What lessons has the Covid-19 lockdown taught us about youth sport and how might this shape improvements for the future?
The Covid-19 lockdown has brought us fewer cars on the roads, quieter neighbourhoods, more bird sounds, and cleaner air. It's also relocated sports participation away from school playgrounds, council parks, indoor sports centres, and private gyms. Sports are being practiced daily at home in the backyard, the lounge, hallway, and driveway. Social distancing has kept team members separated, eliminated travel to team practices, and led to more use of video to share home sports activity.
For some time, there has been discussion about ways to improve the experience of youth sport and keep our youth in sport for longer, to reduce the desire to specialize in a sport too soon and thereby widen the skills-sets of our future sportsmen and women. Whilst a Balance is Better philosophy has been promoted and six major New Zealand sporting organisations have committed to changing their approach to youth sport, the significant disruption caused by the Covid-19 lockdown may just be the perfect circuit-breaker which facilitates how organisation of youth sport could improve when we return to organized play.
I believe there are four lessons which the Covid-19 lockdown has taught us about sport activity and these should be used to reshape the youth sport experience:
Rediscovery of free play and how much fun this can be. Hands-up if you've seen a young sportsperson perform a skill in an innovative or fun way during lockdown? This focus on individual, self-developed fun, allows young sports people a chance to fall in love with their sport, and at the same time develop their skill. Young sports people playing on their own terms.
Feeling rested and keen. With the absence of team training sessions, no organized practices, and no competitive matches to attend, the training load of young sports people has been reduced. This has led to some time off the treadmill of constant overloading, and hectic sports schedules, with young sports people feeling rested and enlivened. There has also been the opportunity of getting reacquainted with previously enjoyed passions.
Enjoyment of doing self-practice. Whilst coaches are often encouraging their young team members to engage in home skills practice and may even set a homework activity, the reality is young sports people often don't appreciate this extra practice. In the absence of this direction, young sports people are, perhaps for the first time, getting better through practicing and playing sports on their own, (within the context of lockdown regulations).
Family time and un-organized play together. As we have all been restricted to staying at home and in the family bubble, parents and children have rediscovered free play, family activities, and outdoor sports together. These opportunities are usually pushed to one side in favour of the routine of running around to organized activities. But having much more family time has provided the stimulus for playing sports together.
So, how might the organisation of youth sport be improved when we return to organized play?
Including more free-play space and time in the weekly schedule. Coaches prepare structured training sessions which usually follow a standard format. Sometimes in the pursuit of teaching a skill topic, time for free-play is forgotten. Recognising that free-play can also be valuable and including time in the practice routine for having free-play is a solution.
Reducing the number of concurrent sports activities your son/daughter is registered for. Parents can help reduce overload by cutting back on the number of sports activities they register their children to engage in each sports season. Accepting that there is benefit from having rest and time off, and that this is valuable for performance and enjoyment, is another solution.
Encouraging self-practice through goal-setting. The restriction of not having friends or team-mates to interact and practice with is a great stimulus for encouraging self-practice. Coaches and parents can facilitate this through helping the young sports person to set their own goals or challenges for achieving in their own creative self-practice. A good quote is "A coach can open the door, but the player must enter it by themselves."
Working together with parents to understand practice activities that families can have fun playing together. Coaches can develop and provide information resources to educate parents about fun activities that families can enjoy together. Parents and children have rediscovered the enjoyment of free play, family activities, and outdoor sports in the home setting. Recognising that family fun is a valuable part of youth sports development is a must-do.
In conclusion, post-Covid-19 when we return to play in our new normal, it will likely be in a different format. Let's not rely on the same old formats and expect a different result. Let's take this disruptive opportunity to reshape the youth sport experience for the better of our young sports people. Sport should be fun, sport can be played for passion, sport doesn't have to get serious too soon, and let's foster the social side of sport and the life-long connections and health benefits it can provide to our community.