Nfld. & Labrador

Smart soccer ball keeps Feildians in touch with game, as return to play considered

With team sports and group activities suspended because of the most recent outbreak of COVID-19, the Feildians Athletic Association in St. John's is keeping young players engaged at home — with a smart soccer ball. 

Club distributed 300 smart balls to players Saturday

About 300 smart soccer balls were distributed to Feildian players Saturday. The team hopes they'll keep players in touch with the game and each other. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

With team sports and group activities suspended again because of the most recent outbreak of COVID-19, the Feildians Athletic Association in St. John's has found a new way to keep young players engaged at home — with a smart soccer ball. 

The Dribbleup smart soccer balls have sensors inside, which connect to a smartphone or tablet app, which players use for interactive skill-building classes tracking their speed, skill and repetitions using augmented reality as they practise drills. 

The organization handed out more than 300 of the balls to players 17 and younger Saturday, though drive-thru, contactless pickup.

"The last thing we want to see them do is not touch the ball," said head coach Cameron Carpenter.

"This will now allow them to go home, practise in a safe space and keep their touches on the ball, so it aids their player development."

A young Feildians player tests out a smart soccer ball. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Carpenter said the team practised using Zoom and Google until team sports were allowed to resume last year, but that type of practice hasn't really taken off this year. 

"This will be a much better product and hopefully will engage all the players with more fun and exciting challenges for them to do," he said

Andy Knight, 14, who was trying out the new smart ball on Saturday, called it "pretty cool." He's excited for some friendly competition with teammates through the app, since he's spent a lot of the last year practising at home and in his backyard.

"Obviously it's hard to get out and practise as a team, so it's just good to get a touch on the ball at your house and have some competition," said Knight, who is on the Feildians' under-15 team.

Gradual, safe return to play

On Friday, Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said public health hasn't yet decided when team sports will resume.

Fitzgerald did say, however, that return-to-play plans must focus on reducing contacts, as faster-spreading virus variants, like B117, become the dominant strain of COVID-19.

"The most critical thing for us right now is to keep our contacts low, and I cannot stress enough the importance of this," she said.

"We cannot ignore the reality that group activities, including team sports, result in multiple contacts for each individual. This is compounded by the interaction of different teams and individuals involved in multiple types of sports and activities."

Feildians head coach Cameron Carpenter says the new smart soccer balls will keep kids in touch with the game and with each other, as return-to-play plans are still up in the air. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Fitzgerald acknowledged many people are disappointed team sports have been slow to resume, and she said she recognizes the positive impact sport has on mental and physical health. 

She said public health has asked sports organizations to submit plans for a gradual and safe return to play.

"These plans will need to look somewhat different than the return to play plans from last year and consider how team sports can resume with reduced contacts in light of variants of concern and epidemiology, not just here, but across the country," said Fitzgerald, who noted that team sports were linked to February's outbreak of the virus variant in the province.

A number of people on Prince Edward Island are also now isolating after a boy under 19 who is involved in minor sports was diagnosed with COVID-19 Friday.

Smart ball keeps players in touch

Meanwhile, Carpenter has his fingers crossed that Feildians players will be able to return to the soccer pitch in some form this summer.

"The return to play will probably begin toward the end of April. And then obviously, based on the guidelines, SportNL and the [Newfoundland and Labrador Soccer Association] will dictate how far we can go and what we need to do," Carpenter said.

As people try to keep their contacts low as the pandemic continues, Carpenter said, the smart soccer ball program will keep young players in contact with the ball and each other, safely.

Andy Knight, 14, is looking forward to playing soccer again. He wants his team to make nationals next year in Ottawa. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

"This is one way to bring all the players back together," said Carpenter.

Knight said he can't wait to play with his team again.

"It would be really good. We're obviously not going to have a good summer and I'm going into a Grade 10 next year and I just want to have a good time with my friends before I get into, like, real hard school work and stuff," he said.

In the meantime, the club is challenging their players to collectively reach one million touches on the new smart balls before the end of March.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Gillis

Journalist

Heather Gillis has been reporting in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2011.

now