This is the third and final part of a three-part series examining how young athletes have navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, how it’s affected them – as well as coaches and parents – and what youth sports may look like moving forward.
Over the course of the last year, much has been made of the negative effect the COVID-19 pandemic has had on young athletes, many of whom have seen their sports of choice forced into a repetitive practice-only routine or sent to the sidelines altogether.
It’s impacted them in countless ways – mentally and physically, to be sure, while also throwing a wrench into their athletic futures – but one offshoot that is perhaps not as obvious is how it affected the lives of parents, coaches and other volunteers, all of whom have seen their regular routines upended.
It has added stress and changed families’ social lives, too – especially those with multiple children involved in sports, who are used to the fast-paced schedules that come with such involvement.
Jeff Clarke – a longtime professional player and member of Canada’s national soccer program – needn’t look far for proof. As the technical director for Surrey United, he’s been at the forefront of his club’s pandemic-response since last spring, and knows the challenges everyone has faced.
“There’s just been exponential growth in duties and work for everyone because you’ve almost had to plan for three or four scenarios at the time,” he explained. “There’s a plethora of little things that go into a kid playing a soccer game, things some people probably don’t think about – getting referees, finding coaches, getting volunteers to line the fields.”
Clarke added that the soccer association has tried to alleviate as much stress and confusion as possible by having “a heavy emphasis on communication.”
For the most part, Clarke said Surrey United’s young players have been managing fine, and even without games are happy to be outside kicking a ball around with their friends – even socially distanced.
Some sports parents – especially those whose children play indoor sports – have had a more difficult experience. Under current provincial-health orders, for example, only a limited number of people are allowed in arenas, recreational centres and aquatic facilities, meaning that most parents have to drop their children off at the front door and don’t get to watch them participate.
At White Rock’s Centennial Arena, a large tent has been set up to shield parents and hockey players from the elements as the players gear up, before they strap on skate guards and enter the facility on their own.
“We want to see how our kids are developing and competing,” said White Rock’s Gordan Dumka, whose son Cash plays for the minor-midget Valley West Giants. “We want to know how they’re doing, so we know if it’s worth it to keep spending thousands of dollars (for elite-level sports).”
Dumka is an outspoken critic of the way the province has handled youth sports during the pandemic – especially since the fall, when the current restrictions were put in place – and though his number-one priority is the kids, he acknowledges the difficulties that hockey parents have faced.
“It’s frustrating and it’s sad. You drop your kid off and then you either drive home and spend money on gas, and then come back in an hour, or you go to the pub down the street and sit with strangers… or you just sit in your car in the parking lot in the rain.
“It’s a good group of parents we have, and we all kind of know each other. But some of the parents we would talk regularly with, I haven’t seen them all year.”
Jy Lawrence, the head coach of the South Surrey-based Pacific Sea Wolves swim club, said parents with the club were feeling similar levels of frustration – especially once their outdoor sessions at Bear Creek Park ended and the club moved indoors to Fleetwood’s Surrey Sport and Leisure Centre, which does not offer the same safely-distanced viewing opportunities as their usual home at the Grandview Heights Aquatic Centre.
The Grandview facility opened up recently after being closed since last March.
“Parents can’t come inside the building (at the Sport and Leisure Centre). There’s one set of windows, that’s kind of tinted and you can’t see much, but we’ve just got parents huddled around it,” Lawrence said in late January.
“The biggest feedback I get from parents is that they want to be able to see their kids and know what they’re doing. They feel very isolated from their swimmers right now. And these kids are teenagers – and how much are teenagers telling their parents?”
For basketball coach Allison McNeill – who is at the helm of Semiahmoo Secondary’s two-time provincial champion senior girls team – there is, more than anything, a sense of personal sadness that she won’t get to see her girls play one final time before the core group graduates this spring.
McNeill takes solace in the fact that Semiahmoo has won the last two B.C. senior girls titles – winning the first when most members of the team were only in Grade 10 – but still wonders what could have been.
“They say the measure of success is, ‘Are you better today than you were yesterday?’ And we are so much better right now, it’s unbelievable,” she said.
“The girls are stronger, they’re running harder, their shooting has improved. I would’ve liked to have seen them play, just to see how good they could be.
“Realistically though, this is such a tough thing that the whole world is going through, and we’re a very small part of that. We’re all healthy, we’re happy… we just need to be grateful.”
The one line that runs through any conversation about COVID-19 and how it relates to youth sports seems to be the question of whether enrolment in athletics will suffer in the long run. Dumka, for example, said he knows of a number of families whose children have decided to quit as a result of being sidelined for so long.
Clarke, however, is optimistic that once life returns to some semblance of normalcy so, too, will sports.
For many, it’s just too big a part of their lives to give up.
“They see their friends on FaceTime now, or on Zoom, but when they actually get to get together and make real eye contact, and they’re in the presence of their buddies, it’s magical. It’s just completely different, and I think right now, a lot of kids are starved for that.”