New rules: Youth sports in the DC area adjust to a COVID-19 reality

As kids around the D.C. area slowly return to playing sports in groups, the routine is drastically different but the smiles are very familiar.

“Imagine kids who spend an awful lot of time together, and haven’t seen each other for quite a while, and then come back onto the soccer field. You can see the joy in their faces,” said Clyde Watson, the technical director for McLean Youth Soccer. “It’s not easy at times to get them to social distance, because at the end of the day, nothing replaces the camaraderie, friendship and socializing that you get while being on the field.”

Indoor and outdoor sports have new rules that have nothing to do with the games themselves and more with the number of players allowed in a space, and how far apart they are required to be — and those rules might be different depending on the state or county.

For coaches, planning is essential. Watson starts his practices by lining kids up against a fence or on the sideline 10 feet apart, carrying their bags and water bottles, and then has them drop them. When Watson gives his kids breaks, they will then, in theory at least, return to where their stuff is and maintain social distancing.

“Right now in Virginia we are in Phase Two, and that means nine players and a coach,” said Watson. “We cannot compete yet, or play small-sided games, so it is basically technical stuff and running. In the next phase, we will be able to get our whole teams on the field.”

Basic equipment now includes hand sanitizer, which Watson requires every kid to bring to practice. Kids are also expected to bring and use their own balls for each session, and coaching tools Watson uses for the whole group, such as cones and flags, are sanitized before practice.

‘You can see the smiles grow every day’

Nelson Burton, who runs his Nelson Hockey Association out of the Piney Orchard Ice Arena in Odenton, Maryland, works with a detailed set of guidelines to keep his young skaters safe. With only 24 players allowed on the ice at a time, there are no walk-ins for Burton’s clinics — players must register in advance.

“There is no question that you can see the smiles grow every day, and every time they are on the ice,” said Burton. “They were a little tentative at first, but they’re slowly becoming themselves — happier, more outgoing. I think a lot of the kids have been stuck behind some kind of device for the last three months, so they need to get moving, which I think makes them feel better.”

The youth hockey experience now starts in the parking lot. Players are expected to be fully dressed in their hockey gear when they are dropped off at the curb, and use their skate guards to walk on a rubber mat inside the rink. At the front desk, players’ temperatures will be taken, and any player with a temperature over 100.4 degrees will be asked to leave.

“Our system at Piney has worked pretty well,” said Burton. “They also have to wear masks, which they are allowed to take off before they step on the ice. When they are on the ice, we have coaches enforcing social distancing. The best part for me, and it is kind of funny — there are no parents allowed in the building.”

The bright side

While the transition to the ice, court or field is happening, both Burton and Watson have tried to find positives. Watson thinks about all the Zoom meetings McLean Youth Soccer held with the club’s teams to keep kids engaged and the messages from the guest speakers they arranged.

“I coached Becca Moros, now a coach in the women’s pro league with Sky Blue in New Jersey, and the talk she gave was powerful,” said Watson. “I got emotional to the point I almost shed some tears. I was so proud of how much she had grown as she told our kids about working hard and remembering that it’s not the outcome that’s important but it’s about the journey.”

Burton also has noticed differences in his young hockey players, and it’s not just because he is dealing with no contact in a contact sport. Beyond the skating and stickhandling, Burton believes the kids he coaches have a new perspective when they are on the ice.

“I think that the big lesson is, you have to appreciate things a whole lot more,” said Burton. “And I think the kids are realizing that. I can see that in every session. Every day I get a million thank-yous. They are so grateful to be back on the ice. Those thank-yous just go right through you and make you feel good.”

Dave Johnson

Dave Johnson is Senior Sports Director and morning sports anchor. He first arrived at WTOP in 1989, left in 1992 and returned in 1995. He is a three-time winner of the A.I.R. award as best radio sportscaster in D.C. In 2008 he won the Edward R. Murrow award for best writing for sports commentaries.

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