The key to having a successful NFL season during the pandemic might just read like a Whitney Houston song: “I believe the children are our future. Teach them well and let them lead the way.”
At least that is what Dr. Jen Welter believes.
“You can really picture them being movers and part of the solution if they are educated to be,” explained Welter, a former professional football player and the first female coach in the NFL. “We are talking at kids; we are not talking to them. And we are not enlisting their help in being part of the solution. And kids like to help.”
Welter, who has a doctorate degree in Psychology and a Master’s in Sport Psychology, did something at the very beginning of the pandemic that not many people stopped to consider – she found a way to include kids in the COVID-19 conversation.
She created the children’s book series, “Critter Fitter,” after several conversations with friends and their children about what was going on in the world and what it meant for their families. Children seemed to understand the pandemic in an abstract way, but many struggled to grasp the why behind not being able to hug their friends or travel to their usual places and engage in their normal activities.
“The danger is that kids are all of our Achilles heel – this little, cute kid comes up to me and wants to hug me I’m not going to tell them to get away from me because they have germs,” said Welter. “Our humanity kicks in and we want to hug them back.”
According to the CDC, it is unclear whether children are as susceptible to infection compared with adults and whether they can transmit the virus as effectively as adults. Recent evidence suggests that children likely have the same or higher viral loads in their nasopharynx compared with adults and that children can spread the virus effectively in households and camp settings.
But explaining things like masks and social distancing to a young child is not as easy as saying “because I said so!”
So, Welter broke it down for the little ones on their level.
“I always created characters and stories to work with kids – that’s where Gridiron Girl actually came from,” explained Welter. “My superhero self is Gridiron Girl and one of her superpowers is when she gets hit and she gets back up, she gets stronger. Animals are also good - they free us from some of the psychological limits that we have. So, whether you are talking about a best version of self, or a way to talk about personality traits, you can use animals because animals and critters can move in a way that’s not bound by some of the preconceived notions that we have.”
What started out as a book idea to help kids stay fit during the pandemic – ‘using critters to get kids fitter’ – evolved into a way to communicate the problems the world was facing to kids and involve them in the solution.
“We came up with the books by talking to kids – we talked about what’s going on, what they are thinking about, we really took to heart what the kids picked up on and the things that are important to them,” expressed Welter. “The brilliance of the art is that all the drawings are simple and approachable because we wanted the kids to be able to literally draw themselves in the story.”
But what does this have to do with football specifically? Welter believes that by engaging children in the process on their level, professional sports can proceed more safely. She believes the bubble has been the most effective way to have a successful season, but with the NFL proceeding as is, getting families, particularly kids, on board with protocol is vital.
Welter explained that “if a kid goes to school, comes home, infects dad, dad goes and tackles somebody and infects somebody else - that’s why the kids are such a vital important part to kickstarting and reopening anything. They have to be proactive and positive parts of the solution. And it’s doable but they have to understand what’s going on and why they are doing it.”
Welter’s experience both on the gridiron and in the classroom make these the books the perfect blend of sports and science.
“Breaking things down, whether it’s to little tiny kids or really big kids on the football field, it’s not that different,” chuckled Welter.
Characters like Bizzy Bee and Ladybug guide kids through both the physical and emotional problems they are facing as a result of the pandemic. Whether it’s engaging in a new physical activity or drawing socially distant hearts for their friends, the Critter Fitter characters help kids identify and understand the things they are feeling and turn them into positive actions.
“The books go through all of the CDC guidelines as well as asymptomatic transmission, a tough topic,” said Welter. “We made it rhyme and made it approachable while reinforcing the same tenets. And at the end we put a call to action for the kids, which is obviously very important for the teachers or any of the parents or people working with the kids to give them ownership.”
With some kids back in school and the NFL season experiencing some COVID-related setbacks, taking every precaution is more important than ever for families involved with the league.
Welter’s books reinforce ways to protect and stop the spread of the virus at the most basic levels – saying things like “the virus can’t just walk down the street; it doesn’t have feet” to explain how the disease is transmitted from person to person. And teaching them about using masks and washing hands through the animal’s preventative actions – “critters don’t want to become carriers, so they wear masks as barriers.”
The NFL announced Tuesday that more than 400,000 tests have been administered to players and personnel between August 1 and October 10. And during that time, only 39 players and personnel were confirmed positive cases. But in the last week (October 4-10), 37,912 tests were administered to a total of 7,820 players and team personnel. There were eight new confirmed positive tests among players and seven new confirmed positives among other personnel.
The rescheduling started in Week 4 when the Titans, Patriots and Chiefs all had positive COVID-19 test results. Since then, 10 more games have been rescheduled or postponed. No games have been cancelled, yet. With things opening back up and new waves of the virus surging, Welter's books could prove to be part of the solution.
Welter believes that by attaching emotion to health precautions, kids will be more invested in the process. It really is just as simple as saying "wearing a mask means I love you." Which brings us right back to Whitney Houston and the greatest love of all. And how kids could help keep the coronavirus out of the NFL, if we teach them well.
Sports writer. Avid fan, former player, once-upon-a-time coach, reluctant referee. I do digital media things with my friends. I also jinx kickers. Bay Area born & raised.