After a long, arduous winter followed by COVID and a summer filled with canceled day camps, my boys were thrilled to join organized sports again, even in a limited capacity. If your kids are fortunate enough to play group sports right now, here’s some expert advice on how they can play safely during the pandemic.
Kids Sports & Snacks/Drinks
Leslie Bonci, sports nutritionist for the Kansas City Chiefs, is no stranger to the challenges of participating in team sports during these unprecedented times. In addition to her work with the Chiefs, she is also the nutrition consultant for Carnegie Mellon University Athletics and the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre. She notes that when it comes to how people share food and drink while practicing or playing, priorities have shifted.
“We’re trying to minimize the touchpoints across the board,” she tells Parentology. “It’s the idea of ‘enclosed not exposed’. You don’t have food sitting out, everything is packaged, ready to go. No snacks in bulk, no reaching in and getting a handful of trail mix — even with a cup. N-O, nope.” The same goes for other communal feeding practices, such as training tables and buffet-style serving. “You don’t serve yourself, not even to make a smoothie, it’s done for the players.”
Historically, hydrating athletes would have operated the same way prior to COVID. “It wouldn’t be so unusual sometimes for kids to be sharing water bottles,” says Bonci. But, no more. While hydration is crucial to physical activity, part of minimizing touchpoints includes individual, labeled water bottles. The other consideration is not having everybody take a fluid break at the same time.
“You space it out,” Bonci advises. “Literally using the whole field, using all the space so you can have everybody staggered. It’s the very, very best thing.”
So how can we present proper nutrition and snacking options in the safest way possible? Bonci is a strong advocate of individual packaging, which might include individual, labelled containers that can be washed and sterilized at home; it’s both safe and also environmentally-friendly. Children adapt quickly to the concept of individualized snacks if it becomes part of their sports training.
“Kids think, ‘This is my gear, this is part of my fueling equipment,’ so then they take ownership of it a little bit more; it’s ‘yours’, you don’t share with anybody else,” she says.
In the effort to keep everyone safe, Bonci advises that we must also consider the types of food we are offering to our little athletes. “We have to make informed choices based on what sits for extended periods of time,” she says. “There’s still parts of the country that are hot. It’s 66 here in Pittsburgh today. So what’s sitting out? What can be in a cooler or needs to be refrigerated?”
Whether or not a team sport is considered “contact,” safe social distancing and chronic handwashing are here to stay. “People are trying to be as safe as they possibly can, but handwashing is so important, and it gets said [to kids] about 25,000 times a day,” says Bonci. “That is for a reason; handwashing is one of the best things that people can do to help to prevent the spread of germs.”
Off the field, encouraging kids to think about hygiene when they take that message home is equally imperative. “I have one son who’s a physician and one who’s a physical therapist,” Bonci says. “And when everyone walks in the door, even the little ones, everyone removes outerwear, everybody washed their hands. It just becomes part of that routine.”
Team mentality can be an asset when discussing safety precautions; the buy in is the same, whether you’re an adult or a child. Parents and coaches need to model the attitude and the behaviors they want to see by positioning safety as part of a team effort. “Some of the biggest challenges have been about getting kids to wear masks,” says Bonci. “Somebody doesn’t feel like they believe in it, then asks ‘why do my kids have to’?”
“The idea is to make it cool. You want to be masked, so the coach is really deciding we’re part of the ‘Clean Team.’ That’s what we’re doing here. And there are consequences if you don’t do this. You’re not going to play, because that jeopardizes everybody else.”