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The pandemic playbook: A return to sport under COVID-19 restrictions

Coronavirus: A return to organized sport under COVID-19 restrictions
WATCH: A return to organized sport under COVID-19 restrictions.

After the coronavirus pandemic put young Canadian athletes on the sidelines for months, youth sports are slowly coming back, but with a whole new game plan.

“It’s going to look different than it was a few months ago. And it also may look different from community to community,” said Charlene Krepiakevich, CEO of viaSport.

The legacy program of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics has been commissioned by the B.C. government to provide return-to-play guidelines for organized sports groups in the province.

“No travel for teams. No league competitions. No training camps right now. All of these things, for now,” Krepiakevich noted.

While viaSport makes over-arching recommendations, it’s up to groups at the association or club level to make the final call on how a return to sport would work in their communities.

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Read more: The New Reality: What will the future of sports look like?

It’s been an adjustment. The Fraser Valley Kings hockey program has resumed in-person practices in Abbotsford, B.C. The spring tournament team must now follow an updated playbook during the pandemic.

“Obviously, keeping the kids six feet apart, there’s an element of the game that you can’t teach or work on right now,” says the Kings’ Program Director Troy Stordy. “But there’s a lot of skills and the basics. As the kids get through, it’s about the fundamentals.”

The new normal includes no contact on the ice, designated entrances and walkways, and a limit of one parent per child at the rink. Anyone else can watch practices on a live video stream provided by the team.

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“They have to come fully dressed and that has actually taken away from their locker room time with the team,” said parent Regan Bebber of another key change. “But it hasn’t seemed to faze the kids at all.

“I think they’re just happy to be back on the ice.”

“It’s still fun,” said Bebber’s 9-year-old son Brady. “I wish I was playing games still.”

Read more: Multiple athletes test positive for coronavirus, complicating return of sports

When regular gameplay might return is still a mystery. With a second wave of coronavirus infections expected this fall, safety is still a major concern.

“Most of the fun is when we play games,” said Brenna Pontes, who plays defense with the Kings.

“You can’t have puck battles and challenge each other,” she added about the competitive nature of games and tournaments.

Read more: Most Canadian Premier League teams resume training after COVID-19 delays start to season

With some 500,000 players, Ontario Soccer is one of the largest sports organizations in the country. A survey of its members found 33 per cent of parents were willing to let their kids play, 28 per cent would let them return only under strict conditions, and 12 per cent were not willing to put their kids back onto the pitch again this year.

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“Parents are very cautious, and so they should be around the health and safety of their children,” said Johnny Misley, CEO of Ontario Soccer. “We just want to make sure that we are assuring our participants that we do have a very structured, comprehensive plan of phasing back [that’s] always in the best interests of the health and safety of our participants.”

Like every sports organization, the pandemic has hit Ontario Soccer hard.

“We’ve been hit catastrophically when it comes to the financial part of it,” Misley told Global News. He said the organization was forced to go from 55 full-time staff to five part-timers and four full-time employees. The timeout caused by the coronavirus has also blown a huge hole in the organization’s $12.5 million budget. Misley estimated they’ve lost $8-9 million in registration revenues, and it might take up to five years to get back on solid financial footing.

Kicked in the assets: Smaller professional soccer teams face financial crisis
Kicked in the assets: Smaller professional soccer teams face financial crisis

But the sport is slowly returning. In Oakville, Shane Suleman’s entire world revolves around soccer. The 11-year-old even sleeps with a soccer ball.

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“It’s just a habit now. It’s a hobby. It’s my life,” Suleman explained of his love of the game.

Being away from their club has also been tough for teammate Oakley Cooper.

“It’s been very different for me. It’s been tough at the start but I’m getting a little bit used to it now,” he said.

The 11-year-olds have been making do with virtual training over Zoom calls, practicing trick shots and juggling in their backyards, and conditioning with their parents at the local field.

Even their dedicated soccer dads know it’s not the same as being with the team.

“I’m more concerned about his wellbeing mentally, socially, and so you weigh that and I think we’re in a good place moving forward,” Cooper’s father Brandon told Global News.

Read more: Canadian kids get D+ for physical activity: report card

That social interaction is a key part of encouraging healthier lifestyles for kids. Participaction’s 2020 report card for physical activity found only 39 per cent of Canadians aged 5 to 17 meet federal exercise guidelines. However, 77 per cent of those between 5 and 19 years old participated in sports or other organized physical activity. So while they still may not be getting enough exercise, being part of a team can help kids build friendships, which makes exercise fun.

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Health Matters: Kids have been less active during the pandemic
Health Matters: Kids have been less active during the pandemic

“These are just my best buddies and my favourite people in the world,” said William Weber, who plays catcher for the Badgers baseball team in London, Ont. “So I just get to see them and hang out and play what I love with them.”

Baseball development is in full swing across most of Ontario, but there are still restrictions in the early stages of the restart, said Badgers Chairperson Mike Lumley.

“The stations are meant to be separated enough so that they can do work and do the things that they can do … just never be anywhere near each other,” he said.

Read more: Return of MLB season amid coronavirus ‘a disaster waiting to happen’: experts

Baseball Ontario’s restart plan calls for a maximum of 10 players training at a time, but the Badgers are running their drills in smaller groups of five. The kids run, practise hitting and fielding skills, all the while adhering to physical distancing protocols.

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“Just to get out and do something like this and in a safe environment … it’s a definite game-changer for everybody, I think,” said Lumley.

Baseball is one of the easier sports to incorporate physical distancing because it’s outdoors and mostly non-contact.

Gymnastics are a different story. Every apparatus is considered to be a high-touch area that requires increased sanitization. The safety element of spotting – to keep athletes from falling — has also been prohibited by Gymnastics BC.

Read more: Expect a new normal when gyms given OK to open amid coronavirus

“That was definitely, for me, the hardest thing,” said Aaliyah De Sousa, who trains at Flip City Gymnastics in Langley, B.C.

“My coach that I trust and that has spotted me for years — I wasn’t going to have her spotting me. And even after a skill, you feel happy, I want to just give her a hug but I can’t.”

That means they have to practice their skills within the limits of what they can already do safely. Gymnastic BC’s Safety Director Nathan Kindrachuk said many athletes are shaking off the rust after being on hiatus, so the focus should be on getting back into competitive shape, not pushing the limits.

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Holding back that competitive drive can be tough, but like everything during this pandemic, it’s a necessary measure.

“I think that first day. We were all very nervous and anxious on what the process would look like, but as soon as those kids started coming through the doors, it was exhilarating,” said Flip City’s Executive Director Sherri Taylor.

Read more: Your guide to summer: How to enjoy outdoor activities despite the pandemic

Like everyone during this pandemic, sports organizations are doing their best to strike a delicate balance between letting kids pursue their passion, and limiting the potential spread of COVID-19.

“They love to compete and we can’t take that away from them,” says Gymnastics BC CEO Andreé Montreuil. “That’s what they love to do. So just be patient and it will all come back.”