In the basketball world, much of the attention in recent months has been on the NBA, which is gearing up for another season after successfully restarting the previous one in July. The league registered zero positive cases over the span of three months by placing all players and staff in a bubble in Orlando, FL.
However, one thing that has not been able to restart so easily since the shutdown of parks, facilities, and recreational programs in March are youth sports, and in particular, youth basketball. This impact on team basketball and recreational leagues have caused many players and parents to switch to private and small group workouts.
Youth sports have been ravaged by the Covid-19 pandemic this year. Over 24 million children between the ages of six and 12 participated in some sport on a regular basis in 2019, according to data from the Aspen Institute. However, since the beginning of the health crisis, there has been a nearly 50 percent drop in participation in sports among those children.
And due to the high level of contact and close proximity indoors, youth basketball has been particularly stifled. For children who play basketball, the number of hours spent playing basketball before and after the pandemic dropped from 14 to 7.9, according to the data from the Aspen Institute.
Jimmy Smith, the program director at the YMCA in Beaverton, OR, notes that these challenges for youth basketball are all centered around the proximity of the players.
“The biggest challenge, honestly, is the indoor aspect,” says Smith. “I know that before the second shutdown here, they were allowing indoor volleyball with masks and they were allowing indoor soccer with masks. I think it’s more the spacing aspect with basketball and the contact there because you’re constantly touching somebody, and you’re constantly within six feet of somebody.”
Because the nature of basketball goes against Covid-19 protocols, recreational leagues for children, like the ones offered at the Beaverton YMCA, have had to shut down for the time being.
Therefore, like many other programs and coaches, the YMCA has transitioned to offer more private and small group workouts.
“For us, I know a big shift definitely went to private workouts,” Smith says. “A lot of kids have definitely went to the one-on-one route especially at first when all parks were shut down. That was a big step because it came from a viewpoint of, it was better than nothing. They were allowed to work on their game, or just reach something that they enjoy, in a very limited capacity.”
As a private basketball trainer in Los Angeles, Danny Rios says that he has actually seen increased business since the shutdown in March.
“The way that I look at it, you don’t wanna necessarily have a lot of kids in one area due to the risk,” says Rios. “So right now, the market, in terms of business, is all either private or small groups ranging from maybe two to five at most. And for the most part, that’s what the parents are comfortable with.”
This is the reason that parents such as Tendaji Lathan, whose son has been doing private workouts in-person with Rios, have made the transition to an alternative to team basketball that feels safe.
“Before the pandemic, we weren’t doing private sessions,” says Lathan. “And then when the pandemic happened, we were sort of forced to move to private workouts. There’s definitely a clientele for that, for people who want to keep their kids active. I know that safety is paramount, but I also think that there are other things that are important, like our kids being active and having some form of socializing, so we’re doing the best that we can to be safe and still provide some of that.”
Lathan explains how the rapid shift of the pandemic drastically affected his son’s basketball experience, and that private training has been important in creating stability.
“You go from having camaraderie and being on a team and going to different sites to play with uniforms and a schedule and all that, to just Zoom sessions now. And thank god for Danny [Rios], it’s a great outlet for us to drive over and hang out at the park and get some work in.”
Lathan’s son, Jalen Lathan, who is 11 years old, says that this is the thing he misses most about basketball.
“It’s definitely different than how it used to be,” Jalen says. “What I miss the most is just getting to play with my teammates and learning different skills that we all have and actually working together as a team. I still miss being able to play in games with my team and it’s definitely affected basketball a lot. It’s just weird.”
While Jalen has been training privately in-person Rios in the past few months, he says that it’s just not the same.
“There’s a few pros that I’ve had from doing private – I’m getting more work in and I’m definitely getting better since quarantine started, but then the cons are that you can’t hang out with your teammates. You can’t do any of that, really.”
Without the ability to see teammates and friends through basketball, kids have been impacted significantly in terms of socialization and mental health, Smith notices.
“To see the social abnormalities of just general communication with their friends, random peers that they’re around, and even with me, it’s very odd,” Smith says. “You can tell it’s because they’ve been stuck behind a screen for the last several months and their social cues and the way they’re kind of used to expressing feelings, and just their general basketball nature and overall disposition have been completely disrupted.”
Smith says that while the impact on youth sports has been significant, it is important to remain optimistic for the sake of the young athletes.
“It’s definitely a burden on youth sports, whether it’s competitive or recreational. You know, it’s very unfortunate for everybody, but it’s just the thing where we all have to take it one step at a time and try to stay positive because definitely there’s an overwhelming cloud feeling that can weigh people down.”