Airdrie’s high school-aged football players were dealt another disappointing blow in recent weeks, when they learned the 2021 spring football season would be cancelled as a result of pandemic-related restrictions.
While members of the Airdrie Raiders midget team were allowed to practise in small groups throughout the months of March and April, the Calgary Spring Football Association (CSFA) announced in late April the 2021 CSFA season would not go ahead. The Alberta government’s May 4 announcement of additional restrictions on outdoor group activities was then the final nail in the coffin for the team’s season, as it meant all football activities would be put on hiatus for the time being.
“We started with high hopes in March that we were going to be able to play games,” said Steve Kemp, the Raiders’ head coach. “As things progressed and the situation deteriorated, it became obvious [we wouldn’t].”
The Raiders are comprised of U17-aged football players from Airdrie, Cochrane and surrounding communities. The team competes in a Calgary-based league during the spring months, with games held at Shouldice Athletic Park or McMahon Stadium.
2021 marks the second spring season in a row the Raiders did not get to compete on the gridiron. According to Kemp, the repeated cancellations of team-based sports and activities over the last 14 months have taken their toll on the players.
“There are all kinds of stressers from different angles,” he said. “Football was an outlet for them and their competitive sides, but it was also a mental health [benefit] – getting out, being active and seeing their friends.
“We did see some of our athletes were not as mentally strong as they had been in the past. When bad news came about, they weren’t quite as equipped to deal with it. They’re COVID-fatigued, mentally fatigued and worn out from it.”
To help offset the negative psychological impacts, Kemp said the coaches focused on supporting the players’ mental health more so than usual this year. He said the team brought in guest speakers to talk to the players over Zoom about the importance of mental health and how to deal with the stress and repeated disappointments caused by the pandemic.
“I think we handled it well, but it was a new challenge for us,” he said. “We deal with mental health on a regular basis within our team and it’s something we check in with, but this year, there was more of a focus on it and it was pushed to the forefront.”
Compounding the players’ disappointment of another missed season, according to Kemp, is the loss of opportunities to attract scouts from higher-level programs. He said the spring season would typically provide Airdrie players the opportunity to be scouted by university and junior football coaches.
With two lost seasons in a row, he noted players are now relying on game footage from as far back as 2019 to promote their talents.
“We have a number of kids who are trying to move onto the next level of junior or university football,” he said. “They’re trying to get some prep, skill development and stay in shape so they’re ready to go for tryouts. We were able to provide that for a little while, but we couldn’t get them everything they needed. The fortunate thing is that everyone is in the same boat, but those kids moving on are going to be at a disadvantage when they go for tryouts.”
As the team trained in groups throughout the end of March and most of April, Kemp claimed there were no confirmed transmissions of COVID-19 among the players or coaching staff throughout those five weeks – despite a record number of registered players this season, and a number of outbreaks of the virus in local high schools.
“That was a testament to our athletes and coaches following the rules, being safe and doing everything possible,” he said.