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After a year of COVID-19 restrictions, school closures and sports cancellations, we’re finally seeing tentative steps back to “normalcy” amidst the chaos. For young athletes, spring is more than a season – it’s time to get back on the track, field, tennis court or baseball diamond. It’s a time to get active, connect with friends and enjoy some friendly (or fierce) competition.

This spring sports season will look a bit different, but if everyone obeys the new state-mandated rules, our youth can safely compete again.

The rules for spring sports

The Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic Association (PIAA) and New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) released rules for youth sports including:

  • All players, coaches, parents and spectators must wear a mask covering their nose and mouth at all practices and competitions.
  • Physical distancing is recommended for all, unless in direct competition.
  • Masks that are sweaty or visibly soiled should be changed as needed – between matches, races or quarters.

Here are some ways you can help your young athlete get used to the new rules:

  • Experiment with different types of masks to ensure they stay on, cover the nose and mouth, and your child can breathe well, even when exerting themselves. Hint: A bendable nose piece can help keep the mask from slipping below the nose.
  • Once you find a mask that works well for your child and meets requirements, purchase multiples. Competing in a sweaty mask is not just uncomfortable; it’s more likely to transmit disease – both to and from your child.
  • Encourage your child to train in their mask so they can get used to wearing it while competing.

Do’s and don’ts for staying safe playing sports in the era of COVID-19

  • Do wear your mask at all times – in the game, at practice, in the locker room and on the sidelines.
  • Do continue practicing physical distancing off the field, in locker rooms and on buses.
  • Do create COVID pods – small groups who will regularly travel together before and after practice and competitions.
  • Do encourage student-athletes to remind each other to keep their masks on and covering both nose and mouth.
  • 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:

  • Track and field is obviously running heavy, so young athletes need lots of endurance and cardio training. Core strengthening exercises (like planks or yoga) can also help.
  • Lacrosse requires a lot of running, but add stick work and skills training to your cardio and endurance plan.
  • Soccer is heavy in endurance and cardio training because of the amount of running required, but sport-specific skill development is also important.
  • Tennis requires endurance and the ability to quickly respond to ball movements. Core and strength training can help, but are less important.
  • Baseball and softball training mostly requires skill-building (throwing, catching, hitting), though cardio and endurance training can help young athletes respond quicker to ball movements.

Endurance and cardio training

Six weeks before your child’s sports season, we recommend youth athletes begin endurance training, which includes running. Below is a sample schedule Dr. Vernau recommends 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.

Most spring sports do not require heavy lifting. Smaller weights – such as 5 lbs., 10 lbs., and 20 lbs. – are often more effective at building strength for sports where agility is important (e.g., tennis vs. football).

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.

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.

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.

All spring sports have specific skills that can be nurtured before and during the season. Some examples:

  • Playing “wall-ball” can help athletes fine-tune their forehand and backhand for tennis and lacrosse; while soccer players can practice shots on goal and trapping skills.
  • Juggling a soccer ball may mimic how an athlete may interact with a ball on the playing field.
  • For baseball, softball and lacrosse, two players can practice catching, passing and fielding. Parents and siblings can step in by throwing or rolling the ball near the athlete for them to react in different scenarios.

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. They can enjoy their favorite sport once again, revel in individual and team rivalries, and strive for their personal best each and every day.

Additional resources

Did you know? If your child is experiencing mild chest discomfort, heart palpitations or feeling faint, EKGs can be performed on-site and read by a pediatric cardiologist at one of our urgent care locations.

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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