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Post-UMD poll: Six in 10 parents say loss of sports affected kids’ emotional well-being

Players from Hayfield and Yorktown high schools compete in a basketball game in late December in Arlington, Va. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

As youth sports teams and leagues canceled competition because of the coronavirus pandemic over the past year, 6 in 10 parents of young athletes say the disruptions have had a negative impact on their children’s emotional well-being and nearly two-thirds say their children are less happy, according to a Washington Post-University of Maryland poll.

The March nationwide survey of 341 parents of young athletes finds a vast majority say their kids faced sports shutdowns during the pandemic, with 82 percent saying that their children’s sports teams or leagues canceled a season because of coronavirus concerns. Of all parents whose children played sports before the pandemic, 64 percent say that their children’s athletic development had been hurt.

But many parents also say the closures had adverse mental ramifications for their kids. About two-thirds, 65 percent, say their children’s happiness was negatively affected, and another 60 percent say the disruptions served as a blow to their kids’ emotional well-being because they were no longer able to compete or socialize with their peers.

Post-UMD poll: Fewer than half of Americans feel comfortable attending sports in person

Among the parents whose children had multiple practices, games or entire seasons canceled, 61 percent say their children have missed playing in sports “a lot.” The Post-UMD survey was conducted in collaboration with the University of Maryland’s Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and its Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.

“Sports allows for both a social, plus an energy outlet for kids,” said Lauren Chiarello, a Washington, D.C., parent whose 7-year-old son, Will, had tennis, soccer and basketball activities interrupted over the past year. “He was definitely not as happy. … He wasn’t crying or anything, but I think it was just more he felt like he had lost something that had brought him a lot of joy before.”

While the reopening of youth sports activities across the country has varied from state to state over the past year, often mirroring the country’s divided response to the pandemic, all 50 states and D.C. are offering youth sports in some capacity this month as vaccine distribution continues and restrictions are eased.

But the Post-UMD poll, conducted March 12-18, finds 62 percent of parents whose kids played sports before the pandemic say their children are not currently playing organized youth sports. The poll finds roughly half of all parents (51 percent) saying they are comfortable with their children participating in organized sports at this time given the covid-19 situation, although that is up from 36 percent in a survey last summer as the country endured spiking numbers of cases.

“The regulations have lifted, but I haven’t sent them back,” said Sara Langston, a Florida parent who said she is still uncomfortable with her 9-year-old and 7-year-old children participating in the same soccer and dance activities because of the pandemic. When her kids lost the opportunity to play sports last year, Langston said, “they were kind of bummed not to be around kids a lot.”

The disruption of youth sports had negative impacts on children’s friendships, 63 percent of parents say. That was one reason Chiarello allowed her son to resume outdoor sports such as soccer and tennis last summer and fall.

“That was the driving factor for us to really resume was really the social impact because school was virtual — there was very limited options for social interaction,” she said. “Even if they were still at a distance, just to see someone face-to-face . . . was a nice alternative.”

These girls saw basketball as a big part of their futures. The pandemic took it away.

Nearly half of the parents of young athletes — 46 percent — say the disruption to youth sports was detrimental to their children’s physical health, and that same percentage report that their kids’ performance in school was negatively affected. For Jim Guy, a parent in Rosholt, S.D., his 17-year-old daughter’s happiness and emotional well-being were hurt when her track season was shut down because of restrictions last spring. It also hurt her academically, he said.

“Volleyball and track, those are what drives her, whether it’s good or bad, to keep her grades up,” he said. “With the loss of the sport and staying at home for school, her grades crashed. She just didn’t care.”

Guy said his daughter’s incentive to do well in school started to increase again when she was able to play volleyball in the fall, which he fully supported despite the ongoing pandemic. While she considered not going out for the track team this spring, she ultimately decided to return to the sport because she knew it would drive her to do well in the classroom.

“The first day of practice came around, [and she said]: ‘I have to go out. It’s my incentive. It’s what’s going to give me the drive to work hard on the rest of my school,’” he said.

Some states have been slower to ease restrictions on youth sports activity. In California, where state guidelines allowed for outdoor youth sports to return in late February, youth athletes have begun to practice again after nearly a year without sports. For Cahn Nguyen, a parent in Thousand Oaks, Calif., that has meant his two teenage children are able to play soccer again after dealing with the effects of the sport’s absence during the pandemic.

“They were missing the time to hang out with their peers or their friends, and they wanted to do something but there was no option at the time to participate in,” Nguyen said. “I am comfortable with having my kids go back and playing sports.”

The Post-UMD poll was conducted March 12-18, 2021, online among a random sample of 1,500 U.S. adults, including 618 parents of children under age 18 and 341 parents whose children played sports before the pandemic began. The margin of sampling error for results among all parents is plus or minus five percentage points; the error margin for results among parents whose children played youth sports is 6.5 points.

Scott Clement contributed to this report.