Top News

JOHN DeMONT: The silver lining to COVID's impact on Nova Scotia youth sports

The Glace Bay McDonald’s Colonels are shown in their dugout at the Cameron Bowl following a team practice on Sunday morning. The five-time national champion Colonels, who finished second last year in Québec, will once again be Atlantic Canada’s representatives at the Canadian Little League Championship this week in Ancaster, Ont. The 12-player squad was relaxed as they joked around with long-time team manager Henry Boutilier, centre right. The Colonels travel on Tuesday and are scheduled to play their first game on Thursday.
You won't see scenes like this around Nova Scotia this summer because of COVID-19 restrictions affecting sports but Dr. Robert Strang, the province's chief medical officer of health, says there are still plenty of opportunities for young people to stay active. In this 2019 photo, the Glace Bay McDonald’s Colonels relax in their dugout at the Cameron Bowl after a team practice. - David Jala

Memory is a selective thing, sometimes magnifying the unimportant, other times ignoring the monumental.

But when I think back to the golden summers, I am almost always playing something, on a field or schoolyard, or I am swimming, or riding a bike, because being outdoors and moving with the fluidity of youth is something that we never forget.

It was a little different than when my own kids were loose on the playing fields of Halifax. For one thing, I didn't, as a kid, know a single person who played soccer, the most popular summer game in this now-cosmopolitan province.

Playing a single sport year-round was unheard of in my day. So, by and large, were the sports camps that used to help fill a young person's summer.

I'm bringing all of this up because those are good memories, and because, due to the virus, the boys and girls of Nova Scotia are going to have a different experience.

As you probably know, under the provincial rules sports groups can run programs with up to 10 people without physical distancing, and up to 50 people with physical distancing.

Every sport organization in the province has to submit a plan to the Nova Scotia Health Authority explaining how they will follow the COVID-19 policies when its teams return to action.

The outlook is, shall we say, fluid. Competitive soccer, for example, has been cancelled across the province, replaced, in some cases, by smaller scale training.

Youth will be able to play baseball, which ranks next in terms of summer popularity in this province, but, as I understand it, just in a practice format with a maximum of eight players, who will not have access to dugouts and must use their own gear.

Atlantic University Sport has already cancelled any competition until next January.

Monday, when I asked Nova Scotia's chief medical officer of health Robert Strang about the resumption of high school sports, he said that he thought it “unlikely in the next year” for traditional team sports “with uncontrolled contact” like soccer, basketball, football and hockey.

“They are very high risk,” he said in a telephone interview.

I must have sounded dejected at this prospect because Strang proceeded to explain that the virus's impact on the sporting life of this province isn't necessarily all bad.

Competition, for the foreseeable future, is out. Instead, most organizations will get the kids back out on the field through small-group skills training.

“Here's a chance to focus on fun and skills development rather than competition,” he said. The latter, he feels, has been over-emphasized for too long at too young an age in this country.

To illustrate this point Strang, impressively, brings up the Canada-Russia hockey summit series of 1972 in which the Russians, who focused on skills and conditioning, took the NHL-laden Canadian squad down to the wire.

“Maybe this is an opportunity for us to recalibrate,” he said.

The doctor, by the way, knows a thing or two about sport. Growing up in British Columbia he played basketball through until Grade 12, then, fearing that he couldn't make a university team, switched to rugby, where he was good enough to be “capped” for representing Canada in an international game against the United Kingdom.

Later on, he refereed rugby for years, which gives him a little credibility when he declares that the social distancing regulations may recalibrate another aspect of youth sport: the 50-people-at-one-sporting-venue rule includes sideline spectators, in this case usually parents.

“This,” he said, “is an opportunity to take the parents out of the game,” which, anyone who has spent time around youth sport will tell you, can be a good thing. I didn't think of that.

I also didn't think of another point Strang made when asked if he worried that the social distancing regulations were going to make kids less active.

On the contrary, he said, there's lots of evidence that shows, while playing team sports, kids spend a lot of time just standing around.

“We put a lot of emphasis into traditional team-based sports,” said Strang. “Maybe we should be looking for a greater diversity of physical activity and play.”

What he meant was unstructured play, the unsupervised, goofing around that is lost when every waking hour of a kid's life is programmed, and under an adult's watchful eye.

“What COVID is doing is challenging us to think about the fundamental ways that our society is structured,” said Strang.

It may already be happening. On the weekend a visitor talked of how the streets in her Dartmouth subdivision suddenly seemed full of kids riding bikes, and playing in the street.

Which is how it should be for every young person in this province in the summer.

Did this story inform or enhance your perspective on this subject?
1 being least likely, and 10 being most likely

Recent Stories