How To Save Youth Sports During COVID and Beyond? Focus on Building Relationships.

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Youth sports in the United States is at a tipping point. State shutdowns due to COVID-19 have virtually halted the $19 billion youth sports industry. However, this industry was already heading towards a concerning future. According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), 40 percent of kids played team sports on a regular basis in 2013, down from 44.5 percent in 2008.  Why is this happening? Many experts believe that rising program costs, increased competition levels, and kids themselves stating that sports participation is no longer fun, are factors contributing to this downward trend. But perhaps it is because youth sports has lost focus of its most valuable purpose: helping kids stay healthy, both physically and mentally. While spring sports seasons are canceled and state officials are still determining safety guidelines, youth sports organizations have the unique opportunity to realign. By shifting efforts to develop caring and supportive relationships between coaches, athletes and their families, youth sports organizations can attract more young athletes while also providing an additional support system for youth during this uncertain time.

Laying a Foundation

Youth coaches are an admirable group; their daily work helps youth stay active and engaged in sports. Many coaches also have a vested interest in the game; they may be former players, lifelong sports fans, or parents simply encouraging sports participation. While a basic understanding of sport is important and, in the case of the more competitive sports programs, essential, coaches also need to understand the foundational basics of youth social-emotional development. According the Aspen Institute’s Project Play 2018 report, less than 30% of youth coaches received any sort of training in the past 12 months, none of which covered social-emotional youth development, specifically. Fortunately, training does not need to be time-consuming or expensive. Coaches can use this unique time to enroll in one of the many low-cost (and sometimes free) training resources focused on social-emotional learning and youth mental health.

Develop formal ways for coaches to know each player

Plenty of data demonstrates the positive effects of developing relationships between teachers and students in school settings. However, youth sports programming rarely includes this type of explicit, foundational work. In order to develop authentic relationships during this time, coaches must go beyond providing virtual training routines and schedules. With social isolation and uncertainty related to sports and school, young athletes are yearning for connection to caring adults. Beyond the obvious zoom meetings, email, text, and phone calls are alternate ways to connect with individual athletes or with entire teams.

To start these virtual discussions, coaches may ask:  What are your personal goals? What drives you to make a commitment to this sport? What other interests do you have? What personal traits do you bring to this sport that will be of benefit to your teammates? Or, what has been easy during this time at home? What is hard for you? These small catch-ups will help coaches get to know each player on a deeper level. Reversely, coaches need to give examples of their own experiences, as appropriate. Sharing hopes, dreams, failures and struggles related to sports (and real life) experiences will allow coaches to demonstrate vulnerability and will enable athletes and coaches to build both trust and respect for one another.

Honor open, honest communication 

Too often, the relationship between coaches and parents can become strained and impede a young athlete’s positive experience. Coaches may view parents who speak up about their children’s experiences as overbearing and even aggressive. Similarly, parents may view coaches as too tough on athletes, inequitable in terms of play time, or out of touch with their child’s athletic needs. Parents and caregivers can play a key role during this period. However, without providing opportunities for genuine conversations, assumptions and misinterpretations can, at times, take over. Communication can take the form of online surveys, email correspondence or phone and video calls. Whatever the vehicle, the message should be clear – let’s create a partnership. Discussions can flesh out deeper knowledge around questions such as: What are your hopes and aspirations for your child? What are some ways to inspire motivation in your child? Or, as my child’s coach, what social skills do you view as essential to athletic improvement? Especially in environments where the coach and parent rarely interact, this can be a difficult task. Communication that is both ongoing and valued keeps all stakeholders engaged and enables everyone to support the athletic and social-emotional growth of each player. 

Relationships are the context through which we learn. As social beings, strong, supportive relationships are essential for positive mental well-being and personal growth. Developing trusting, supportive relationships in youth sports is one step toward creating more meaningful experiences for our youth. Let’s take this time to reinvent the youth sports industry so it can best serve those that it is intended for: our youth.

Key Takeaways

School Leaders
Are your physical education teachers and other specialists trained in social emotional learning? Do you have open dialogues with local sports organizations or other out-of-school time programs related to social-emotional learning?

Are your strategies and techniques around social emotional learning evident to other adults who work with your students outside of school?

How does your child’s coach communicate his/her coaching philosophy to you and your child ? How is your child’s mental growth as an athlete communicated to you?

Do you feel like your coach supports your mental well-being as well as your athletic well-being? If so, what helps you? If not, what could be improved?