Supporting Your Student Athlete in the Age of COVID-19
We all know the importance of sports in the daily lives of student athletes. Whether in the water, on the field or court, playing sports are good for kids, teaching them good life lessons about teamwork, while building character and promoting physical and mental health. But with the advent of COVID-19, the game has changed significantly for student athletes, their parents, and fans.
For advice on how parents and their student athletes can best navigate the new normal caused by the pandemic, we asked Steven Singleton, M.D. who specializes in sports medicine at Fort Worth Orthopedics and Malvika Sachdev, M.D., an internal medicine specialist at Texas Health Internal Medicine in Dallas, for guidance to keep everyone safe.
Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the protocols for student athletes and their supporters are no different from what the Centers for Disease Control and health experts have been telling us all along, but there are guidelines that pertain exclusively to student sports:
In light of the pandemic and current safety protocols, what advice would you give to parents or other supporters for staying safe and well while watching a student sporting event?
The most important things for parents watching their child’s game are to wear a face mask, maintain safe distancing, wash hands often (for 20 seconds) and limit contact with surfaces or shared items in a gym, for example. Mask wearing is most important when social distancing may be a challenge, and an example of that is when you’re passing through a crowd or audience or standing in a restroom line. At a sports event, I tell my patients to wear a mask even if they’re able to maintain six feet or more of space, especially if they’re talking or cheering loudly.
Although it feels odd at your child’s sporting event not to touch friends and other fans, I would recommend avoiding touching, and that includes handshakes, high-fives, and even elbow bumps. I also advise against eating or drinking at the event because your mask has to come off, and that increases your chances of infection at a crowded event. But if you can’t avoid eating or drinking, make sure you’re at least six feet away from anyone else and try to do it outdoors. Indoor eating or drinking heightens your chances of infection.
Above all, don’t attend any sporting event, for your child, if you are feeling ill. It’s not worth the risk to yourself and others.
Prevention is the most effective and beneficial approach during the pandemic, and that applies to supporting your student athlete. I encourage my patients to follow CDC guidelines for safety measures and believe that’s the best advice for parents and their student athletes at this time. It’s important to know that COVID-19 is spread from person-to-person. So, it’s important to maintain a distance of six feet or more because the virus is spread through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks.
This has become a familiar refrain to most of us, but the CDC advises that we should also cover the nose and mouth when around others, keep surfaces clean and wash your hands for 20 seconds or more. This is good advice for all of us, including student athletes and their parents.
Are some environments safer than others when watching a student athlete’s sporting event?
We know that droplets released when someone with COVID-19 sneezes, coughs or talks can land in the airway or on the hands of people who are nearby. It can also be inhaled into the lungs, and reach the eyes, nose or mouth from touching hands, objects or surfaces with droplets. That’s why maintaining a distance of six feet is so important.
So, for that reason, inadequately ventilated spaces represent a favorable environment for transmitting the disease. If possible, we recommend outdoor spaces vs. indoor gyms, courts, or arenas, whenever possible. Being outdoors will minimize the chances of contracting COVID-19, but following guidelines like safe distancing and wearing masks is still important.
I agree that outdoor activities are safer than indoor sporting events, and an outdoor environment should be encouraged whenever possible. We know that indoor activities increase the spread of COVID-19. If an event must take place indoors, the venue should be well-ventilated, and supporters should pay extra attention to social distancing, masking. Some venues have even added physical barriers between the audience and athlete to limit exposure to respiratory droplets during a game.
If these conditions aren’t present in a sports venue, I’d recommend not attending and finding an alternate way to follow the game, like live-streaming from home.
What advice do you have for keeping a student athlete healthy at home and at school?
I advise parents to encourage their student athlete to carry plenty of masks and hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol content. You never know what circumstance may pop up, so it’s best to be prepared throughout the day. Similarly, athletes should supply their own drinking water, snacks, sunscreen, and when possible, sports equipment for practices and games.
It’s also important if the student has high-risk health conditions to check with your doctor before signing up for a team sport. In some cases, home or individual activities may be a better option. Players should stay home if sick or if they’ve been in contact with someone diagnosed the Coronavirus or is awaiting test results.
Other recommendations: Limit team practice group sizes, and wear masks, especially when maintaining six feet of distance between yourself and others isn’t possible. Although this can be a challenge for student athletes, they should try to avoid shouting, especially when not wearing a mask, and minimize equipment sharing, in addition to food, drinks, and towels, for example.
Spitting should be avoided, as well, as coughs and sneezes should be covered always during a practice, game, school, or at home. Last, stay well by practicing a healthy lifestyle. That means getting plenty of sleep, eating a proper diet, and staying active.
I would emphasize the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle. That means finding a balance between activity level and proper recovery. That means getting at least 7-8 hours of sleep each night and dedicating 1-2 hours during daylight for outdoor activities. It’s also important for athletes to eat balanced meals following nutrition guidelines, and to limit the number of leisure hours using electronics, cell phones and TV.
Importantly, student athletes should let their parents or teachers know when they feel any symptoms that are COVID-related, like fever, fatigue or shortness of breath. Last, I stress to parents and caregivers that they need to watch for signs of depression in their children. Maintaining open lines of communication with students is imperative to detecting a potential issue that may require professional care during the pandemic.
One last question: What role do parents play in modeling good behavior for their student athletes?
Parents are role models for their children, and it’s important that a parent or caregiver help shape their child’s behavior and social interactions, transmitting the correct messages to their kids.
Parents are indeed role models for their student athletes, and they should practice safe and healthy behavior that their children can observe. Things like wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing, washing hands for 20 seconds or more with soap and water, and using hand sanitizer with 60% alcohol content.
Our thanks to Dr. Sachdev and Dr. Singleton for their excellent advice to parents to support their student athletes at home and at play.
For more information about Texas Health Sports Medicine or to find a sports medicine physician, visit TexasHealth.org/SportsMedicine.