Prep Sports

Youth athletes need good, engaged coaches now more than ever

Justis column: As restrictions loosen, contact is important

As restriction ease, more youth athletes will be out in the fields. Good coaching will be needed now more than ever. (Th
As restriction ease, more youth athletes will be out in the fields. Good coaching will be needed now more than ever. (The Gazette)

The shelter-in-place and shutdowns continue and sports, for the time being, remain sidelined, at least for another week.

Our kids, no matter what age, are tired of being apart from friends and teammates. What can coaches do to help kids stay physically and emotionally healthy?

The Aspen Institute’s Project Play recently hosted its third webinar aimed at assisting coaches in this endeavor. Coaches must adjust with new communication techniques, team bonding and coaching plans. It’s also important not to rush players back into a rigorous schedule once practices and games return.

Participating in the webinar were Dr. Andrew Pearle, Hospital for Special Surgery Chief of Sports Medicine and associate team physician for the New York Mets. He spoke on safe physical activity and injury prevention. Shaina Ross, U.S. Soccer Foundation Program Director, spoke on emotional safety and team bonding.

Pearle offered the following tips:

— During shelter-in-place. “We suggest coaches promote low-risk activities (at home) ... leverage technology. Use Skype and Zoom for virtual training sessions. Kids should still try to do 60 minutes of physical activity per day ... emphasize movement quality, not just quantity. Injuries can be prevented by moving with the proper technique.”

— When social distancing restrictions ease. “As the restrictions are eased, it’s the coaches that are going to have to take the responsibility and promote hand-washing ... ensure kids use face coverings and masks when possible ... coaches are going to have to change the way they structure practices by incorporating activities that allow players to be at a safe distance from others during physical activity and perhaps have practices plans that limit group sizes, such as staggering sessions.”

— Return of high-risk organized team sports. “... make sure coaches respect a gradual return to competitive activity, especially if there are condensed preseasons ... (don’t) rush deconditioned athletes back into competition ... We encourage during the ramp-up to increase activity by about 10 percent each week.”

Ross’ tips included:

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— Be honest with kids and yourself. “Don’t pretend everything is perfect. Have an honest conversation with your athletes ... process your own emotions and practice self-care.”

— Recognize different experiences for different kids. “Access to things like food and the internet can’t be ignored if we expect to connect with players, so you need to be flexible. Meet your players where you are by asking questions of what they need.”

— New team bonding rituals. “... reframe how we think about youth sports. Team bonding through high-fives and huddles will need to change. Properly cleaning equipment and avoiding sharing snacks will be critical (and water bottles). Making sure your drills are small-sides and avoiding physical contact between players is going to be key ... create team boundaries around safety and then work with parents and caretakers to reinforce these new norms.”

— How to talk with athletes. “... make sure all of your questions are open ended. Be patient ... make sure that you’re observing not just what they say out of their mouths, but how they physically look.”

An eighth-grade soccer player said “it’s been pretty hard practicing without teammates.

“With teammates, you get motivation and they help you train harder ... The best way (coaches) can help is keep giving updates and assignments. Stay connected. Keep the team together.”

Connection is key. I’ve told my 12-year-old grandson to reach out to school friends and teammates, not just while playing Fortnite, but by phone or computer. Engage with them one-on-one to see how each are doing. Hopefully, they won’t feel so alone and disconnected. Also, to have conversations with friends and parents about what their short-term and long-term goals look like while quarantined and once society returns to somewhat normalcy.

This gives him a target to look forward to.

“... how do I develop a routine for myself?” a soccer coached asked. “(I’ve told my players) if you dedicate these hours to school, these hours to (sport) and homework, these hours to playing with friends and Fortnite, you’ll find that the days don’t drag on as much and you create some flow day to day. You’ll find yourself happier ... If coaches are staying engaged, it’s going to keep the players excited to return.”

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Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Outlier Creative Communications. Let her know what you think at njustis@cfu.net

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