The American Legion announced this spring that it canceled its 2020 season nationwide, this season’s regional tournaments and the American Legion World Series amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Faced with athletes’ desires to play, including many who had their high school seasons wiped away when prep sports were shuttered this spring as part of the response to slowing the coronavirus, some teams found an alternative: Compete as a non-Legion-sponsored team in a new league or tournaments.
Other teams and players, whether they were planning to participate in American Legion or other leagues that shut down, may not have similar options based on several factors, including reopening plans for states in which they live.
Finding a way to keep kids playing the sports they love is important, especially so these days, so here are some alternatives for coaches, players, parents or guardians looking for a fun and safe way to resume competition.
Jon Solomon, editorial director for the Sports and Society Program at the Aspen Institute, a non-profit bipartisan policy institute in Washington, D.C. that focuses on solutions in multiple aspects of society including sports, said finding the proper balance between returning to play and individual safety is key to any decision involving youth athletes.
“We all want to play sports again, but we have to make sure we’re taking the right precautions,” he said. “It should be a phased return, starting with individualized training, then group training. Introducing travel should be the last phase.”
According to a survey from North Carolina State University and the Aspen Institute, 50% of parents worry their child will get sick when they return to sports. So a prudent option is for athletes to sharpen skills on an individual basis.
Local sports academies throughout the country are offering small group or one-on-one lessons. At RipIt Baseballtown Charities in Reading, Pennsylvania, the organization has opened its batting cages for the first time this season and it could start individual lessons as early as the middle of June, according to its website.
Taking safety a step further, many coaches have developed virtual programs to guide their athletes, using video as a substitute for in-person training.
For example, the Princeton Soccer Academy in New Jersey created individual programs for its 98 teams that have athletes ranging in age from 6 to 19 years old. According to a story by Richard Greco for NJ.com, PSA has employed the Techne Futbol training app, which they use to unveil new drills and challenges. Prior to the pandemic, Princeton players typically used the app for 32 minutes each week, but after youth sports were shuttered, the time spent on the app increased to nearly three hours per week.
With sources from specific national sport organizations, Aspen Project Play has listed a variety of low-risk games and skills athletes can accomplish across 26 sports. Also, over the past month, USA Hockey, USA Baseball and other USA-affiliated programs have started coaching webinar series on YouTube.
Less structured play is always fun, too.
“[My kids and I] play outside, make up our own games and play individually,” Solomon said. “Maybe another kid from the neighborhood can come and play sometimes. Every parent has their own perspective on what social distancing is.
Join team-only practices
Another low-risk alternative is team-only practices that involve a smaller number of players from one organization or geographic area.
“Letting kids play in organized settings is important too. It doesn’t have to be a game,” Solomon said. “Oftentimes they just want to be around their friends and coaches, missing that social aspect of sports.”
Find a new place to play
Teams that are unable to play games locally are joining tournaments in areas under less restrictions and outside their home jurisdictions.
That’s the strategy Michigan Sabercats Fastpitch softball coach Red Pastor is using for his squad, as he told Josh VanDyke of Mlive.com.
“I think almost every team in my organization is planning on playing at least one or two tournaments out of state, whether we’ll be in Ohio or Indiana, because states like Illinois don’t open until July 1,” Pastor said. “I have even looked at a couple of tournaments in the northern part of Tennessee because we have to go where the tournaments are being played in.”
Solomon said parents and team officials should investigate a few pieces of key information, such as reported cases of COVID-19 in the area being traveled to and from, and what protocols do the state and the tournament or hosting organization have in place to decrease risk in shared places, before deciding to travel outside of a local region to play or accept others to their own events.
Startup a new league
Several American Legion teams in locations throughout the country didn’t pack up their balls and bats when their season was shuttered. They made a push to start their own independent leagues, including in Northern Virginia where six out of eight nearby Legion teams created their own league.
In Connecticut, Charlie Flanagan — the general manager of American Legion Post 76 — used his insurance industry ties to gain coverage for a new CT Elite Baseball Association that has as many as 92 teams from across the state interested in playing when the state fully reopens.
Local recreational or in-house leagues may also seem like an option, but opportunities to join such leagues could be difficult to find. Solomon said budgets for in-house and recreational leagues are tighter than most traveling teams, so many may decide to forgo the season rather than increase their liability.
Change when the season is held
A way to avoid many COVID-19-related concerns could be to hold competitions in the “offseason.” Moving spring and summer sports into the fall could be a viable option for local leagues and tournaments as long as other sports commitments are taken into account and officials are available.
Try a new sport
If an athlete's sport is deemed too high risk to compete in this summer, he or she could find another activity under fewer restrictions, such as tennis, golf, biking or orienteering. It could provide a needed competitive outlet and unlock an entirely new passion.
“There are many sports that are inherently safer to begin playing whether that’s golf, tennis, cross-country running, or something else.” Solomon said. “My own son has really started to ride his bike all the time.”
When deciding a path to follow, make sure it is comfortable and accepted by everyone including athletes. But most importantly, be sure to select a path compliant with local and state orders in your area — something that can be checked by visiting the website for each state’s Department of Health.