Sports

Canada's youth sports machine has ground to complete halt

The coronavirus pandemic has altered the evening and weekend routines of millions of Canadian families. There are no more trips to the rink, no more practices to rush to, no more games to look forward to and no more tournaments to plan for.

Community, social connection a key aspect of the sports experience

For many kids, the camaraderie of sports can serve as a coping mechanism for many things in their lives, says University of Toronto professor Catherine Sabsiton. (The Associated Press)

A few weeks ago, Colin Bloom's life was a self-inflicted conveyer belt of sporting chaos. And he loved every minute of it.

Most nights, you could find him in a Toronto-area rink coaching one of his son's hockey teams. Both teams were in the midst of whirlwind playoff runs. Like everything these days, it all stopped suddenly.

"Every night normally, we'd be rushing through dinner and then getting out to the activity and now there's really nothing," Bloom laments. "It doesn't feel right. We were always busy but it was a good feeling of being busy."

The Bloom family is hardly alone. The coronavirus altered the evening and weekend routines of millions of Canadian families. There are no more trips to the rink, no more practices to rush to, no more games to look forward to and no more tournaments to plan for.

"The strangest thing is just not being able to talk to the kids because it all ended so fast," Bloom says. "That's really been the hard part. Like there isn't like any of a real closure to the season."

In short, Canada's youth sports machine has ground to a complete halt.

"Nothing like this has ever happened. There's never been a situation where kids can't play sports. Sport is at a complete standstill," says Catherine Sabsiton, a professor in the University of Toronto's faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education.

Experts say the jarring stop has left a huge void for athletes and families. Beyond the obvious loss of important physical fitness, skill building and coach feedback, there is also the sudden loss community and social connection, a key aspect of the sports experience. For many young athletes, the coronavirus pandemic has meant drastic changes in virtually every aspect of their lives, including not being in school. And the sudden loss of their sporting lives has only compounded the uncertainty.

While much attention has been paid to the cancellation of professional sports, there is also a huge impact on the lives of children and families involved in youth sports who have seen their seasons wiped out. (Jeff McIntosh/Canadian Press)

"Sports build self-esteem and they protect kids from depression and anxiety and stress," Sabsiton says. "For many kids, sports are a coping mechanism, an outlet."

Audrey Giles, a professor at the University of Ottawa's School of Human Kinetics, says for many children sports offers the self-esteem they may not find in other parts of their lives. And need now more than ever.

"Some kids don't have strong social networks. They may be bullied at school but at soccer they have a different social group and it's a great escape," Giles says. "So losing these alternate groups of friends can be really challenging."

Bloom says the sudden loss of sports is also having an impact on parents. On his teams, other parents are a key part of each other's social network and their lives have become intertwined.

"You're seeing those people all the time and they really are the people that you're closest to. Those are people that you see all the time and there is a void certainly right now not being able to interact with those people that you are used to seeing four or five times a week."

Some kids don't have strong social networks. They may be bullied at school but at soccer they have a different social group and it's a great escape.- Audrey Giles, U of Ottawa's School of Kinetics

Thirteen-year-old Samara Golger and her family are doing their best to fill in the blanks. Like the Blooms, they are used to a frantic sporting schedule.

Golger is an elite soccer player in Toronto and is normally around her teammates and coaches five times a week.

"Soccer is very important to me," she says. "I've been doing it since I was six. So when I don't have soccer it kind of feels a little bit empty because it's one more place I felt like I belong at and I'm not there anymore."

Golger's coach has been trying to keep things as normal as possible with online drills and virtual challenges. She is also trying to stay fit by being as active as possible. And she does her best to stay in touch with her teammates on social media. But it's just not the same.

"It's like having 18 sisters and it's different FaceTiming than actually being with them in person," she says. "On Zoom no one's in their uniform and we're not really talking about social things, it's all about soccer but we're not actually connecting on a social standpoint."

"It's really hard for kids to understand what this all means," Sabsiton says. "Not only the idea that they're not seeing their teammates who have now become their friends but also just not having the structure of the routine"

Colin Bloom says he has spoken to many parents of the children he coaches. He says they are doing their best to recreate their child's routine, to create a sense of normalcy, but the idea of replicating a team experience can only go so far.

"I think we can replace the activity at some level but you can't replace the camaraderie, the teamwork, the social interaction and the life lessons that they get from it," he says. "One of the biggest things that they get out of a team sport is seeing that same peer group all the time. Sure they see each other online playing Fortnite, but it's not the same as being in a dressing room with the guys and hanging out and chatting and that part of it."

The biggest question now is what's next. All minor hockey activities across Canada have been cancelled for the season. Now the attention is focused on whether the seasons of spring and summer sports like baseball and soccer can still be salvaged. 

In Ontario, baseball officials have pushed back all in-person training until May 4 and are relying on the advice of public health official before making any further decisions.

The president of Baseball Ontario says he is still hopeful they can salvage a season. (The Associated Press)

"We are continuing to plan, continuing to prepare, continuing to remain hopeful and doing our best to save a baseball season," says Ed Quinlan, president of Baseball Ontario. "If there's an opportunity to save baseball, we are certainly going to do our best to so."

With school cancelled in many provinces until at least the end of April, there are already doubts.

"We work all winter towards the actual season in the summer so the possibility that we probably won't have a season this year is sad," Samara Golger says

Bloom, who shifts to being a soccer coach in the summer, says there are long uncertain days ahead for athletes and families who have come to rely on sports as an integral part of their lives.

"It's not knowing what the future is going to hold," he says. "We've made it through 10 days but looking ahead to the weeks and the months ahead, what it's going to feel like for them?"

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