevent things (when) we still aren’t sure if it’s actually helping?”
Kalish recommends helping children find something else to replace sports. If there's any silver lining, it's that kids who were booked solid with practices and games may get more unstructured play time, he said, which is good for them.
"Hanging out with kids in the neighborhood becomes the only option. There are lots of benefits to less structured interactions," Kalish said, noting that families may be able to form pandemic "pods" of neighborhood kids. Video games can provide a virtual social outlet. "You can get the team interaction with video games," he said.
Faust says Amber has taken up art and done more running and skateboarding. She and her husband play soccer with her, too. While Amber understands why she can’t play with her team, she does still long to be out there.
“She misses her teammates. She’s not the greatest player, she’s not a soccer star. She enjoys the teamwork, she enjoys the friendship, she enjoys the camaraderie,” her mother said.
“She says to me numerous Thursdays, ‘Do you know where I should be right now?’” I’m like, ‘No, where?’ And she says she should be on the field with her team.”
Carlson also feels the sting of a lost season for her son.
"I think, sometimes when you see somebody so committed to a dream it sort of becomes your dream, too... they want it so bad," she said.
Faust says Amber has been seeing a counselor following the death of a friend, and her counselor has recommended ways to stay engaged during this period.
“Her counselor said push art, push more FaceTime with her friends, more video game time with her friends, more friend time with her,” she said.
Kalish says while children may be crushed by not lacing up, parents can help keep things in perspective.
“We’re in a period where we’re a little hyper-sensitive to challenges kids face. Let’s be honest, this is not the gravest thing in the world if a child can’t play sports for six months," he said. "Kids will get over it. Don’t think of this as a major psychic blow that will scar them for life. Things happen and most kids adjust. Kids are pretty resilient.”