Youth sports have been on and off throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but for those old enough to vote, it’s been a while.
But the end is in sight for athletic adults eagerly awaiting the return of sports across Alberta.
Premier Jason Kenney confirmed on Monday that Alberta will enter Stage 2 of his government’s Open for Summer Plan on Thursday. According to the province’s website, Stage 2 will allow youth and adult sports to resume “with no restrictions.”
It’s welcome news for Sam Heap, the Lethbridge Soccer Association’s (LSA) technical director, who has spent nearly his entire tenure in the city focusing on COVID-friendly programming for youth players, but hasn’t been able to hit the pitch for an organized game himself since November.
“I moved to Lethbridge 18 months ago and sports is usually the way I socialize,” Heap said. “Sports is the way I meet people — it’s always been that outlet to me.”
Heap isn’t the only one feeling that social and physical absence.
Scott Rathwell is an assistant professor in the University of Lethbridge’s kinesiology department. He says the connections made playing sports have been severely missed during the pandemic.
“You don’t have these interactions with like-minded individuals,” he said. “We often hear from athletes that their friends that they have in sport are like none other.
“It’s a special kind of friendship that they can’t get anywhere else. So that’s gone.”
Rathwell says while lots of the focus has rightfully been on getting kids playing during COVID-19, the loss of sport for older competitive athletes can’t be understated.
“As we age, there’s sort of this negative narrative about aging, where it’s all about loss and decline, but sport is often used by older adults to counter that narrative, to give them a sense of control,” he said.
“One of the things that we see is it has a major impact on their identity. So these athletes often tell us that it’s the only place in their lives where they can be their authentic selves.”
Rathwell said that with sport being a habitual part of many people’s lives, the loss of it over the last year might mean that adult leagues don’t rebound to full capacity as quickly as some might expect.
That slow rebound is already being noticed at Softball Valley, the hub for adult baseball in Lethbridge.
Before COVID-19, facility manager Hank Stoffer says the park — which houses 11 ball diamonds — could have more than 350 people come through the gates on a regular weeknight.
Stoffer says the focus in the last couple of weeks has been on getting leagues organized, but the demand hasn’t been quite the volume he expected.
“The men’s and lady’s leagues are at about 50 per cent, the mixed league we’re doing to about 30 per cent,” he said. “But we’re hoping and hearing that people are still trying to get organized.
“You know, it’s hard to get everybody together when they haven’t seen each other for a year.”
Stoffer says once leagues are up and running, Softball Valley could start looking at ball tournaments for later in the summer.
LSA has already booked some of its elite youth teams into tournaments in the coming months. Heap says he expects to see adult tournaments organized shortly.
“A lot of clubs — regardless of whether they’re youth, adults, whatever — they’re hard up for money,” Heap said. “The best way of getting money into these clubs is to host tournaments.
“As soon as we get that green light, I think you’re going to start seeing — in every sport, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t every sport — tournaments every weekend. So it’s going to seem like a very busy schedule.”
LSA is optimistic that all age groups will hit the field by some time next week.