Return to play, digital strategy and the rebirth of community-based play were popular subjects Thursday, as US Lacrosse hosted the first edition of “Sports in the COVID Era,” an interactive webinar series bringing together industry leaders to discuss the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic on youth sports.

Thursday’s panel, entitled “The Future of Youth Sports,” featured executives from Little League Baseball and Softball (Liz Brown), US Youth Soccer (Skip Gilbert), USA Hockey (Pat Kelleher) and US Lacrosse (Steve Stenersen). Excerpts from the discussion can be found below.

Part two of the panel series will be Tuesday, June 9, as US Lacrosse addresses the topic, “Athletes and Mental Health During COVID-19.”

With pressures to perform in competition on top of academic and personal pursuits, being an athlete can be incredibly challenging for one’s mental health. How might the pandemic and stoppage of play exacerbate these conditions? What can parents, coaches and teammates do to foster a culture of awareness and understanding?

The panelists are Dr. Blair Evans (Penn State), Dr. Tim Herzog (MedStar Health), Nikki Sliwak (Maryland), Dr. Arman Taghizadeh (Mindset Training Institute) and Dr. Andrew Wolanin (US Lacrosse Sports Science and Safety Committee).

Register here.

The Future of Youth Sports

“Return to play” is the operative phrase. As youth sports resume in certain parts of the country, what’s your biggest concern and what opportunities have you identified for growth coming out of the pandemic?

“We want our sport and all sports to return as soon as is safely possible, because there are significant economic challenges that face all of our organizations and the kids want to get back on the field and need to get back on the field. The other side is the concern about virus spread and what we know about asymptomatic kids who could carry the virus home to parents and across state lines for events. There’s a lot of unknowns here and concerns about returning quickly, but not too quickly, and making sure our stakeholders — the parents, the players, the clubs, the programs — are all aligned with the right balance there.” — Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse

“We have 55 state associations. Each different jurisdiction handles itself differently. So you have to follow your state government guidelines. You have to be in tune with your local health officials. One community here is vastly different than one that might be 25 miles down the street. We had it in one city, they were shut down, couldn’t even use the field. But if you walked one city block to the next county over, they were full bore. All the kids in the lockdown community were going across county lines. As much as the national governing body we wanted to set those guidelines for what they should do, they really have to focus on what they can do within their local jurisdictions.” — Skip Gilbert, US Youth Soccer

How have your organizations adapted and innovated in the current environment?

“One of the first things we did was lean into that ability to communicate and provide information. The live interactions became all-digital and very frequent. Facebook Live has become our main tool right now, because we can reach so many and we can be responsive to the questions. We’ve also leaned into the engagement and the fun of the sport. We want to remind people when we can all get back at it, this is what the sport means.” — Liz Brown, Little League Baseball and Softball

“We took a look at where we were almost the day we had to stop play and said what are we going to have to do to best serve all constituents when we come out of this? And the two things we kept coming back to which would impact just about every family across the country is travel and cost. We’ve gotten to the point at the every top of the pyramid, it is pay to play. A lot of parents, when they come out of this, they might not have the discretionary funds to be able to just throw thousands of dollars for their kids to get on an airplane and play in a league match thousands of miles away. We started hearing from club leaders in our states saying, ‘It makes no sense. We have a team in Georgia playing a team in South Carolina in a league match in Tampa, Florida. We have to do better.’ This gave us the opportunity to pause and say let’s reposition. It enabled us to come out with more of a regional approach to try to keep travel to a minimum. If we can lower the travel expectations on players, it’s going to lower the cost. There isn’t a sport on this panel, that you can’t find a season’s worth of games within a hundred-mile drive. We have to do better to be able to meet those needs.” — Skip Gilbert, US Youth Soccer

Leadership Panel Series | The Future of Youth Sports from US Lacrosse on Vimeo.

Where do you see mobile coaching and programming fitting into the future of youth and amateur sports?

“It’s forced us to look at how we deliver coaching education. We’ve done a lot of in-person clinics for a long, long time. Now, we’ve been doing virtual webinars. We did them four days a week for eight weeks, to provide some resources, keep people engaged and connected to USA Hockey and connected at the local level.” — Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey

“We’ve all pivoted intently to providing digital content for our members. We created a Lax at Home portal and just loaded it up with new content. We engaged national team players to conduct huddles nationally. We’ve engaged coaches, officials and young players alike. As a national organization, we needed to make sure that despite the suspension of play we were engaging our national membership and providing value to them.” — Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse

“One of the things that keeps me up at night is not how quickly we can get kids back on the field. It’s once they come back and they’re in a competitive mode, are we going to have officials? Across every sport, we’re seeing a reduction of officials. A lot of them are aging out. Because of the on-field and parental sideline conduct against officials, many of them don’t want to come into that discipline. And now with COVID, a lot of the officials may not want to risk coming on out. Can we use digital not just to help educate the officials on how they might be able to do their discipline better, but can we make it an exciting element so we get more of today’s coaches, players and parents to put their hand up and say, ‘You know what? I want to be an official?’” — Skip Gilbert, US Youth Soccer

After the initial recovery, what changes to the youth sports landscape will be permanent?

“We have 650,000-plus USA Hockey members across the country. The vast majority of them do play locally. That includes adult hockey players. The impact and permanence is going to be on that elite level of youth hockey, the tier one in our world, AAA Hockey age 13-18 where people are spending a significant amount of money to play hockey and traveling significantly on airplanes as they come back to play. We do have some challenges with that. Unlike lacrosse, soccer and baseball and softball, we are facility-dependent. We don’t have an ice rink in every local community.” — Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey\

“Access and affordability are going to be key themes that all of us are focused on, making sure that you have programs where boys and girls want to play, that they’re affordable and that it’s quality. If there’s any hope in terms of permanence, it’s that the fun and joy of the experience is really important. Perhaps we’ll have some renewed focus on that coming out of this. As parents look at what’s important, we want the kids to learn all the great things through sport but also really enjoy what they’re doing.” — Liz Brown, Little League Baseball and Softball

The privatization of youth sports and decline of community-based play were already hot-button issues before the pandemic. Will we see a paradigm shift coming out of COVID?

“We’re concerned, as most sports are, with the flattening and decline of participation. That is often connected to the rising investment required to play, whether that’s time or money. Our sport is among those viewed as the most exclusive. And that’s a huge problem. … I do think there’s an opportunity for us to really invest in and support the growth of community lacrosse — not at the expense of clubs, but to really grow the base and reduce the barriers of participation.” — Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse

“Parents drive the bus. And there are still parents that believe their kids, even though they’re 8 years old, are going to be the next Division I superstar. They’re going to try to pave the way for their child to be able to get there. Hopefully through all of is, with the lessons we’ve learned and the initiatives we’re able to activate in the coming months, we’ll be able to help educate those parents that that won’t necessarily be the best path. But we all know that the train has left the station. Clubs can make a lot of money. It is a big business to be a big club with thousands of kids coming through the door. I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop there. Are there ways we can use the collective strength of those big clubs to reach out to those that don’t have the ability to fund their dreams?” — Skip Gilbert, US Youth Soccer

“Little League is a community program. It’s what we were founded on. It’s what we stand for. It’s an opportunity to reaffirm who we are, educate some folks on what we offer and help support our leagues in that rebirth.” — Liz Brown, Little League Baseball and Softball

“How do we embrace entrepreneurship? How do we work with these private businesses to better our game and provide more opportunities for kids to play hockey or adults to play hockey? The growth of our game since the early 2000s has been the ice rinks being built in parts of the country that didn’t use to have ice rinks. Rinks in Arizona, Texas and California—they were built by private entrepreneurs. Those were not built by community-based [organizations]. Those aren’t run by the Parks and Rec Department the way they are in Minnesota and Massachusetts.” — Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey

Is your organization instituting new guidelines in response to COVID-19 such as new equipment requirements or rule changes?

“There’s a significant amount of equipment that goes into playing hockey. We have been asked by equipment manufacturers about face masks that would go on youth hockey players. And are we going to mandate a certain kind of face mask? That’s been the hot topic for us. We talked to our medical community. Our job as the NGB is to provide information and let people know there are options out there. Ultimately, the consumer or parent is going to make the decision on what they think is safest for their child.” — Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey

“We’re more focused on looking at what the on-field experience consists of, and the more efficient use of on-field time, so that kids aren’t lingering and gathering in groups. We’re looking at the younger age levels small-sided play, which syncs with the Athlete Development Model, a more efficient practice where kids are moving and the practice plan is determined in advance so kids come dressed and ready to get into practice and get out of practice. We think this concern about public health is going to be a lasting concern. We all know the coronavirus is not going way. It’s being tamped down and will continue to rear up again. And so public health considerations around the practice experience suggests a far greater need of efficiency of together time in the team environment. At the younger age levels, there’s an advantage to smaller squad sizes. We’re redoubling our efforts to provide that opportunity for developing age groups.” — Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse

“On the equipment side, all of us in our recommendations are coming out with ways to minimize the spread with cleaning and sanitization. Our recommendation of not sharing equipment leads to an expense. We’re also offering flexibility with regulations. Where a parent or child would have a program within their community, if that community can’t have their program for a year, they could go play for a neighboring league for the 2021 season. We recognize there are inherent challenges right now that we don’t want to prevent or prohibit someone from getting out there.” — Liz Brown, Little League Baseball and Softball

As you forecast the future of your respective sports, what does “new normal” mean to you?

“New normal means a real focus and concerted effort on hygiene on the field, and the added responsibility of a volunteer to be a hygiene specialist for the program and making sure that policies that mitigate virus spread are developed, adhered to and followed. I also think a lot of coaches and parents are going to want efficient use of their children’s time and make sure practice time is valued and efficient. I think we’re going to see real changes in how coaches schedule, coordinate and plan practices. ” — Steve Stenersen, US Lacrosse

“As a parent and as a volunteer with my local league, I have a different perspective. Just the opportunity to continue to connect in real time, have your questions answered and have that leadership at the top coming down — the expectation is only going to heighten. The more we can be out there, be connected and communicate, to be responsive to the unique needs of your membership and be able to give them the guidance — there’s a new expectation of what that looks like.” — Liz Brown, Little League Baseball and Softball

“Everyone in our sport, they all love the locker room. That’s a big thing in hockey. As we get back in, they’re not available. That’s part of our first stage. Right now, the new normal is getting dressed at home or in the car, and instead of the whole family going to watch practice, it’s probably mom or dad bringing a little boy or girl to the rink. The new normal will go in stages. The stage we’re at right now is being very cautious. Small groups at the rink and on the ice. The new normal is having people going into facilities or an ice rink and having their temperature taken before they walk in the door.”— Pat Kelleher, USA Hockey

“Unfortunately, the new normal is probably no more snacks at halftime. There’s a sign behind me that says, ‘The best things in life aren’t things.’ What COVID has taught us is that there is a premium on family time. I’ve heard from so many parents, and it is absolutely nice at 6 o’clock to have dinner with your kids, to have everybody together. And so we have to as the new normal be able to work around how families should interact with sports. I tell our staff all the time, we have an opportunity to bring communities back together through the power of soccer — or within this panel, the power of youth sports. How can we take a community that has been locked in their house for months and now celebrate the fact that we can get outside and play, that we can interact, that we can have some sense of camaraderie on the field of play?” — Skip Gilbert, US Youth Soccer

Presented by US Lacrosse

Date: Thursday, June 4
Time: 4-5 p.m. EDT
Topic: The Future of Youth Sports | Watch

Date: Tuesday, June 9
Time: 4-5 p.m. EDT
Topic: Athletes and Mental Health During COVID-19 | Register

Date: Tuesday, June 16
Time: 4-5 p.m. EDT
Topic: College Recruiting in the COVID-19 Era