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Club Sports Column COVID-19

COLUMN: Club Sports Can Support Mental Health

I’ve always believed in the power of prep sports. They cultivate a competitive spirit in young student-athletes while teaching life lessons, building strong friendships and nurturing confidence.

COVID-19 shutdowns have ripped a giant hole in our community where high school sports used to be, and I think this is a perfect time for club sports organizations to step up an fill that void.

CIF and public health officials have already pushed the first available start date for California high school sports on campus to the end of January. However, the recent COVID-19 numbers and concerns suggest that date will get pushed back again — especially for sports in the more risky tiers.

The Long Beach Unified School District has already announced that students won’t be back on campus until at least March. That means more Long Beach student-athletes will do more sitting around and waiting for sports to restart.

Why can’t clubs take advantage of this by offering more affordable leagues, games and clinics for young athletes who have nowhere else to play?

Consider that despite watching club sports slowly drain high school sports of talent and resources over the last decade, this year the CIF Southern Section changed its rules to allow student-athletes to participate in club and high school sports simultaneously.

“This is an acknowledgment of the idea that we can’t change our seasons as dramatically as we changed them and truly expect that it’s not going to be in conflict with club and other outside activities,” CIF-SS commissioner Rob Wigod said. “It wasn’t fair.”

The rules had previously kept elite players, especially in soccer and volleyball, from playing high school sports because of club commitments. But not everyone can afford or make a club team.

“In this unique circumstance, people needed options,” Wigod said. “The business of high school sports is on the club side more so than our side. But it’s going to be a new frontier.”

I think the new world should include more affordable club sports experiences for California student-athletes desperately searching for something to look forward to. I understand that these clubs are money-making businesses, but this strange time of COVID-19 has changed everything else, and club sports shouldn’t be exempt.

How many local kids would benefit from a weekend camp sponsored by a local business? The Long Beach schools couldn’t host something like that under current rules, but the clubs could theoretically execute all of the protocols for activity within the guidelines.

Furthermore, the pay-to-play model for clubs have always created a barrier for families who can’t afford another expense. If the club experience were more affordable, it could help everyone from the athletes to their families and the community at large.

“This can be something that creates wonderful opportunities for students,” Wigod said when asked in July if high school and club sports can coexist. “I don’t know if we’re going to see more club seasons, but it could be anything.”

I want to be clear that this isn’t just a column about why kids should get to have fun. This is about how important activity is for mental heath.

Lauren Hess, 34, is a high school and club soccer coach in Orange County who has started the “Ca Let Us Play” movement online. The social media accounts and website feature videos of California student-athletes who voice their opinions on why they play sports and how they feel without being able to compete.

“When it comes down to it I think a lot of it has to do with not feeling like you’re in control,” Hess said. “A lot of times adults speak for kids on what they’re experiencing and how they feel. But I think it’s really powerful to create a platform for kids to voice why they play and how this is impacting them. It’s their words, so you can’t say it doesn’t matter.”

Hess is also a Certified Mental Performance Coach and an adjunct professor, and said she’s seen the change in her students and players this year.

“Being in the mental health field and seeing the lack of motivation, the way my players are training … everything seems very sad,” Hess said. “They’re depressed and stressed and frustrated. I saw how defeated they looked.”

Hess added that the lack of outside activity and interaction has also forced young athletes to miss critical developmental stages.

“When I was a kid I didn’t even want to order off a menu, but I was a different person on the field,” Hess said. “(Playing sports) gave me confidence and changed me as a person.”

The obvious challenges of having clubs from different cities and counties compete against each other have also limited activity, but that doesn’t mean clubs from the same place can’t find a way to keep kids active.

“I’ve heard too many sad stories about kids with a 4.00 GPA who has been training since they were 5 and they really wanted to play in college but now they quit because they don’t know what is happening,” Hess said. “If they don’t know if they’ll be able to play again, what’s the purpose?”

I believe the purpose of youth sports is to create the leaders of tomorrow, but first the adults have to find a way to let that happen outside of school.

JJ Fiddler
JJ Fiddler is an award-winning sportswriter and videographer who has been covering Southern California sports for multiple newspapers and websites since 2004. After attending Long Beach State and creating the first full sports page at the Union Weekly Newspaper, he has been exclusively covering Long Beach prep sports since 2007.