When soccer returned, life felt normal again 00:00

Sports in Society Nowhere to play

When soccer returned, life felt normal again

Like millions of other teenagers stuck inside during the pandemic, Gabbi Bishop was bored and listless. It was until she returned to the soccer pitch that life felt sorta normal again.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
Project Play’s 2020 study found that three in 10 kids who previously played sports are no longer interested in participating. Kids who continued to play are spending about 6.5 hours less per week on sports during the pandemic.

Todd Melby: The YMCA in Rome, Georgia, is eerily quiet these days.

Stephanie McElhone: Like we don’t have a basketball program.

Todd Melby: That’s Stephanie McElhone. She works at the Y.

Stephanie McElhone: We should be in the throes of a thriving several hundred children, you know, basketball league and our basketball courts are quiet.

Todd Melby: McElhone raises money there. Her formal title is the Director of Community Development & Marketing at the YMCA of Rome and Floyd County. About 98,000 people live in the area, which is an hour or so northwest of Atlanta. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed sports there.

Coach Fernando De Barros gives instructions to his soccer team in Rome, Ga. Georgia protocols on sports play remain strict, but the team players are happy to be back on the fields. Photo courtesy of Jesse Bishop.

Stephanie McElhone: Our kiddos aren’t in the pool with us every day like they were. Our community is trying to keep businesses open and keep kids in school. So we’ve really gone very quiet on to try to preserve the health of our children and their parents. So we were formally closed for three months, and we provided childcare for our frontline hospital workers during that time. A lot of the parents have told us, you know, our kids that are on virtual school, they’re doing PE from home. Well, it’s really hard to do much PE in your living room. We’ve worked with a lot of children this year that were cooped up in their house and they get blue like the adults do.

Todd Melby: Kids like Gabbi Bishop. She was one of those Georgia kids who was cooped up for weeks, unable to go to school, or see friends. She’s 13. 

Gabbi Bishop: When we went virtual, I was just sitting in my room all day, only coming out to get food because I had to do my school work, but I could just feel like everything just kind of going crazy around me.

Todd Melby: Her father felt it too. Jesse Bishop noticed that Gabbi and her brother weren’t active at all.

Jesse Bishop: They would basically just sit and do their work.

Todd Melby: So he got an idea.  Since Gabbi loved playing soccer, why not replicate that in the Bishop back yard?

Gabbi Bishop (left), a teenager who lives in Rome, Ga., was delighted to return to the soccer pitch after weeks at home. Photo courtesy of Jesse Bishop.

Jesse Bishop: For the first, I guess, three weeks or so we were going out and doing some drills, just to get some activity in. I bought a net to put up in the backyard, all that good stuff. And you know, we have kind of a small back yard because we live in town. Once we kind of settled in, that part was fine, but we really missed soccer.

Todd Melby: So soccer coaches began to contemplate practices. And matches. Gabbi’s dad is an assistant coach of her team. When I Zoomed with him, Jesse Bishop definitely looked like a “Soccer Dad:” he sported an Arsenal ballcap and an Atlanta United jersey. Gabbi wore a matching Atlanta United jersey. It was pretty cute. Jesse says everybody missed the sport. Mom, dad, kids.

Jesse Bishop: Soccer was a big outlet for us, and not having that, as part of our weekly routine. Immediately just losing that, not having that contact, not seeing the other parents, not interacting with the other coaches, I just realized how much we missed that, that soccer family and that activity.

Todd Melby: Eventually, health experts figured out that COVID transmission rates were much higher inside than outside. For Jesse and Gabbi, this meant going back to the field with precautions. Lots of precautions.

Lucas Levesque: My name is Lucas Levesque. I am the director of coaching with the YMCA Arsenal Rome soccer club here in Rome, Georgia. So we did a lot of temperature checks. All of our coaches were required to wear masks. During the course of play wasn’t too bad because, you know, kids aren’t really stationary. But sitting on the bench was a was a big area of concern for us. So if you were sitting within 6 feet of anybody you needed to put a mask on.

Todd Melby: Jesse Bishop remembers it well.

Jesse Bishop: The protocols were super strict on where we could be. We couldn’t leave our cars in the parking lot until it was time for us to warm up, which was 30 minutes before our match. We had designated spaces that we had to go to. Everybody had to be masked up except for the players on the field. So if you were on the sideline, you had a mask on. Really trying to emulate I think sort of that MLS, NBA bubble.

[fan ambiance]

Jesse Bishop: Overall it was nerve racking but exciting to be back out there. And I was glad to see them have the social interaction. You know, my 8-year-old, soon to be 8-year-old said a couple of times over the summer and in the early fall, he just, he missed his friends.

Todd Melby: Parents and coaches reminded Gabbi and the other players not to hug after scoring a goal, which in soccer, is a thing. I mean, goals are rare. After scoring, players around the world leap, dance, run and hug their teammates.

Jesse Bishop: I’ll turn around and look and they’re hugging one another, high-fiving, and I still kind of have that that twinge of doubt, wait, wait, like, keep your distance.

Todd Melby: Stephanie McElhone, the Y’s fundraiser, watched some of the matches. What she witnessed was exciting to behold.

Stephanie McElhone: Just to be with other people their size, they practically quivered with delight to be out and about. They didn’t even have to love soccer, although many of them do. They just loved being with other children and moving, you know moving brings joy.

Todd Melby: In 2020, the Y’s soccer program started in August and wrapped up in November. This year, its spring season begins in February and continues until May.

For iPondr, I’m Todd Melby.

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