Leveling the Playing Field: Promoting Sports Activities During a Pandemic

Posted on July 23, 2020 by RADM Felicia Collins, M.D., MPH, FAAP, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Minority Health, Director, Office of Minority Health and Dorothy Fink, M.D., Deputy Assistant Secretary for Women’s Health

Just five months ago, the COVID-19 pandemic changed the game as we know it for youth access to sports in schools and in communities. As the nation celebrates National Youth Sports Week this week, we applaud the grantees of the Youth Engagement in Sports (YES) Initiative, who responded with resiliency and creativity to continue supporting sports and activity for young people.

As part of the National Youth Sports Strategy (https://health.gov/our-work/physical-activity/national-youth-sports-strategy) released in September 2019, the HHS Office of Minority Health (OMH) and Office on Women’s Health (OWH) collaboratively awarded more than $6.7 million across 18 sites. The YES Initiative supports collaborations to improve youth physical activity and nutrition via increased sports participation. The focus is for racial/ethnic minorities, girls, kids with disabilities and socio-economically disadvantaged youth in grades 6-8, particularly those from communities with lower rates of sports participation or limited access to athletic or recreational areas.

OMH and OWH are focusing on youth sports because they are an important source of physical activity and can have significant health benefits for those who play. They also provide psychosocial benefits such as higher self-esteem, improved life skills, and strong school performance.

During National Women’s Health Week in May, the Honorable Nan Hayworth, MD, a member of the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, shared important insights about celebrating active and healthy women and girls during these challenging times. (https://www.womenshealth.gov/blog/celebrating-active-and-healthy-women-and-girls-during-national-womens-health-week). We can build on her wisdom by sharing lessons learned from those who are actively promoting sports within the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.

YES grantees stepped up to the plate and adapted their programs with a variety of novel approaches. Their adaptations are a work in progress, but there are already three valuable lessons learned from their experiences.

  1. Online solutions can fill the access gap with positive side effects in overall engagement.

    When social distancing requirements prevented grantees from convening youth programming in person, many programs shifted to online programming. However, we found that no grantee approach was exactly the same. For example, grantees used several different forms of social media, selecting ones that best fit their program’s needs. Several grantees also extended their original program activities to be available during the summer and not end with the school year. Overall, no matter what online method was used, grantees saw increased engagement with their youth participants, schools, and communities.

  2. Collaboration can create a win-win situation and establish firm partnerships for the future.

    Stronger engagement with school and community coaches has led to collaborative efforts such as grantees helping schools train teachers about online programs and providing health content for schools. In turn, some schools have integrated YES programming into their online learning systems. Several grantees are working directly with coaches to develop virtual training, resources and toolkits.

  3. Creativity wins the day.

    To overcome obstacles to normal programing, grantees got creative in their approaches to promote physical activity and healthy eating. The spirit of creative competitiveness is alive in “challenges” presented to youth to create recipes and engage in physical activities. For example, locally-generated videos are presented in 20-30 minute versions so it is easy to meet the physical activity guidelines of 60 minutes per day. Grantees also provide meals that demonstrate the goals to increase intake of dark green, orange, and red vegetables and whole fresh fruit.

COVID-19 threw a strong curveball at YES grantees and their partners. We can celebrate National Youth Sports Week by learning from their versatile playbooks and applying similar strategies to other youth-serving initiatives and our personal communities. Game on!