The Christy O'Connor column: Big call must be made to get kids back playing

'Ask any parents and they’ll tell you the cost of their kids not playing sport right now...'
The Christy O'Connor column: Big call must be made to get kids back playing

Aidan Moran of Erin's Own in action against Tommy Walsh of Tullaroan last season. Whatever about a return to competitive sport, training as an outlet is badly needed for underage players. Picture: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

WHEN her role as England’s Children’s Commissioner concluded after six years this week, Anne Longfield’s final speech outlined some of the massive challenges ahead for kids considering the upheaval the pandemic is having on their mental health.

'The Mental Health of Children and Young People in England 2020' report has been tracking more than 3,000 young people over the last four years. Its latest findings showed that one in six children aged five to 16 had a probable mental health disorder, up from one in nine three years previously.

A multitude of factors are connected to those challenges but multiple surveys throughout the pandemic have shown rates of anxiety and depression steadily increasing and rates of physical activity decreasing.

Before Christmas, the Aspen Institute in the US released the worrying results of a nationwide survey on how youth sports had been impacted. 

The study showed that nearly 30 percent of youths between six and 18, who were playing sports before the pandemic, were not likely to go back without a major intervention. 

They’ve lost interest. Many have lost momentum, especially when so much screen time has made running around seem less appealing.

Everyone needs to be aware of the cost, especially governments. In an interview with the Irish News this week, Marie Murphy, a professor of Exercise and Health and Dean of Postgraduate Research at Ulster University, challenged the Stormont Executive to show how outdoor sports for children is dangerous.

“I expect a government to use the best evidence, but where’s the evidence on this one?” she asked. “And yet they are making decisions that impact on our children. We’ve had long enough to gather evidence. If you are making decisions on a hunch, we have a right to challenge them.” 

A number of people already have; a letter from 80 sportspeople in Northern Ireland was sent to the Stormont Executive last week, urging the political powers in the north to take “immediate action to mandate the resumption of youth sport in Covid-safe environments so as to begin to address the wellbeing crisis among our young people”.

Aidan O’Rourke, an All-Ireland winner with Armagh, and performance sport manager at Queen’s University, Belfast is one of the 80 signatories to the Stormont letter.

“Ask any parents and they’ll tell you the cost of their kids not playing sport right now,” O’Rourke said in an interview with The Irish Times. “Disappearing personalities, children withdrawing entirely within themselves, right up to severe mental health, self-harm. I’m not saying that sport would be a silver bullet to stop all that. But it could have been alleviated at least to some extent by giving them the structure of sport.” 

UNFAIR

Their basic argument is similar to the one made by Professor Murphy, who insisted that the “punishment” of children has gone on for far too long and that government needs to trust sports clubs to execute Covid19 protocol guidelines in a professional and safe way.

Adults would need to take responsibility, but every sports club did their best last summer and autumn to put the protocol structures in place to allow youth sport to happen; in the first six weeks alone of the GAA returning to training and matches last summer, nearly 4 million health questionnaires were filled up.

In an interview on ‘Game On’ on 2FM on Monday, O’Rourke said that he had heard through political back channels that their letter was “being considered” in Stormont. But O’Rourke also questioned how little weight their approach can have when compared to the GAA’s huge power in this debate.

“They are having constant conversations with the Government,” said O’Rourke. “They can present the case, they have the ear of Government. They can lay out the science and say, ‘Tell us why this won’t work.’ And if they don’t get movement this time, they might get some the next time.” 

This goes far beyond the GAA as the lockdown is affecting kids everywhere, irrespective of whether they play sport or not. There is also a clear contradiction between the use of playgrounds and public parks and the broad-brush closure of controlled outdoor sporting environments for children.

In December, Jack Chambers, the Minister of State for Sport and the Gaeltacht, wrote to all national governing bodies, inviting them to submit what they would like to see in terms of activity at Level 3 restrictions. Over 40 of those bodies made submissions to Sport Ireland, who collated the data before sending it on to the ‘Return to Sport Expert Group’.

That group met on February 11 to discuss the information ahead of the Government finalising their revised ‘Living with Covid Plan’, which will be published early next week.

“I would be very hopeful that one of the main priorities gathered in that information is the return to activity for underage sport in an outdoor setting,” said former dual Cork player, Mary O’Connor, Federation of Irish Sport CEO, in that ‘Game On’ discussion on the subject.

The government’s response has always been to ensure a public health-led, whole of society approach. Everyone has to take responsibility for their actions in reducing case numbers and the threat of the virus. 

But the mental health of children and youths is too big of an issue for it not be factored into that whole equation.

Various governments across Europe, including Holland, Sweden and Scotland, have sanctioned youth sports, reasoning that the mental health risk of banning structured collective physical activity under proper guidelines outweighs the viral risk of allowing it to go ahead.

“We need to make sure that we do not define children by what’s happened (during the pandemic),” said Anne Longfield this week. “But instead that we define ourselves by what we offer them.” 

Fact.

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