Youth sports in Canada feeling economic, mental-health impact of COVID-19

Published April 29, 2020 11:50 a.m. ET

Share this story:

Children are pictured playing outside in this file photo. (dotshock /

His karate dojo closed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Eduardo Hernandez participates in its online Zoom classes.

But there's something missing for the 15-year-old Calgarian.

"A lot of motivation," the teenager said. "The environment and the people around me who motivate me, that's a big part that's missing."

The pandemic is financially squeezing his sensei Juan Osuna.

Osuna Karate relies on clients' monthly fees to operate dojos out of one space he owns and another he rents from a school in Calgary.

The majority of Osuna's roughly 100 clients are under the age of 21.

Hernandez is a provincial-level athlete. Osuna also teaches young athletes with autism, attention deficit disorder and cerebral palsy.

"Before the pandemic we had been losing students," Osuna said. "The economy of Calgary wasn't that good. Sports are disposable income.

"We will lose more memberships. We were already struggling a little bit."

The pandemic emptying fields, pitches, ball diamonds and gyms across Canada has those who oversee and operate youth sport concerned about the cost to mental health.

They're also worried that parents who lose jobs and businesses to the virus can't afford to pay people like Osuna to teach their children sport when pandemic restrictions are lifted.

"It's sometimes mindboggling, the domino affect," Sport Calgary chief executive officer Catriona Le May Doan said.

The two-time Olympic gold medallist in speedskating says sport can be a confidence-booster for children.

"It's an 'I'm OK. I am pretty good at something,"' Le May Doan said. "When the girls don't have that, I really, really worry. When you take that away from young boys, what is that doing?"

Geoff Snider's Elev8 lacrosse academy partners with Calgary Field Lacrosse, which operates programs for boys and girls aged four to 19.

The former National Lacrosse League pro is concerned about inertia creeping into their lives.

"We've got a lot of kids that are cooped up right now," Snider said. "I think the big question is the mental-health component that goes along with being a child or a young person in society today with the access to information that you have.

"The last time the globe went through a pandemic, Instagram didn't exist."

Canada Soccer director of development Jason de Vos urges young players to take their soccer balls outside and work on individual skills.

"Developing comfort with the ball, all that's required to do that is for a child to have a ball and play in their back yard," he said.

"The more we can encourage kids to get a ball at their feet and dribble with it and kick it against the wall and develop that technical proficiency, the better it's going to serve them when soccer does resume."

Doan says youth sport organizations must be ready to roll when restrictions are lifted, but acknowledges it's difficult to know how to prepare for that post-pandemic world.

Sport Calgary says amateur sport represents two per cent of the city's employment. It conducted a recent poll measuring the pandemic's economic impact.

Of the sport organizations surveyed, 55 per cent said they'd laid off or will lay off employees and 91 per cent of multi-sport facilities laid off or will lay off employees.

Calgary's downtown Repsol Sport Centre caters to thousands of children in its clientele. Clubs pay fees to use spaces such as the pool and basketball courts.

"Some of the concerns we have are the ability to welcome people back assuming there will be restrictions in place around distancings," Repsol's chief executive officer Jeff Booke said.

"How do we navigate that particularly in sports that have contact, or that are team sports?

"We also have to be concerned about the clubs we support. Will they have the ability to attract and retain their athletes and subscribe to the same amount of space and other resources they have in the past?

"Coming out of this, many people could struggle financially and will sport be seen as an essential spend or a discretionary spend?"

The B.C. government has provided some COVID-19 financial relief to amateur sport in that province

As of this month, provincial, disability and multi-sport organizations can access $5 million -- half their 2020-21 provincial funding allocation -- to remain liquid.

Canada's Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault recently announced $500 million in COVID-19 funding to arts, sport and culture.

"The goal of the funding is to ensure business continuity for organizations whose viability has been negatively impacted by COVID-19," the department said in a statement to The Canadian Press.

"The fund will provide financial support consistent with other assistance measures in place such as the Canada Emergency Business Account."

The funding that has yet to roll out. It isn't yet clear how much would trickle down a local level.

"Most of the local sports don't come under any sort of funding other than what they self-generate," Le May Doan said.

"A lot of these sport groups had a casino scheduled. Is that going to go ahead? That is a huge money maker for them."

The silver lining for Snider is he believes children won't take sport for granted when they return to the lacrosse field.

"I will forever remind our kids about this moment and about this pocket that we're in right now," he said. "You had something taken away that you love to do."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2020

Read the original version