COVID-19 scales back youth sports. That’s a win for many kids

Let kids engage in more “free play,” unstructured time to run around, free of parental interference. It’s about kids trying different sports.

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youth sports, coronavirus, overuse, free play

Teams line the field at Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pennsylvania, for the Little League World Series in August 2019. This year’s championship already has been canceled because of the coronavirus, but players and families across the country are eager to play.

Gene J. Puskar/AP file

My heart will break for older teens if they don’t get to play sports in Illinois this summer, or maybe this fall, because of the coronavirus. Most are nearing the end of their competitive sports days, and you hate to see them robbed.

For younger kids, I see a silver lining. It’s a chance for them to do more bike riding. They can learn to rollerblade or skateboard. Maybe they can join their parents for runs or walks.

They could get a much-needed break from an over-scheduled life, especially when it comes to sports.

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Or, maybe not. In Missouri, a 40-team youth baseball tournament was held last weekend by GameTime Tournaments. You won’t see this in Illinois right now because of the stay-at-home order to curb the spread of the virus. But, at least one Illinois team, the Black Sox from central Illinois, made the trip, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported.

GameTime instituted social distancing guidelines, including no high-fives, and sanitized the ball often. But some things can’t be helped in baseball: The catcher always will be positioned behind the batter. Players bump into each other on some plays. Out of habit, coaches are bound to get close to players to give instruction.

After being at home for weeks, the games had to be a relief for the players and parents who watched. But 40 teams? That’s downright irresponsible, even if permissible by Missouri’s looser restrictions related to the virus.

Fewer games, or no games for a year, could be a very good thing for kids.

Almost from the time they’re born, too many kids heed a schedule. At 5, you can be signed up for sports leagues. There are 7-year-olds who practice four or five days a week, whether it’s football, soccer or baseball, followed by games on the weekends.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends 60 minutes of daily physical activity for kids in grade school through high school. The kids don’t need to be part of an expensive organized team to get it. But we’ve lost our creativity and spontaneity. The days of neighborhood kids putting together sandlot games went away decades ago.

I know young adults who started sports early, some at 5, and by the time they reached middle school, they didn’t want to practice. Losses got shrugged off because there was always another game.

They burned out. Five years ago, participation studies showed that about 70% of children quit playing sports by the time they are 13.

A friend’s daughter, who had the ability to play soccer in college on a scholarship, stunned her parents when she dropped her club early in her teens. She had tired of it.

Our friends had invested thousands of dollars in games, training and cross-country travel. They had counted on that scholarship. I covered high school sports for nine years as a reporter and met many parents who had done the same. Parents are better off investing early in their children’s college tuition instead of spending lots on expensive sports clubs and personal coaches.

In youth sports, for every knowledgeable coach, you can find others who just aren’t very good, though they mean well.

Some don’t know how to train athletes properly. Some encourage kids to specialize in one sport year-round. The more games, the better — that’s the thinking of some coaches, parents and kids.

Studies show that specializing in one sport contributes to a higher rate of injuries, especially from physical overuse.

“There’s plenty of data that says it’s much better to play multiple sports,” Dr. James P. Bradley told me. He’s the head orthopedic surgeon for the Pittsburgh Steelers and president of the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine based in Rosemont.

Bradley told me about a 13-year-old patient whose father had him throwing lots of pitches in baseball.

“ ‘You know, you’re ruining his shoulder,’ ” Bradley told the father. “ ‘Let him play basketball, run track. When he’s growing whiskers, then we get him throwing curveballs.’ ”

Let kids engage in more “free play,” as doctors call it. It’s unstructured time to run around, free of parental interference, yet critical for physical and emotional development. It’s about kids trying different sports. It lets kids be kids.

The coronavirus will put some limits on that for now, but it should be the goal.

Marlen Garcia is a member of the Sun-Times Editorial Board.

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