It’s the middle of a class day at Western Canada High School, but the classrooms are completely empty. Stepping into the hallway and looking around does nothing to tell you that it’s not the middle of July. But, according to John Brown, listening does.
“The school is massive, but you can hear it everywhere.”
The roaring crowd could get the attention of everyone in that building, the next building, and maybe a few people in Texas. Brown, a then-Grade 11 student and player on the Western Canada Redhawks senior boys’ basketball team, can remember an electric atmosphere at the annual Western Invitational Tournament.
“I was the first one to be introduced, so I had to rip open this banner [as I] ran out to the floor. I remember ripping [it] open and just the crowd was roaring. It was insane. I remember that game. We just blew the other team apart, I think mostly because the fans were just on our side so much. It was kind of crazy,” he says.
But this was in 2019, a whole pandemic ago. Hallways are empty for a different reason now. As the saying goes, you never really know how much you love something until it’s gone.
The COVID-19 crisis has fundamentally changed the world, with the destruction of major economies getting most of the spotlight. But the toll it’s taking on young people, including high school athletes, has been incalculable.
On Aug. 21, the Calgary Senior High School Athletic Association “made the decision to postpone the start of fall sports.” They came to this decision “in consultation with the Calgary Board of Education, the Calgary Catholic School District, Alberta Health Services and the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association.”
Though tryouts, practices, and training were allowed for winter sports in September and October, indoor team sports in Calgary were heavily restricted in November.
If this happened when I was in high school three years ago, I would not be who I am today.
On my six-man football team at Heritage Christian Academy, I learned countless life lessons. Some of the most important ones also happened to be some of the simplest.
Playing through pain taught me that discomfort isn’t always an indicator of something going wrong. Sometimes, you need to go through instead of around. Simple, but physically doing it helped prepare me for the world. It helped me grow up.
That’s what players like Brown are missing out on.
Clare Fewster, a Calgary-based mental performance consultant and professional member of the Canadian Sports Psychology Association, would agree.
“There’s a huge amount of organization that has to go on for student athletes to be able to come to school, get their homework done, go to practice. I think there’s benefits for that personal piece of being organized and being accountable to their education as well,” Fewster says.
Studies have also shown that high school sports can have a direct impact on a person’s habits and behaviours, even those beyond a court or field.
“Sports-related games conducted as extra-curricular activities are an important opportunity for students to develop positive, unproblematic behaviours within school boundaries,” according to Mümine Soytür and Özden Tepeköylü Öztürk in their article, Effect of Extracurricular Sports-Related Games on High School Students’ Behaviour Patterns.
Sports are fun. They’re entertaining. They’re an escape. But for so many young people, they’re even more than that. Not only are sports a stepping stone into who they will become, but they’re also a cornerstone for who they are now.
“It definitely has shaped the way I think about things, like how much community means to me. It also contributes to my competitiveness and my leadership skills… I would say I’ve almost fallen in love with it. And I’ve spent so much time doing it, to the point where it’s just a passion of mine,” Brown says.
Brown says he, like much of the country, was “extremely bored” during the start of quarantine, but that the loss of high school basketball, in particular, has cost him even more than the fun, personal growth, and mental health benefits. It may have put a dent in his future.
“Most scouts, especially in Canada, look at players’ film from high school sports, and they’ll come watch a high school game. They don’t really come and watch a club game,” he says.
Brown’s dream is to play post-secondary basketball, but that he hopes his time with the sport will take him even farther off the court.
“Basketball is almost like a framework where you learn your work ethic, you learn how to communicate, you learn how to lead people. Those characteristics are extremely good in job situations as well,” he says.
High school sports are a serious loss for students like Brown. Fewster says it’s important to “allow young people to be sad about it for a period of time.”
“It might have been their year where they were going to be the captain or they really wanted to have an impact on a team, or it might have been for their own personal growth. [It’s good to] allow them to be like, ‘yeah, you know what? It is sad that we’re gonna miss that.’”
Brown says he’s “definitely trying not to think about” that, and instead trying to stay active in other ways and keep looking ahead to the future.
The pandemic has caused so much uncertainty in the world, and with no clear end to the lockdowns in sight, Fewster says high school students may need to adopt a mentality of adaptation.
“Let’s see how we can change, challenge ourselves, pivot, figure out what we can do to develop some of those skills outside of what the sport environment might have looked like for high school.”
Adapting to change, fighting through adversity, and staying disciplined are traits that bring student athletes to success, and they may just be what help them push through the pandemic.
But they’ll have to win this fight in silence, with no roaring crowds behind them.