This is the second of a three-part series examining how young athletes have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, how it’s affected them – as well as coaches and parents – and what youth sports may look like moving forward. The first part in the series can be read here.
Adam Roberts has seen it firsthand – the slumped shoulders, the quiet, socially-distanced shuffle down the hall as students move from one class to the next, heads down, eyes glued to smartphones.
It’s a scene Roberts – a teacher and rugby coach at Earl Marriott Secondary – attributes to the COVID-19 pandemic, and it worries him.
“I’m finding that a lot of kids seem to have lost their motivation. There’s nothing really driving them right now,” he said. “School is so drastically different than it used to be – people would probably be surprised just how different it looks right now. You don’t see (students) in the hallways. There’s no energy in the building.”
Right now, he said, students are finding it’s just easier to stay home, stay on their devices and not get involved, “just because right now there isn’t much to get involved in.”
Roberts isn’t alone in his observation. His colleague at EMS, Michael Mackay-Dunn – the longtime head coach of the school’s football program – told Peace Arch News earlier this year that he worries about the mental health of his students.
“I feel terrible for them, but you have to raise them up and give them some hope. You need to keep them engaged… because if (they) aren’t engaged, it usually shows up in their classroom work, and they can go sideways,” he said.
For much of the last year, sports – as well as myriad other social activities – have largely been sidelined due to provincial health restrictions. There have been periods of time during which teams could only practise, and others where playing games within cohort groups was allowed. Other times, especially last spring, such activities were shut down altogether and competitive high-school sports cancelled.
The health – both mental and physical – of young people during COVID-19 has been a topic of conversation for months. One study done by researchers at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto showed that 70 per cent of children and youth surveyed reported a decline in mental health during last spring’s initial lockdowns.
|Sara Groenewegen, a member of the Canadian women’s fastpitch team, said she took some time away from the sport after the 2020 Olympics were postponed.(Contributed photo)|
Closer to home, a report from Simon Fraser University’s Child Health Policy Centre, on how the pandemic has affected young children’s mental health, found that its study of the consequences of previous pandemics and natural disasters showed “dramatic increases in rates of anxiety, post-traumatic stress, depression and behavioural challenges” compared to rates typically found in the general population of children.
In addition to other negative effects of the pandemic, “there will also be mental health consequences,” the report summarizes.
Roberts – who admits the last year has been tough for him, a self-described “connections person” – said he has done his best to stay in touch with his rugby players, largely through group emails, but he does worry about some of them.
“Absolutely, I’ve had those moments. These kids are really struggling and it’s a real issue. And you just sort of feel helpless because there’s not a lot you can do.”
Drew Mitchell, the director of physical literacy at Sport for Life – a non-profit group that promotes physical activity and works with various partners to “create a future in which absolutely everyone has access to quality sport and (athletic) experiences” – said there is little doubt that young athletes have had to deal with unexpected anxiety – and disruption of their usual routines – since last spring.
“I think this has been a tough go for sure – and probably more so for them mentally than physically. They miss their friend groups, they miss their teammates… Their world has kind of been turned upside down,” he said.
That said, he suggested that there may be long-term benefits to the practice-only approach that most sports have been forced into.
With a focus on skill development – rather than wins and losses – athletes will improve while still reaping the benefits of exercise, as well as the social benefits that come with being part of a team, he said.
“Sports and physical activity helps socialize kids, it brings them together, it helps them cope. So, from that perspective, does this help them build some grit, some resilience? I think that’s part of it,” he said.
Even cut off from their usual training methods and teammates, many athletes have managed to stay in shape – both physically and mentally – during the pandemic. They’ve just had to get a little creative.
White Rock Whalers goaltender Jonathan Holloway, for example, told PAN last November that he spent much of the summer outside, where he turned a love of hiking, cycling and wake-boarding into opportunities to train.
“I never really looked at it before as a way to stay in shape – it was just something I enjoy,” he said. “So this was a bit of a different perspective, but it wasn’t really hard to get up and get out there. It’s just fun to get out of the house.”
Iuliana Kroeger, a coach with the Surrey-based Vancouver Thunderbirds track-and-field club, said coaches have worked hard to keep their pupils engaged after competitions were wiped off the calendar.
Zoom sessions were held and “athletes were encouraged to workout in their backyards.” As well, Kroeger said the teens were pushed to find new hobbies and spend as much time outdoors as possible.
“We’re doing everything that is allowed… to keep them healthy, both physically and mentally, and reminding them that things will get better soon,” she said.
It’s not just teenage athletes feeling the pinch of the pandemic.
Sara Groenewegen, a former White Rock Renegades pitcher who is a member of Canada’s national women’s fastpitch team, said she felt at her lowest last spring, when the 2020 Summer Olympics were pushed until 2021.
“It took some time to heal from the loss, and the idea that something I have worked 12 years for was up in the air,” she said.
“I had to give myself a few months off from softball. I tried to stay as active as I could, but also allowed myself to take a break both physically and mentally from the game.”
What helped her cope, she said, was knowing that she wasn’t alone.
“The only thing keeping me sane through this is knowing that we aren’t the only ones going through it.”
If nothing else, Mitchell noted, the pandemic has helped people realize the importance of physical activity.
“We’ve been saying for 50 years to be active and be healthy, and right now we’re the least active we’ve ever been, so it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out we have a problem,” he said.
The good news, he added, is that such a realization could lead to improved physical activity post-pandemic – in schools, at home and within communities in general.
“We’re not fixing it by tomorrow – it’s going to take a long time.”