Bringing Back Sports for Better: Key Takeaways From the Pandemic & Youth Sports
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On Wednesday, October 20th, TeamSnap presented at the Aspen Institute’s 2021 Project Play Summit. This event is the nation’s premier event for leaders building healthy communities through sports. Joined by Dr. Travis Dorsch, Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Families in Sport Lab, Utah State University, and youth sports operators, TeamSnap’s founder Dave DuPont discussed the recent impacts of the pandemic on youth sports and what families want from their youth sports experience going forward. Despite the different roles each panelist had in the youth sports sector, there were a number of overarching themes that presented themselves. Here are some key takeaways from the session.
- Anavis & Jay Chitnis, TeamSnap Athlete & Parent,
- Sinead Rundell, Youth Soccer Coach
- Dan Sanders, Youth Lacrosse Coach
- Luke Taylor, Sport Stable Founder
- Luke Zaientz, Reigning Champs, CEO and Co-Founder
Sports enrich both players and parents lives
Anavis, a high school soccer athlete in San Francisco, recalled that she “had no idea how important it was to [her] mental health” until the pandemic took it away. Soccer gave her an outlet to relieve stress, to challenge herself while having fun and a safe space to socialize.
Without sports, a critical component was missing from both parents and their kids’ lives Luke Taylor, head of Sports Stable, noted that while the players wanted to get back to sports, the return was perhaps even more important to their parents, who enrolled their kids in sports to help them grow and develop. Taylor continued that,
“Sports aren’t just a social network for kids, it’s also a social network for the parents, from weekly games to tournament travel and holidays, so much time is spent with their families and other families at sporting events through sports.”
Luke Taylor, Founder Sport Stable
The return to sports brought both excitement and trepidation
Despite the anticipation for the return to sport, many unexpected impacts from the pandemic became evident when players returned to the fields. As a player and parent, both Anavis and Jay saw a new timidness they hadn’t seen before; a timidness on the field among Anavis’ teammates seemed to stem from a new lack of confidence in their ability to play. Off the field, the same timidness crept into social interactions, where normally the team would be clustered together laughing and chatting, Jay saw girls standing apart from each other, unsure and nervous to get close enough to talk.
Coaches saw the emotional consequences of the pandemic manifest themselves in the unity of their teams as well. Dan Saunders noted that players had forgotten how to be a part of a team, and anxiety surrounding the return and following the required regulations was overwhelming, especially with social distancing rules; kids weren’t sure where to stand, how to interact if they should interact at all.
“We realized we were going to have to shift our approach entirely. The return pivoted very quickly from us working on the fundamentals, dusting the sticks off and getting back into play, to teaching the kids that it was okay to be themselves, it’s okay to run around, that they have safety here both physically, mentally and emotionally. Sports became secondary and the mental anguish from the pandemic became the primary focus on the fields for a while.”
Dan Sanders, Youth Lacrosse Coach
Stability is foundational for fun, mental health and normalcy
It’s easy to get frustrated with constantly evolving regulations, rules and expectations. But what happens when you remove them all from a day-to-day scenario? Sinead Jones quickly realized that in the absence of consistent rules, you find anxiety and that the additional pressures of getting the return to play correct, impacted her players as well.
“Once we came back, the rules weren’t clear, and they were always changing. The girls never wanted to mess up or have people think they weren’t following the rules correctly. There was a lot of anxiety surrounding that.”
Sinead Rundell, Youth Soccer Coach
Kids’ lives revolve around stability, routine and schedules, so the pandemic taking all that away was difficult for everyone. To help manage the uncertainty and constant flux kids were experiencing in the return to play, coaches opted to control what they could within their organization.
“We made sure the practice time was always set and always there. We did other things with them with positional training and team activities to give them the feeling that we weren’t going to give them more rules and give them that stability.”
Sinead Rundell, Youth Soccer Coach
For others, the return to sport was a way to bring stability to other parts of their life. Since returning to soccer, Jay has watched his daughter Anavis use soccer as a way to bring normalcy and routine back into her daily life, planning her days and schoolwork around her soccer practices and games. Her realization that soccer is a priority for her, has helped her prioritize her time in a way that better serves her mental health on a day-to-day basis.
Content and brand partnerships can increase sport accessibility
In today’s digital age where new content is everywhere you look, people saw content as a way to make sports more accessible. Jay Chitnis wants to see the sports industry better leverage technology by making content more available and accessible to all people, noting how Anavis is constantly looking for tips to improve her game both from her coaches and online.
The need for additional content for youth sports was felt among other sports operators in the industry as well. The pandemic made Reigning Champs realize they may need to rethink how they provide sports and services to make sure they don’t leave any kids behind who might not have the same access or opportunity to play sports as others.
“We’ve expanded our solution to include more content focused on mindset, nutrition, daily habits and multi-sport info, a lot of things we haven’t done in the past. We shifted a great number of our monthly webinars to topics like mindset and nutrition, to help people have these conversations.”
Luke Zaientz, CEO and Co-Founder Reigning Champs
In addition to leveraging technology to make holistic sports content accessible to all, leveraging brand partnerships is another piece of the sports accessibility puzzle.
“Brands can help our kids if they are aligned in the right ways,” says Luke Z. Finding brands that provide value to your members and align with your organization’s values is a good place to start. Brand partners can help sports organizations deliver more for kids, without charging more in fees. Brand sponsorships can lead to free or low-cost sporting events like camps and clinics, which aid in making sports more accessible to all children.
“Coaching clinics, camps, recruitment activities are all unique things you can do if you have a partnership with a national brand.”
Luke Taylor, Founder Sport Stable
While the return to sports is an ongoing and continuous effort in the new pandemic climate, it’s clear that their importance cannot be overstated and that the youth sports industry has an exciting opportunity to bring a new, more accessible future to kids everywhere.