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Bow Valley, Alberta school sports numbers better than pre-COVID-19

Interest levels are up for high school sports in Canmore and Banff

BOW VALLEY – Student athletes craved playing sports during the lousy COVID-19 pandemic so much so that now a boom period is occurring in Alberta.

Four years after the initial global shutdown, sports associations, high schools and clubs are seeing greater percentages of interest in youth athletes signing up for and trying out to be on sports teams than in the pre-pandemic era.

“The one thing that was very clear from the first full year back, which was the fall of 2021, was … the number of athletes coming out for teams was quite a lot higher than they had been before COVID,” said John Paton, executive director at the Alberta Schools’ Athletic Association (ASAA).

“It doesn’t necessarily mean that more kids were chosen because teams have limited numbers of athletes that they can choose, but certainly the interest was higher.”

Numbers for teams at the three high schools in Canmore and Banff are “well out of the COVID impact” to pre-pandemic levels. In some cases, sports like volleyball and basketball are skyrocketing in numbers that are even greater than before COVID-19.

Involved in both school and community sports in the Bow Valley, Darren Anderson said as soon as everything was able to be offered fully, “it was game on again.”

“It’s a little more booming now,” said Anderson, who’s president of the Rocky Mountain Volleyball Club, as well as the former sports director at Canmore Collegiate High School.

“We have a bigger student population this year, but it seems that there’s more interest throughout the school. 

“Community-wise, we expanded our programming with the Rocky Mountain Volleyball Club and have had wait lists for everything this year.”

Paton suggested one factor for increased interest and participation in sports is because students were missing the socialization through sports. 

Much of the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. For students in Alberta, many were forced out of the classroom and into a homeschooling structure, with most after-school and club sports being cancelled or limited due to provincial restrictions on facilities and personal interactions.

Remember social distancing?

The Sports Psychologist’s study, “My life sucks right now”: Student-Athletes’ Pandemic-Related Experiences With Screen Time and Mental Health, which examined Canadian student athletes’ pandemic-related experiences with screen time and mental health, had a recurring theme from the participants that the decrease in physical activity, like sports, and increase in study-at-home activities, like doom-scrolling on a cellphone, caused motivation levels to drop and higher amounts of anxiety to be present.

In another study, COVID-19 in Wisconsin High School Athletics, done by the University of Wisconsin of Medicine and Public Health, reported prior to 2020, less than 10 per cent of Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Association athletes reported moderate to severe symptoms of depression. The numbers rose to 33 per cent following the cancellation of school and spring sports in 2020.

“One can speculate on whether or not that interest was higher because kids were missing that social interaction that they can get through sports,” said Paton.

Across Alberta, the cycle of extracurricular sports was severely interrupted for nearly two years. The new normal at that time was returning to the game and then it being shut down due to provincial restrictions. Rinse and repeat.

Those involved in leadership roles in sports had reported adverse mental health effects, and, in interviews with the Outlook, local teenagers also provided feedback during the times on having a lack of motivation.

Local school divisions gave special exemptions for outdoor sports to travel outside the Bow Valley during COVID-19 and also arranged cohorts between schools, such as Bow Valley school leagues. However, the constant stop-and-go was “breaking the cycle of the sports culture”, especially at the small mountain town school in Banff.

“When it all fired back up, many of the kids were two years removed and didn’t even know what it was about to be a part of a school sports team and experience the roar of a gymnasium and the practices after school and the messing around in the gym at lunch, so it took a while to build that back,” said Ian Higginbottom, Banff Community High School’s athletic director.

After the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, things started returning to normal on the sports scale. With normalcy and set schedules, the interest and numbers are back and bigger than ever.

“Now it’s a matter of fine-tuning the wheel that we have, in terms of school culture and athletics and fostering and building a culture of inclusion has been my goal as an athletic director,” said Higginbottom. “The nature of being in a small school, the likelihood of us pumping out a bunch of championships is quite low and we got to take sport for what it’s really all about, which is having fun and being involved, and it’s just such an amazing piece of young peoples lives.”

Jordan Small

About the Author: Jordan Small

An award-winning reporter, Jordan Small has covered sports, the arts, and news in the Bow Valley since 2014. Originally from Barrie, Ont., Jordan has lived in Alberta since 2013.
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