Closeup of soccer player's cleats and soccer ball For many young athletes, fall is more than a season – it’s a time to get back on the gridiron, soccer field, volleyball or tennis court, and cross-country or golf course. It’s time to get active, connect with friends and enjoy some friendly (or fierce) competition. While things may still look a little different this fall, if we all work together, our youth can safely compete, and our families can safely cheer them on – in person.

The rules for fall sports

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As of now, both the Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) and New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) have reported all indoor and outdoor competitions will be permitted for the Fall 2021 season. Currently, neither group are placing restrictions on players or fans – no matter their vaccination status.

Despite this, we at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) support stricter guidance issued recently by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC recommends:

  • Everyone in areas of substantial or high transmission of COVID-19 – which now includes most of Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware – should resume wearing face masks and physical distancing anytime gathering with others not from their household.
  • Both vaccinated and non-vaccinated people should wear face masks indoors due to the spread of more highly contagious variants of COVID-19, like the Delta variant.
  • Anyone eligible to get the COVID-19 vaccine should get it as soon as possible to reduce their risk of illness and the risk of spreading the disease to others. Remember, children age 11 and younger cannot yet receive a COVID-19 vaccine.

Some tips for continued mask wearing:

  • Find a mask that fits well, covers both nose and mouth, and stays on. Buy multiples.
  • Change masks that are sweaty or visibly soiled, as they become less effective.
  • Encourage your child to train in their mask so they can get used to wearing it while competing.
  • We recommend all athletes NOT vaccinated against COVID-19 wear a face mask at all times – inside or outside. This is most critical during close contact with others, when physical distancing is not possible and during indoor activities.

Do’s and don’ts for staying safe playing sports during COVID-19:

  • Do get your child vaccinated against COVID-19, when approved for their age group. Currently, children age 12 and older can receive the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine. Experts expect a vaccine will soon be approved for use in younger children. Learn more about CHOP’s COVID-19 Vaccine Program.
  • Do wear a mask – especially indoors and in small spaces where you must be close to others.
  • Do continue practicing physical distancing off the field, in locker rooms and on buses.
  • Do practice and play safely. See CHOP’s Ready, Set, Prevent video for more details.
  • Don’t share anything: not water bottles, not masks, not towels – even with your best friend.
  • Don’t spit. It’s not just gross and unsanitary, it could potentially expose others to COVID-19.
  • Don’t return to play after COVID-19 or another illness/injury until you’ve been cleared by a healthcare professional. For more guidance, see Returning to Sports After a COVID-19 Infection.

Training starts now

Don’t wait to start training! Depending on your child’s choice of sport, begin a workout routine now that includes endurance training, cardio training, strength training and core strengthening.

Some sport-specific examples:

  • Football requires a lot of running, blocking and skill-specific training such as throwing and catching. A strength and cardio plan will best support athletes and allow them to respond quicker to ball movements. Practice throwing and catching a football with a friend, parent or teammate.
  • Soccer is heavy in endurance and cardio training because of the amount of running required, but sport-specific skill development is also important. Practice “juggling” a soccer ball alone or kicking a soccer ball around with a friend.
  • Volleyball requires quick bursts of movement to respond to ball placement, as well as skills training to accurately volley between teammates. Practice passing and spiking the ball with a teammate.
  • Tennis requires endurance and the ability to quickly respond to ball movements. Core and strength training can help, but are less important. Play “wall ball” alone or practice full court with a friend.
  • Golf training is largely skill-building to hit the ball as far and as accurately as possible, but endurance and knowledge-building (to choose the right club for each shot) also play a role. Putting practice can turn an average player into an elite player. Discover new challenges by playing different courses.
  • Cross country is obviously running heavy, so young athletes need lots of endurance and cardio training. Core strengthening exercises (like planks or yoga) can also help. Explore different courses in your area to expand skills.

Endurance and cardio training

Six weeks before your child’s sports season, we recommend all youth athletes begin endurance training, which includes running. Below is a sample schedule we recommend for high school athletes:

Week 1: Run a mile every other day
Week 2: Run 1.5 miles every other day
Week 3: Run 2 miles every other day
Week 4: Run a mile every day
Week 5: Run 1.5 miles every day
Week 6: Run 2 miles every day

If your child’s coach or athletic trainer recommends adding strength training to your child’s pre-season workout routine, you can modify the above to continue running every other day and alternate with strength training. How long your child should practice strength training will depend on their physical condition, sport and specific recommendations.

Strength training

Strength training is more than lifting on weight machines in the school or public gym. With COVID-19 restrictions, we’ve learned how to be a bit more creative when it comes to strength training.

Many fall sports do not require heavy lifting – except perhaps football. Smaller weights – such as 5 lbs., 10 lbs., and 20 lbs. – are often effective at building strength for sports where agility is important (e.g., soccer, volleyball, cross-country).

While purchasing a private weight machine or a gym membership can be expensive, materials that use body resistance are relatively inexpensive and can produce the same great results. Body resistance training may include:

  • Free weights, such as barbells or dumbbells
  • Resistance bands, which provide resistance when stretched
  • Your own body weight, which can be used in a variety of ways such as squats, push-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, etc.

Skills training

In addition to endurance, cardio and weight training, most young athletes also benefit from skills training to ramp-up specific skills used in their sport that have been dormant in recent months. Depending on your child’s sport, they can practice throwing, catching, kicking, hitting, passing, swinging and more. Try different courses, practice with different friends and build skills with each new turn.

Remember to have fun!

While there’s a lot for young athletes to remember this season, encourage them to focus on what they CAN do, rather than what they can’t. Injuries and pain can definitely put a damper on your youth’s back-to-sports routine; by encouraging them to prepare early, you can help them enjoy their sport even more!

Additional resources

Brian Vernau, MD, FAAP, CAQSM, is a sports medicine pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia with expertise in primary care sports medicine. Dr. Vernau works at CHOP’s Specialty Care & Surgery Centers in Glen Mills (Brandywine Valley) and King of Prussia.

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