What’s Next for Youth Sports in 2021

Dr. Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, sees continued uncertainty – and an opportunity for change.

Laura Lambert

| 6 min read

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It’s been nearly a year since the country first went on lockdown — and we’ve missed youth sports. A lot. Kids miss the game. Parents miss the camaraderie on the sidelines, and the joy of watching their kids play. There’s a sense that we are missing out. For some, there’s a sense, too, that a window is closing, as well as an urgency that has some parents suing to open fields and gyms, courts and pools.

Here to make sense of it all is Dr. Dan Gould, director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports at Michigan State University, and co-chair of MOJO’s Academic Advisory Board.  

MOJO: From your point of view, what have we learned from this enforced year-long break from youth sports? And what can we carry with us into 2021?

Dan Gould: There’s the old Yogi Berra quote, It ain’t over ‘til it’s over. I just talked with somebody from Maine and they’re still having shutdowns. So, you know, let’s assume there will still be some shutdowns around the country.

The first thing I would say is, if it’s at all possible, for our coaches to keep in contact with their athletes. Anything from helping kids figure out workout plans to do in the garage, to just checking in with a kid. We know from social-emotional learning that the better connection a coach has with a young person, the more the young person derives from sport.

For those lucky enough to be coming back, there’s still a lot of uncertainty. You might be playing this week and not playing next week, if the numbers go up. We need to be upfront and say, Hey, this is not a good situation, but we have no control over it. We can only control our response to it. So don’t beat yourself up trying to control things you have no control over.

MOJO: In states where kids are getting back on the field, do you feel like it’s going to be the same?

DG: I think it will get to being the same fairly quickly. All bets are off until we get farther along with the vaccine, from what everybody says. So I think there’ll be more uncertainty — and we know uncertainty causes stress for everybody. 

Mindfulness is very popular right now. And you know, it goes back to Eastern thought, centered breathing. A lot of the research shows that great athletes will take a deep breath before they take a foul shot. They’ll do things to sort of center themselves. And I think that’s a great thing  to teach kids right now. 

Let’s all take a couple deep breaths. That cannot only help them in sport but also in school and other places where they might be stressed.

MOJO: A piece in SoccerWire suggested the pandemic has actually helped player development. Kids are getting in their touches, kicking around, without the pressure of competition. Do you feel like there are other, similar silver linings?

DG: I would probably rather refer to them as secondary gains — which is something we say about injuries. Obviously, nobody wants to get injured, but when people do get injured, there might be a secondary gain. 

When I think about this COVID situation, first, none of us wish it had happened. But it doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. One thing is appreciating how great it is to get back to play. Maybe it’s I never thought I’d be so motivated to go to practice or I learned that I don’t need my coach to tell me everything I need to do or I learned how much I appreciate my friends. Or maybe a family learned that they don’t have to get sucked into the crazy travel team life, and can take some time off. 

MOJO: With respect to the travel teams — and the professionalism of youth sports overall — do you feel like this break has taken the pressure off of families — or has it made it more intense? 

DG: Oh, all of the above. It’s probably a sword that can cut both ways.

On the one hand, it gave us time where families have had dinner together. If you’re really into youth sports, you may never see your kids for dinner because of practices. And that gets us thinking about quality of life. 

The flip side is when we go back, are people going to get sucked right back into the system?

A lot of research shows for people to make change, they need to reflect on things and not just experience them.

So it’s one thing if you experienced this time away, and when it opens up again, you’re going to  jump right back in, versus reflecting. If I’m a parent, maybe I stop and say, Hey, let’s have a talk about what we want out of sport for our kid. What does our child want? What does our family really want? How do we want to proceed?

Just taking a moment to reflect as we get back on the field. 

MOJO: If there was one thing you could magically change about youth sports, as things open up again, what would it be?

DG: I don’t know if there’s just one thing. But I guess it would be for adults to make youth sports a developmental experience for the child and not necessarily a means to an end. 

You were talking about the professionalization of youth sports earlier.  The research shows the more parents pay for sport, the more they expect outcomes — outcomes like wins (not losses), college scholarships, those types of things. 

To me it is different, you’re paying for developmental experience. I want my child to be better psychologically, to be better physically, to be better socially. 

If we could be thinking about youth sports that way, it would work for the kid who can’t walk and chew gum, because they’ll learn how to walk and chew gum — even if they’re never going to the chewing gum Olympics. And it works for the talented girl or boy, who are becoming all they’re capable of being, enjoying the experience and learning some values while trying to excel as an athlete.

Really, it’s How do we get every kid to fall in love with the game? If I could get every kid I have as a coach to fall in love with the game, that would take care of all sorts of issues.

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