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Returning to Sports Amid COVID-19

Posted on Oct 05, 2020

Fall sports are getting back in full swing. Keeping kids safe while participating in youth sports during COVID-19 is important. On this week’s On Call for All Kids, Patrick Mularoni, M.D., the medical director of the Pediatric Sports Medicine program at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, helps parents and coaches better understand safety issues surrounding COVID-19.

Should athletes wear masks on the field?

This may depend on the type of sport. Take a look at how Major League Baseball is dealing with the pandemic. Most of the players on the field are physically distanced, but those in the dugout are typically wearing their mask and not huddled around or standing shoulder-to-shoulder. Masks and physical distancing should always be considered, and it’s important not to forget other factors such as the Florida heat. If it seems too hot to wear a mask, then it’s important athletes and coaches find ways to safely distance players who are not masked or worst case – reschedule for another time of day.

As for training, I do not suggest training in a mask, but I do suggest showing up to the training facility with a mask on and again, maintaining 6 feet apart spacing as much as possible. One concern is that many coaches have seen athletes playing without masks, but that does not mean that the coaches should be without masks. All coaches should be masked and if they need to take down their mask in order to coach with a louder voice it should be done from a designated space where they know that they are going to be 6 feet from athletes but preferably even farther because you know how loud many of us coaches can get when we get excited. 

If kids aren’t wearing masks, what can a coach do to avoid a sick child from spreading the illness to other athletes?

If it is obvious that a child is sick, they should not be at the practice/game. The first thing that athletes need to do is physical distancing as much as possible for that sport even on the field or court. Athletes should be encouraged to stay 6 feet apart while waiting in line for drills. There are also other opportunities for spacing. An example could be when the players take a knee for instruction. That is a great time to make sure that the children are distanced appropriately.

This can be used on the sideline as well. When we look at high school football, the teams now have more space available along the sidelines. Before, they needed to stay inside the 30-yard lines, but they can now spread down to the 10-yard line in both directions. This was done in effort to provide an additional 40 yards of space along the sidelines in an effort to encourage physical distancing. 

Should children be sharing equipment?

Coaches should do their best to allow for individual equipment, but there are times where that is not possible. This is the case in ball sports such as basketball and football where the ball is passed back and forth. As a parent, the best thing that you can do is make sure that your child and their teammates are sanitizing their hands before they go out to play and immediately when they are finished. There are sports where we can avoid sharing equipment such as bats in baseball, and for those that are weight training, you should make a habit of sanitizing the equipment after use as a general precaution in a weight room. 

How about water bottles? Probably not a good idea to share those right?

That is correct. Every athlete should have his or her own water bottle in an effort to keep from spreading germs but also to keep kids hydrated. Some coaches have asked what to do for athletes who drink all of their water and need a refill. In that situation if you have the typical cooler with the push button spout you should designate the coach as the one who touches the cooler while the athletes remove their bottle top and hold the bottle under the spout, and the coach should be doing frequent hand washing/sanitizing between refills. 

I know many parents are struggling with whether they should let their child back into organized sports. For those parents, what do you suggest?

This is an individual family decision. Every family has to make this decision taking into account their community and the people that could get infected should their child encounter and catch COVID-19 while playing sports. Close contact sports still have the potential to spread the virus. That is why it’s important to be extra careful not only on the field but off the field during this time. Just as we have seen from some professional sports teams, one infected individual can affect the whole team or potentially more people.

Athletes and coaches should consider quarantining as much as possible in order to avoid contracting or spreading the virus. The children who live with elderly grandparents or a family member with a serous chronic illness may need to sit this season out, but that is not an excuse to become sedentary. Children need exercise and whether that is done with an organized sports team or a workout with the family it is something that every family should be making a priority now that it has been over six months since this pandemic has changed the way our children learn, interact and exercise.

On Call for All Kids is a weekly series featuring Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital experts. Visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Stories each Monday for the latest report. You also can explore more advice from Patrick Mularoni, M.D.


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