Deep dive into the sports market: Leaders push to reshape health and safety protocols for youth

Youth sporting events have ramped up in recent months, making a decisive return in the wake of the pandemic. The highest-profile events have drawn thousands of attendees, a feat that few other event markets can boast in the current climate.

Take, for example, the Amateur Athletic Union’s 48th AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships, which took place in June at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando. Organizers welcomed a record number of teams and more than 135,000 attendees across two weeks, creating an estimated economic impact of $173.3 million for the region, according to OCCC officials.

“We are pleased to have been able to yet again offer the opportunity to let athletes do what they really want to do, and that’s to play,” said Jennings “Rusty” Buchanan, president and CEO of the AAU. “The 2021 AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships at the Orange County Convention Center welcomed our biggest numbers to date, positively impacting not only the AAU organization but also the central Florida area as well.”

The recent success of sports events stands in stark contrast to the doldrums of 2020, which saw the global youth and recreational sports league markets shrink from $28.7 billion in 2019 to $6.7 million after the onset of the pandemic, according to a May report by Wintergreen Research, Inc.

Although the industry has bounced back, COVID-19 still plays a defining role in the execution of sports events. During a recent conversation with representatives from the OCCC, Michelle Neely, assistant director of event services, noted that during the past year, the OCCC has seen longstanding volleyball and basketball events implement new protocols in chair spacing, eliminating some courtside seating that would normally have been there. She said many events have also chosen to have an online element, so attendees who can’t attend in person can still log on to see their family member or team compete.

“In the beginning, it was very rigid. We did temperature checks—AAU specifically really worked closely with Orlando Health, and they developed a very rigid protocol for the teams to check in,” she said. Rules were shared with athletes, parents, and coaches in advance, including guidelines for how many people could enter the facility.

Neely observed that by the time the AAU hosted its June competition, rules had relaxed, although the facility did reduce courtside seating and add space between courts. “Bravo to AAU for pulling that together. We were happy to assist them,” she said.

While some youth athletes remained active during the early months of the pandemic, with no travel or push for elite programming, the pace was much slower than normal.
While some youth athletes remained active during the early months of the pandemic, with no travel or push for elite programming, the pace was much slower than normal.

A ‘mind, body, and soul’ approach

The counterbalance to sports events’ success is a concern, voiced by some coaches and industry advocates, that athletes may be rushed back into a season that they aren’t mentally or physically prepared for. During a recent panel discussion hosted by SportsEvents magazine, participants outlined key considerations for helping athletes maintain their mental and physical fitness.

Chris Snyder, vice president of operations for i9 Sports, spent a good portion of his time during the early days of the pandemic dealing with elite athletes and coaches, as well as the pipeline that feeds the elite system. Snyder said it was interesting to see people trying to figure out how to adapt to the shutdown.

“We have a lot of international coaches that didn’t know what to do when they had three weeks off. When they did have a chance to be with their athletes virtually, or sending out programs, they almost were over-coaching and over-doing it, because they just weren’t used to not having that person-to-person touch and connections,” he said.

i9 Sports, the nation’s largest sports franchise operation, has programs serving more than half a million children ranging from ages three to 14, “right in the mix of where you start to go from learning, developing, and growing, and then into traveling to events and playing,” said Snyder.

“And what’s funny is, those age levels, depending on your state, may not have stopped at all. They might have thrown a mask on, they might have had some adjustments for health and sanitation, but they found ways, because their governance isn’t directly tied to a lot of the national organizations that had to hit pause. They could get around even local guidelines at times.” Snyder noted, however, that while some youth athletes remained active, with no travel or push for elite programming, the pace was much slower than normal.

“Now that we’re getting back to ‘normal,’ how do you make sure the kids are returning safely? How do you do it in a smart way? We’ve had a year to reflect as professionals in the sports space,” he said. The challenge, as he sees it, is for the sports community to build on lessons learned during their downtime, both in terms of safety and sanitation, but also in terms of expanding connection and training offerings, as well as sharing knowledge of best practices.

“You can look at the whole life cycle of the athlete—the mind, body, and the soul, so to speak—as well as connecting parents, coaches, and administrators around that athlete. We’re in a position now where we can come back and do this in a smart way and a fast way, but also a safe way. But we’ve got to apply those things we’ve learned.”

Minimizing risk, maximizing health

“I think one of the hidden benefits of the pandemic, if you’re allowed to say such a thing, is that I think it almost forced athletes, many of whom are in the mindset of single sport participation … to step back from that mindset and think about alternative ways outside the organized sports realm to stay active and engaged,” said Dr. Michele LaBotz, sports medicine physician at InterMed.

Since the onset of the pandemic, LaBotz said she has seen more families engaging in informal activities such as family walks and bike outings, or volleyball games in the backyard.

“I hope some of that is able to stay, because some of that connectedness, that embrace of fun and doing something because you love it, and not because you have to go to practice every day, I think that’s one of the best ways we can keep our athletes happy, fit, and engaged, and minimize injury risk,” she said.

LaBotz said programs should be encouraged to maintain an emphasis on variety and recovery. “One of the biggest roadblocks to staying injury-free and maximizing performance is providing for that recovery, in terms of nutrition, in terms of sleep, in terms of rest—both physical and mental,” she said.

Snyder added: “If we’re going to build competence, confidence, connection, and character in our athletes … asking them to go into major competitions or travel events—if we’re going to ask them to perform—we’ve got to make sure we don’t push them too quick. We’ve got to get some of that education into the coaches’ hands, so they don’t try to rush and push those athletes to go too fast when their bodies may not be ready to do it.

“We really need to take that customized approach for each individual athlete and program,” he said. “Take into mind that crawl, walk, run progression that you might want to utilize to make sure the athlete is set up for success.”

He advocates shifting from a mindset of going to tournaments with the expectation of playing as much as humanly possible to justify the cost, to placing a higher value on athlete development and safety.

“This is a time where athletes aren’t coming back all on the same playing field. You might need to reduce the number of games you challenge athletes to play or extend the length of time between sessions,” he said. “You really need to think about how to level that field so that injury doesn’t get pushed upon our athletes, and they’re set up for success where they can fully recover. Do you have extra trainers at fields, ice available, and opportunities for hydration?” He also suggested relaxing restrictions around taking Gatorade or other types of electrolytes out on a turf field, which many groundskeepers dislike because it makes the ground sticky.

In sports, the mental skill set is as important as the physical, even when it comes to children.
In sports, the mental skill set is as important as the physical, even when it comes to children.

Mental health first aid

Phil Andrews, CEO and general secretary of USA Weightlifting, said the idea of mental health first aid is gaining traction across sports. Andrews defined mental health first aid as looking for initial signs of need in an athlete who needs additional support but may not know how to ask for it, and allowing coaches to reach out to those athletes on a one-to-one basis to offer that support with whatever resources their particular organization has.

“At USA Weightlifting, we have something called the Athlete Wellness Program, which provides exactly that type of support to athletes and has done so since 2018,” he said. “What’s changed is that the need has grown during COVID. I think we’ve all become more aware of it. And that’s a lasting impression that COVID-19 can have on sport for youth athletes, adult athletes, and even master athletes alike.

“That mental health support is vital to coaching the entire human being, not just the skill set you see with a barbell or a lacrosse stick. It needs to be paid attention to by every organization, whether they be public sector, private sector, or otherwise.”

Dr. LaBotz added: “I think one thing to keep in mind is that stress is cumulative. When we talk about sport, we often talk about the psychological strain of training and competition on top of the physical strain of training, but it’s important that we’re now understanding the whole of the environment, whether it’s stressors in the family or in the community or in school, that all kind of adds in. When that adds up over time, it increases injury risk, it decreases their ability to concentrate and it decreases their capacity for higher levels of performance.

“So many families have been economically impacted; there’s a lot of food insecurity. So, some of these athletes may not come into training well fed.… There’s going to be a big variety of stressors out there that coaches and programs are going to need to be mindful of, more so than ever before.”

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