Getting youth back to sports vital as restrictions begin to lift in Canada

In a panel discussion hosted by CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo on Tuesday, former speed skater Catriona Le May Doan stressed the importance of investing in youth sports, allowing kids and teenagers to get involved in physical activities.

CBC Sports 'Canada's Youth Sport Outlook' panel tackled subject on Tuesday

Former Olympic speed skater Catriona Le May Doan, centre, during a press conference about the Winter Olympic bid for 2026 in Calgary in 2018. (The Canadian Press/Larry MacDougal/File)

Getting youths involved in sports again should be one of Canada's priorities as COVID-19 restrictions continue to be lifted, believes Olympic speed skating gold medallist Catriona Le May Doan.

The Saskatoon native, who will be Team Canada's chef de mission at the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, also called for youth sports to receive more funding during the 'Canada's Youth Sport Outlook' panel discussion hosted by CBC Sports' Andi Petrillo on Tuesday.

"Many sport organizations closed down or are worried they will not survive into 2021," Le May Doan said. "So the financial part is definitely the number one concern. And how we get the youth back to sport."

The Olympic and world champion mentioned a recent national study conducted by The Canada Games Council (CGC) that showed 1 in 3 Canadian youths are unsure if they will return to sport after COVID-19 restrictions are lifted.

Ensuring kids and teenagers continue participating in sports should be a key and necessary aspect of the return to normalcy all Canadians expect to witness soon as it benefits much more than just the body, she said.

"Sport brings us the physical side, the mental side that's now more important than ever, and the social side, which has been taken away. People are isolated, people are lonely.

"We need that social connection, and we need sport to be a priority," said Le May Doan, who became the first Canadian athlete to successfully defend an individual Olympic gold medal by winning the 500m speed skating event at the 2002 Olympic Games.

Le May Doan was joined on the panel by Team Canada hockey player Laura Stacey, TeamSnap Founder Dave DuPont, The Hoop Factory founder Vidal Massiah and Ontario Lacrosse Association board member Colleen Grimes.

'You just need to start'

To Stacey, a forward in the Canadian women's national ice hockey team, to allow kids to embrace "the friendships and the connectiveness" sport brings is the best way to bring them back.

"A lot of kids have lost out [on that], even us as professional athletes did, and to be able to get that back you just need to start," Stacey said.

"Whether it's simply going out on the street to play road hockey with other kids ... Once you start realizing what you missed and weren't able to do when you were in lockdown, it'll be a really huge start for kids and for parents."

This return doesn't come without concerns, however.

"One of the biggest [concerns] that I've personally heard from parents," Grimes said, "is that kids with means have still been playing through the pandemic."

Grimes says families who can afford it have been finding private sessions and training camps, sometimes even in the United States, for their children to keep practising sports.

To make sure the opportunities are there for everybody once youth sports are back to full speed, marginalized groups should be a central part of the plan going forward, Grimes says.

"In Canada, diversity is our strength, we all share a love for sport, and physical activity has to be the power that builds these bridges."

A change in perception necessary

Massiah called for the pandemic to become a turning point on how youth coaches are perceived.

He believes people who work with youth sports are at the "frontline of our future" despite rarely being seen as that.

"We're building the confidence, we're building the competitive nature and we need to start to understand that," Massiah said. "Teachers have a newfound appreciation after the pandemic, and youth coaches need to be exalted in the same way.

"The work that we do is priceless, many times we're setting the path for young people. What we're doing isn't just community-based, it's national work. We're building the future leaders of our country."

Return of youth sports has begun, slowly

A new study by TeamSnap shows youth sports events across Canada are at 52 per cent compared to May and June 2019. The data points to a slow return to pre-COVID-19 levels in all provinces, with baseball and soccer having the highest number of events scheduled.

"We are updating information on the return to sport by state or province, and by individual sport," DuPont said. "So we can tell you that football in Canada or in Calgary is back X per cent, or hockey in Ontario is back Y per cent. That's useful because organizations can see where they stand relative to others."

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