Over the past year-and-a-half, the term ‘new normal’ has crept into the everyday vernacular of society due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The worlds of amateur and youth sports are no different, as questions about how different 2021 would be from 2020 were top of mind for organizers, coaches, and players at the beginning of this year.
For Wayne Moss, director of the National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS), one thing has been a bit of a shock over the past 12 months or so.
“I thought youth sports would be one of the last things that would come back, to my surprise, I think it was one of the first things. I think there was a variety of reasons for that such as COVID-19 fatigue and just an overall sense of wanting to get back outside,” Moss told SportsEvents.
However, with that in mind, Moss said this positive reality has not set in for everyone.
“I think income is a great predictor of engagement in organized sports. For families making more than $100,000, we find there are of huge degree of them getting back into sports. For those who are making less than $25,000, the story is not good,” he explained.
In that same vein, in Moss’ view, travel teams and club sports—where there is an economic motivation—are seeing a return to pre-pandemic levels, and some have even had record years in 2021.
However, for leagues run by non-profit organizations such as Boys & Girls Clubs or YMCAs or by municipalities, many are struggling.
Moss said this was already a problem before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has definitely “made it worse.” A positive coming from this for Moss is the belief there are many people across the sector looking at ways to address the issue, including NCYS.
“We wanted to make sure we are focusing on that issue,” he said, stating the council has made it a priority to find ways to open more sports and athletic opportunities for groups such as women, minorities, and people with disabilities.
Another positive revelation coming from the past year-and-a-half for Moss is the clear impact on young people by returning to their individual sports.
While many of these players continued to train and be active, Moss said some of them had ‘lost their passion for play.”
“There was something about not physically being with your teammates and not being engaged in that process,” he said. “The thing we need to be on the look for is the social and emotional wellbeing of these young people who may not necessarily have the outlet they had before.”
Moss said from some the reports and anecdotal stories he has heard, “the passion for the game, the passion for play, and the passion for being with their teammates is picking up again.”
“I think this is a demonstration of the importance of youth sports and what it means for physical and emotional health and resiliency,” he added.
This belief is echoed by Micayla Rivin, director of community outreach for Let’s Empower, Advocate, and Do Inc. (LEAD), an organization specializing in mental health education.
“When it comes to supporting the holistic wellness of youth—that is, their physical, mental and emotional wellbeing—offering opportunities for consistent and meaningful involvement in sports and athletic groups is incredibly important. On top of the well-known physical health benefits that we know come from daily and consistent athletic exercise, the mental-emotional support that kids and teens get from feeling a part of something bigger than themselves is truly lifesaving in many cases,” Rivin told SportsEvents. “Mental health research studies show that while there are many risk factors that can lead to youth developing a mental illness, the greatest protective factor is having at least one adult that they feel safe and comfortable talking to. For many kids, their coach is just that person. The magic of sports and athletics, especially for youth, is that it brings people together for a shared interest where kids who might not have connected can work together and individually towards a common goal.”
Looking forward to 2022, Moss is optimistic the worst of the pandemic is over.
“It is my hope for us as a country, not just youth sports, that we put COVID in the rearview mirror. I think what happens in the youth sports space is reflective of the general public,” he said. “I think there will be more confidence for parents to engage their children in sports, and I think there is a real interest throughout the country to get back to a state of normalcy.”
One of the places where the road to that normalcy began was at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC).
This summer, the OCCC hosted the world’s largest volleyball competition, the AAU Junior National Volleyball Championship. The 2021 event broke records, welcoming more than 135,000 guests and 3445 teams from the around the world.
“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, AAU president and CEO. “The 2021 AAU Junior Volleyball Championships welcomed our biggest numbers to date, positively impacting not only the organization but also the central Florida area as well. Hosting such a large event successfully would not be possible without the dedication, commitment, and tireless efforts of the OCCC team.”
Moss said some sports and leagues have been able to bounce back quicker simply due to the seasons when they are played.
“For some of these sports that are played outside, we’ve seen far less of a drop off,” he noted.
Certain sports and events have been impacted by where they are hosted as well, as different states currently have dissimilar restrictions tied to COVID-19.
Moss said his 19-year-old son, who is now in college, chose not to wrestle in his final year of high school, even after three years of making it to the state finals. However, he continued to play lacrosse.
For parents like Moss, how events were being run often determined whether their children would participate.
“There were different ways organizers may have put their events together, from having no spectators to having people in the venue with no masks,” he said.
Rivin believes a return to the field, rink, court, or pitch (whatever it may be) is extremely important moving forward for young people.
“With the COVID-19 pandemic coming towards two years, investing in youth sports and athletics is incredibly important to sustaining and building back up youth mental health and wellbeing in general. While I don’t believe youth or society will be able to ever ‘get over’ the pandemic, I truly believe and have seen firsthand just how much healing and connection that can come from youth involvement in sports and athletics,” she said.
Whatever 2022 brings, Moss reiterated his happiness at how far youth sports have come over the past year, and his hope the ‘new normal’ and the days of old will somehow be bridged even more next year.