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Dr. Jeremy Sibold on Helping Kids Safely Return to Organized Sports


Zac returned to soccer team practice this summer - JANET ESSMAN FRANZ
  • Janet Essman Franz
  • Zac returned to soccer team practice this summer

Small bodies in bright orange shorts and jerseys stand six feet apart, pausing between drills to gulp water from sports bottles. I'm watching from afar, because parents aren't allowed near the fields. I see the children heading toward shade under trees, taking care to give each other space. There are no communal water jugs, and teammates don't share snacks, hugs or high fives. Masks obscure some players' smiles, but can't hide their excitement for playing together, finally, after three months apart. This is soccer practice during the summer of COVID-19.

After a 13-week hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, my 12-year-old son, Zac, returned to organized sports in mid-June, bringing us both a sense of relief. During his break from soccer, Zac became increasingly sullen, lethargic and detached, and I worried how staying apart from other adolescents was affecting his social development. Both our moods improved when he returned to kicking balls with teammates at Vermont Futbol Academy (VFA) camp and Far Post Soccer Club.

Sports are not exactly back to "normal." No spectators sit on the sidelines, and friends don't gather after practice. Players participate in minimum contact drills and small groups games, but full-team games and tournaments are cancelled for the foreseeable future.

Team sports this summer pose risks. Congregating in groups may increase coronavirus exposure and potential spread to family members, and some children feel anxious joining large gatherings. Players may be out of shape after a three-month interruption, causing some kids to worry and putting them at risk for injuries.

What's to be gained by resuming sports this summer? How can caregivers support children as they rejoin their teams? I spoke with Dr. Jeremy Sibold, a professor in University of Vermont's Rehabilitation and Movement Science department, where he teaches exercise science and sports psychology courses and researches impacts of exercise on mental health. He's also father to two high-level teenage athletes. Sibold shared his perspective on the benefits of team sports on children's emotional development and how caregivers can help ensure children's safe return to play.

As for Zac, the joy of spending time with the team offsets his end-of-day muscle aches and fatigue. After a good night's sleep, he's excited to get back on the field and kick a ball with friends, and I am relieved by his rejuvenation.

Kids VT: Why should I consider sending my child back to organized sports this summer?

JEREMY SIBOLD: What children gain developmentally goes far beyond competition and winning. For kids, participating in sports is about identity, being part of a team, feeling a sense of influence, self-efficacy and self-confidence. There's evidence that, through middle adolescence, children's development benefits from the social dynamics, getting positive feedback from coaches and having fun with friends. This may be a great summer for kids to try a new sport, while the stakes are lower.

KVT: How does participating in sports affect a child's mood?

JS: Physical activity positively impacts mental health, regardless of age. It improves mood, relieves anxiety and improves confidence. For young people, there's a profound reduction in sadness, mood swings and suicidal thoughts.

KVT: Do organized sports provide advantages over free-form activities, like swimming in lakes, biking or just playing outside?

JS: Organized sports' benefits are not "over" — just "additional" to — free-form activities. Benefits come with team dynamics: forging relationships, communicating with teammates, leadership, taking feedback from coaches. Some kids thrive in a team environment and they're motivated by competition. Others gravitate toward geocaching or archery, and that's fine. Giving choice is important. Forcing someone — of any age — to exercise in a way they don't want to may backfire, making the person feel anxious and not confident. It comes down to what's right for each kid and family, and tailoring the experience to have the most fun.

KVT: My child feels tired and sore after practice. What can caregivers do to help children return to play safely?

JS: First, let them know they won't be as fast as they were three months ago. They may feel rusty, out of breath or sore, and that's okay. Kids aren't always good at self-regulation. After an off-season or, in this case, after a pandemic, they'll go back with rabid intensity and get hurt or be too sore to play the next day. Explain that they have to start slowly and should stop if they feel pain.

Help kids eat nutritiously and stay hydrated. They've been sitting inside for three months, possibly not eating the healthiest foods, and now they are exercising in the heat. Plan for a lot of water and healthy snack breaks.

Replace their shoes. Even if they still fit, athletic shoes wear out and no longer provide adequate support.

This article was originally published in Seven Days' monthly parenting magazine, Kids VT.