During a recent television interview, Patrick Walsh, a football coach for Serra High School in Southern California, made a plea for his state to restart youth sports.

“The biggest issue is kids are losing hope,” he said. “Mental health is declining, and we think youth sports can help.”

Oregon, Washington and California are still grappling with how to return to official high school competition for the first time in nearly a year. At the forefront of the discussion is not the number of games, the missing out on state titles or players losing chances at receiving college scholarships, but rather, the mental health impact on youth athletes.

“The social aspect as well, being around friends, teammates and dedication towards their craft whatever sport that might be,” said Dr. Kyle Ahlf of Peak Wellness Services in Bend. “Those are the basics that athletes are missing out on.”

As of now, practices for traditional fall sports are set to begin Feb. 22 (Feb. 8 for football) with official contests starting the week of March 1. The Oregon School Activities Association will hold an executive board meeting on Feb. 8 to further clarify what the “fall” season will look like.

The OSAA, the school’s athletic directors and coaches all seem to agree the mental health of student athletes is the driving force behind bringing high school sports back.

It is a sentiment that Redmond High football coach Seth Womack shares. The planning required to operate a football program during a pandemic — scheduling, safety protocols, practice restrictions and weight room logistics — has taken a back seat to the most challenging issue: telling his players their season continues to be delayed.

“The kids want to play,” Womack said. “They have been on fieldwork this whole week and our kids are showing up. We are just trying to keep morale up.”

Nick Moss wanted to be the cool dad, but recently he has found himself having to be a dorky dad just to try and put a smile on his daughter, Layla’s, and son, Jakoby’s faces. He found his daughter, a freshman cheerleader and lacrosse player, being sad with the continuous bad news while Jakoby, a junior quarterback for the Cougars grows with frustration.

“I try everything that I can,” Moss said. “I feel if you let a little bit of that fester it is only going to get worse, it is best to nip it in the bud. The problem is we will know more in two weeks, then two weeks go by and nothing changes.”

Last week, Washington eased its restrictions to allow for different areas to allow for high school football to return to play. With Oregon, Washington and California having similar guidelines to one another, there is optimism that Oregon might follow suit.

“We are seeing some hope, we just hope it isn’t false hope,” Moss said.

Platforms like the West Coast Coaching Alliance and the Oregon “Return to Play” Campaign cite statistics of COVID-19 cases and deaths among young people — zero in Oregon ages 0-19 — while point to other states that have played through the pandemic — transmission rate of high school athletes in states like Utah found to be lower than the general population — and the eagerness for the adults to take any safety measure necessary to get kids back playing.

But at the crux of the campaign is a study conducted by the University of Wisconsin that delves into the mental health of high school athletes.

The nationwide survey conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine in July — completed by a team of physicians, child health experts and researchers — found that approximately 68% of the more than 3,000 student-athletes surveyed, reported feeling anxiety and depression at levels nearly twice as high as surveys in years past.

“The results of the study are both striking and concerning,” said Dr. Claudia Reardon, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, in a press release. “We know that exercise and physical activity are powerful antidepressants and anti-anxiety interventions, and we strongly encourage public health experts and school administrators to thoughtfully consider both the benefits and risks of prolonged school closures and sport cancellations.”

Oregon was one of the few states in the country to not have official high school sports competitions this past fall. Now the state is approaching yet another decision to start back up for the first time in 11 months, despite the current restrictions, or further delay already shortened sports schedules.

Student-athletes have been able to continue to practice in some capacity but without the same regularity or team-wide drills that help build toward a season.

“It is challenging right now, they can work on their skills — basketball players can work on dribbling and shooting — but ultimately they are missing out on the aspects that are most important of being on a team,” Ahlf said.

Perhaps most troubling is the issue of taking time away that cannot be made up. Unlike professional sports, in which athletes are able to opt out for a year, or college, in which student-athletes are able to sit out a year without losing eligibility, high school athletes do not have that luxury.

Once high school is over, it is over.

“I played baseball in college and coached basketball,” Ahlf said. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a full year of not having sports. It was such a big part of me growing up. I can’t imagine not having it for a year. You can’t go and get it back.”

Reporter: 541-383-0307, brathbone@bendbulletin.com

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