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Scientific Studies of Youth Soccer Show Low (or No) Risk to Players

8 Oct, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Data Expected to Boost Efforts to #LetThemPlay

The youth sports industry just got some formidable weapons as it moves past the setbacks posed by COVID-19. Even better, several are credible scientific studies proving the risk of contamination among athletes is low to nonexistent.

Two studies dealt with youth soccer – undoubtedly one of the most popular team sports in the country – and studied players across a specific period, finding only one case where the virus was transmitted during play, and absolutely zero instances of hospitalization or death.

The first study, published by the University of Wisconsin, collected data from 124 clubs in 34 states, with 90,000 players who had returned to play since restarting about 10 weeks before. This resulted in a total of 45,000 training sessions and 6,000 games – all of which brought players together from different areas. More than half of the clubs had progressed to activities that were resulting in player-to-player contact. (Side note: Every club, without exception, reported having a formal COVID-19 plan in place to reduce risk).

Statistics coming out of play were as followed:

  • A total of 325 positive cases were reported, including 282 positive cases in players, and 43 positive cases in staff.
  • Of the 325 positive cases, only one case was reportedly traced to transmission in soccer.
  • No cases were reported to result in hospitalization or death

Something worth noting: The 282 reported positive cases in youth players represents a rate of 310 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 children. In comparison, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, the nationwide case rate among children in the United States was 477 cases per 100,000 children. Therefore, the rate of youth soccer players contracting the virus was statistically lower than that of the national average compiled by AAP.

Dr. Drew Watson, a physician at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and the Chief Medical Advisor of the Elite Clubs National League, worked with the league’s clubs to collect data for the study. The impetus for doing the study was the fact that until that point, there had been a need for scientific insights into the potential for the virus to be transmitted during youth sports.

“There has been so little data of any kind on the real burden in, and risk from, participation in youth sports during COVID-19,” said Christian Lavers, ECNL President. “We already knew that children were being adversely impacted by the inactivity created by various COVID-19 suspensions, and Dr. Watson wanted to see if there was any clear evidence of increased COVID-19 infection from playing youth soccer.”

The hypothesis of a low chance of infection in youth soccer was borne out in a second study conducted by Surf Cup Sports, which produces soccer events in San Diego County.

The study used a total of 6,560 players and 263 coaches from six local soccer clubs. The findings included the following:

  • Over the course of eight weeks 143,000 soccer sessions were analyzed and only 15 (.01%) confirmed cases were found.
  • For each of the identified cases, all were found to have been transmitted outside of the soccer sessions.

Surf Cup Sports noted, “The data tells a clear story – kids playing soccer outdoors in a safe environment do not contract or transmit COVID at a material rate.”

By contrast, both studies noted the detrimental effects – both physical and psychological – of the pandemic among children who are used to a healthy, active lifestyle.

“Participation in sports has tremendous physical and mental health benefits for children, and we have seen worrisome increases in physical inactivity and symptoms of depression and anxiety among adolescents in particular during the COVID-19 restrictions,” noted Dr. Drew Watson, who analyzed the data from the University of Wisconsin study. Additional studies have shown that one-third of formerly active children lost interest in sports during the pandemic, 

But soccer wasn’t the only youth sport to release information on return to play. The National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), which governs sports participation at the high school level, noted that, as of mid-September (the most recent data study), it had found only a relatively small number of football games that had to be canceled in the 17 states where play was allowed.

“That’s really positive news because I think it reflects well on the education that’s taken place with schools, coaches, student-athletes, and families,” said Karissa Niehoff, executive director for NFHS, in a roundtable discussion led by the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. The measures being used, she added, included, “The risk mitigation procedures, phased-in approaches, action plans in place for what to do should a COVID case can be realized, etc. And I can tell you, in our current travels around our country, be it in person or virtually, our state associations are reporting that they have not heard of COVID contagion due to a team environment. So, no player-to-player. The student-athletes that are testing positive, on those rare occasions, tend to be traced back to outside-of-school activities.”

NFSH has created a map that updates modifications to high school fall sports seasons by individual states. Another great tool – more general in terms of gathering restrictions, quarantines and state-by-state analyses, was compiled by The Points Guy and can be found at this link.

Note: Both lists are updated as new data becomes available; the information is not static.

Another sport that has moved to the fore because of its low risk environment is tennis; according to several scientific studies, the sport has been rated either a 1 or a 2 on a risk scale, with 0 being lowest and 10 being highest. It also consistently rates close to golf and just behind walking and running. 

Sports parents, youth sports participants and other supporters of return-to-play philosophies, have banded together, organizing rallies and social media campaigns, with hashtags, including #LetThemPlay becoming one of the hottest and fastest-trending of all. The addition of medical data concerning the safety of sports is likely to assist the cause.

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