COVID-19 has impacted sports at every level. By understanding the continued benefits of sports, increased risk during the pandemic and strategies to reduce risk, you can make an informed decision about sports participation for your family. Partner with your team’s athletic trainer to help provide a safer approach to sports in your community.
are sports safe during the covid-19 pandemic?
Parents, guardians, coaches, school administrators and community leaders may wonder when it is safe for youth athletes to return to sports and other activities. There is no straightforward or one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Determining when it is safe for your child to return to sport depends on your family’s comfort level with risk. There a number of factors that contribute to your family’s unique answer.
Understanding the benefits and risks
There are risks and benefits to every decision, including your family’s decision to engage in sports during this time. By understanding the benefits and risks, you can make an informed decision on when you are ready to return to sports.
- Risks: Youth athletes may experience increased anxiety around returning to sports during the pandemic. Parents should consider whether or not their child feels safe getting back to sports, if there are specific conditions that would me him/her feel more/less safe and how that may impact the child’s mental health. Alternatively, by not playing in sports, youth athletes may experience depression around the loss of normalcy and ability to participate in a sport they love with their teammates. This is also an important factor to consider as you make decisions about participation.
- Benefits: Participation in sports has a multitude of physical, mental and social benefits. Kids who participate in sports earn better grades, learn important life skills and have a sense of greater well-being. Many kids thrive in sports and that is important for parents to consider.
- Risks Related to Physical Inactivity: The cancellation of sports and other opportunities to be physically active during the pandemic is particularly detrimental to the health and overall wellness of youth. Sadly, COVID-19 has exacerbated the already troublesome sedentary pandemic and will likely cause it to worsen if youth aren’t given the safe and appropriate opportunities to engage in physical activity and sport.1 Even in active adolescent populations, athletes who have stopped normal activity levels due to the pandemic are likely deconditioned, meaning they have lost strength, stamina or fitness levels due to lack of exercise.
- Risks of Injuries in Sports: All sports have an inherent element of risk. During the pandemic, some of those risks are augmented. Due to deconditioning, contraction of the novel coronavirus, changes in season schedules and changes in the requirements or availability of pre-participation physical exams (or sports physicals), youth athletes may face an increased risk as they return to sports if appropriate steps aren’t made by the school, team or youth sport organization. Some of the areas of increased risk include: soft-tissue injuries (like sprains or strains), heat illness, sudden cardiac arrest and exertional sickling.3
- Risks related to COVID-19: Participation in sport has an element of risk as it relates to the contraction and transmission of COVID-19. Many risk mitigating strategies, such as social distancing and the use of face coverings, cannot be fully implemented in sports as traditionally played. Sports fall in a spectrum of risk, with some being more risky than others. There are also modifiable factors within each sport to change the level of risk. Variables that affect the level of risk include: team or individual sport, indoor or outdoor activities, contact or non-contact sport and the amount of shared equipment. Another important factor that substantially impacts the level of risk for any sport is the culture of adherence and safety embraced by the youth athletes, coaches, parents, referees and others involved with sport. If safety recommendations for participation in sport are not followed by everyone on the team, it is a riskier activity.
- Benefits: In short, active kids are healthier kids. “Healthy movement behaviours contribute to the physical and mental health of children and youth including a more robust immune system.”2 Youth who participate in high school sports are less likely to experience obesity, have a lower incidence of heart disease, stroke or even cancer and, consequently, face lower health care costs in their lifetimes. As parents make decisions about sports participation during the pandemic, access to opportunities to be physically active is an important factor to consider.
reducing risk in sport during the pandemic
One of the most important factors in reducing risk in sport during the pandemic is the involvement of an athletic trainer (AT) in the development, implementation and evaluation of policies and procedures designed specifically to keep youth athletes as safe as possible during this unprecedented time. Unfortunately, 34% of middle schools and high schools in the United States don’t employ an athletic trainer – that is more than 6,900 schools and exponential athletes. During this time, many schools of cut funding for the employment of these health care providers at the detriment to their athletes. If your school employs an athletic trainer, rest assured that they are diligently monitoring and managing the situation to the best of the abilities. Key areas of consideration for athletic trainers as they navigate the return to sport from a health care perspective include:
Athletic trainers work collaboratively with coaches and school administrators to develop and implement appropriate policies and procedures to keep youth athletes, staff and spectators safe – this is especially true during the COVID-19 pandemic. As part of the return-to-sport process during the pandemic, ATs have helped:
- Develop a COVID-19 response team.
- Review and update the school’s communicable disease policy.
- Understand state laws and establish appropriate policies related to procurement of pre-participation physical exams (or sports physicals).
- Determine and secure appropriate supplies (i.e., personal protective equipment, thermometers, cleaning and disinfecting supplies. etc.) needed in response to COVID-19 .
Physical Activity Concerns
As schools prepare for and navigate the fluid process of return to sport, ATs take critical steps to ensure youth athlete safety and prepare for the unique physical activity concerns during this time. Some of those considerations include:
- Preparing athletes for a safe return to physical activity following a period of detraining (that is, a period of decreased physical activity and loss of fitness).
- Preparing for an increased risk of heat illness and heat acclimatization concerns.
- Navigating a condensed or expanded preseason.
- Preparing for conditioning and practice session concerns.
Risk Reduction Strategies
ATs play an important role in bridging health and safety recommendations into day-to-day practice. Specific risk mitigation strategies that the AT is ensuring for his or her school include:
- Preparing the facilities.
- Illness reporting policies.
- Promoting wellness, recommendations and good hygiene.
- Reviewing emergency action plans.
- Supporting Athlete Mental Health During a Pandemic
- COVID-19 and Return to Sport: Understanding Risk and Benefits in Sport
- COVID-19 and Return to Sport: Sport-Related Risks in Secondary Schools
- COVID-19 and Return to Sport: Ensuring Athlete Readiness
- Safety Checklist for Sports Participation during COVID-19
- Cloth Face Coverings in Youth Sport
- Understanding Risk Related to COVID-19 and Youth Sports
- Hall G, Laddu DR, Phillips SA, Lavie CJ, Arena R. A tale of two pandemics: How will COVID-19 and global trends in physical inactivity and sedentary behavior affect one another? [published online ahead of print, 2020 Apr 8]. Prog Cardiovasc Dis. 2020;S0033-0620(20)30077-3. doi:10.1016/j.pcad.2020.04.005 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7194897/
- Moore, S.A., Faulkner, G., Rhodes, R.E. et al. Impact of the COVID-19 virus outbreak on movement and play behaviours of Canadian children and youth: a national survey. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 17, 85 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12966-020-00987-8 https://ijbnpa.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12966-020-00987-8
- Return to Sports and Exercise During the COVID-19 Panemic: Guidance for High School and Collegiate Athletic Programs. https://ksi.uconn.edu/wp-content/uploads/sites/1222/2020/06/Return-to-Sports-and-Exercise-during-the-COVID_Final-endorsed_6.2.2020.pdf