Bay Area youth sports begin a return to group training, with strict rules in place

Slowly and methodically, youth sports have begun returning to in-person training in the Bay Area. But as expected, the practices look starkly different than they did prior to the coronavirus pandemic.

In recent days, many youth soccer teams have started up socially-distanced practice sessions with kids stepping onto their training fields for the first time since shelter-in-place orders were enacted.


Over the weekend, Orinda-based California Magic Soccer Club began welcoming back small groups of players. The soccer club held practices and offered kids an opportunity to get oriented with the new safety protocols, which included thermal temperature checks upon arrival, players bringing their own ball, and spraying sanitizer on balls and cleats, as well as mask requirements to and from training (though they’re optional during practice). At check-in, players also underwent a visual screening for signs of difficulty breathing, fatigue, flushed cheeks, or other indication of illness. 

Practices were also shorter in length. Teams that would typically train for an hour-and-a-half had practice truncated to an hour. 

The club said it would be easing into four phases of a "return to play" plan. The current first stage involved one ball, one player, physical distancing, and stable, consistent groups.

Stage 2 would allow multiple players as individuals continued to use their own ball, though the club would ease back on restrictions on the sharing of other equipment. Stage 3, would allow for some person-to-person contact in a stable group of 12. The final fourth phase would be a return to traditional training.

The guidelines were based on recommendations from the California Youth Soccer Association.

Other soccer teams including Oakland-based Bay Oaks returned to in-person training this week, with similar protocols in place. 

Many parents embraced any form of organized outdoor exercising, saying their kids have really needed that physical outlet.     

Oakland mother Heather Shepherd has two kids who have started in-person soccer training again. She said she felt comfortable about returning to the field and with her kids being older, ages 10 and 13, she felt they were mature and responsible enough to adhere to the safety protocols and take them seriously. 

“My kids are in tune with this pandemic,” Shepherd said. “They are worried about getting sick and getting other people sick, so they both are wearing their masks.”

For her 10-year-old, being active outdoors in a small group setting has been a gift. “She needed something else to focus on, needed the structure, and really needed the exercise. It’s been beneficial." 

Other parents echoed the same sentiment. Mark Sutro of Oakland has two kids who have returned to the pool for competitive swimming. They’ve been training at Campolindo High School in Moraga, with strict rules in place, including wearing a mask when outside the water and working in small groups.

He said the family felt getting back to group training was a measured risk when they considered their kids’ well-being both physically and mentally. 

“Our kids are going stir crazing without this outlet,” Sutro said. “They’ve been inside almost all day long.” In fact, he said he’s seen his son undergo a change in his entire disposition since he’s able to return to training.

Another sport that has taken a measured return to group training has been basketball. Oakland High School basketball coach Orlando Watkins also heads up the Bay Area Wildcats, a youth basketball development program.

The team started up group practice on June 13, with restrictions in place. The club has been holding all training outdoors with only two kids per court, for a total of eight players per session. 

The emphasis has been on individual training because coaches weren't allowing player-to-player contact. “No competitive, one on one, or two on two,” Watkins said, “just individual skill-set stuff.” The kids have to bring their own ball, wear masks, and have hand-sanitizer on hand. 

The coach said that while the kids have not been allowed to play actual games, families have expressed how grateful they were to have kids playing together again, even though apart.

“The one thing that our parents appreciated is that the kids are able to see each other... are outdoors and shoot baskets, doing lay-ups," said Watkins. "We’re doing our best to social distance and make sure they don’t touch anything that's not theirs.” 

Even though they're restricted to working on individual training, Watkins and others said that the in-person interactions offer so much more than the limitations and disconnect often experienced by kids during the shelter-in-place Zoom trainings.

As youth sports began a return, club leaders stressed the importance of advancing slowly, to make sure they proceed in adherence to local, state, and federal guidelines, while making the health of their players and their community the top priority.