By Colleen Maguire
During the past five months, the lives of our student-athletes have changed drastically. In March, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) made the difficult decision to shut down high school sports.
That decision was necessary to slow infections (of COVID-19) and to allow for mitigation efforts to be established. However, cancelling high school sports has come at a significant cost – the emotional and social well-being of our student-athletes. We need to return to sports this fall.
Researchers point to the need for in-person socialization – and for athletics, in particular – as a way to improve mental health and academic performance.
For example, Tim McGuine, a sports medicine researcher at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, recently conducted an expansive survey on the mental health impact the cancellation of youth sports has had on student-athletes.
Seventy percent of the student-athletes surveyed reported feelings of anxiety and depression at levels that would typically require medical intervention.
What’s more, affluent students have opportunities to make up for the loss of high school sports in a way others do not. Structured sports help keep at-risk students focused and engaged academically.
Some people question the safety of returning to high school sports, as certain college conferences have cancelled or postponed the 2020 fall season.
One main difference between high school and college athletics, however, is the travel involved. Travel for high school sports is far more limited than that for Rutgers University, which must travel halfway across the country for Big Ten Conference matchups.
The NJSIAA’s model for the 2020 fall season keeps competition in-state and local, while eliminating statewide tournament play. High school sports are overseen by certified coaches and athletic trainers.
Indeed, the controlled environment of high school athletics is one of the safest places for our student-athletes to be after the bell rings.
Also of note, there have been no known outbreaks precipitated by on-field athletics in New Jersey. Approximately half of our 435 member schools participated in NJSIAA’s summer workout period, which was successfully guided by the protocols developed by NJSIAA’s Medical Advisory Task Force.
According to TeamSnap, a youth sports team management application, more than 100,000 children in New Jersey played organized sports this summer; yet, there have been no known clusters or spreading of the coronavirus as a result of that activity. NJSIAA’s team of experts has developed guidance for returning to athletics safely.
The return to sports this fall – with all games being played outdoors – will be a team effort. In order to conduct athletics safely, buy-in will be required from all interested parties, particularly our student-athletes.
As part of a team, our student-athletes learn to pull for each other, work with each other, and watch out for each other. Now they have an incentive to keep each other healthy.
Partying will be an option for years to come, but there is only one chance to play sports during high school.
As Dr. Damion Martins, a member of the Medical Advisory Task Force, said, the entire team benefits “if they can stay COVID-free … more importantly, you are going to keep yourself and your family safe.”
Since March, we here in New Jersey have done the hard work of trying to contain the virus.
Our leading indicators – rate of transmission, positivity rate, and hospital admissions – are all trending down. Now is our opportunity to get back to the playing fields. However, should that situation change, we will not hesitate to do what is best for the health and safety of the kids.
I am honored to help steer NJSIAA through this challenging time, but I also approach the situation from a different perspective – as a mom.
I know I am not the only parent whose heart is breaking, witnessing the toll this pandemic is taking on our kids. Sports can, and will, raise the spirits for tens of thousands of teenagers who right now are in need of a little normalcy.
Colleen Maguire is the chief operating officer of the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association, which is the governing body of high school sports in New Jersey.