Aspen Institute Report Reveals Post-Pandemic Shift in the State of Youth Sports

As the influence of the COVID-19 pandemic wanes, the state of youth sports for children and teens has changed. Parents and policymakers have gained appreciation for the physical and mental health benefits of staying active, a change that brings new opportunities and challenges to help children be physically active.

“State of Play 2022,” a new report by the Aspen Institute, analyzes national trends in the delivery of sport activities for youth ages 6 to 18. On one hand, young people are signaling they want sports delivered in a different way than in the past—and will check out if they don’t get it. On the other, the youth sports industry has come roaring back, ably serving the needs of families with means.

The annual report from the Aspen Institute’s Project Play initiative identified the latest youth sports trends related to participation, physical and mental health, coaching and costs to play. Among the findings:

  • The number of youth sports parents (27%) who said their child has lost interest in playing sports remained high as a barrier to participate. The more money parents have, the less interest their child has in sports, suggesting that wealthier children’s experiences weren’t optimal even before the shutdown.
  • The average family paid $883 annually in one child’s primary sport. That’s down 6% from pre-pandemic costs. The wealthiest families spent about four times more on their child’s sport than the poorest families. Among parents whose sports costs increased in 2022, they cited inflation as the No. 1 reason why.
  • Community-based sports programming is returning. More than half (58%) of children playing sports do so through community programs (vs. 38% in 2021). Still, three of 10 community programs either closed, merged or existed with less capacity compared to last year.
  • Travel sports programs surged back. The youth sports tourism industry has rebounded well, underwritten by parents who want or feel compelled to provide their child with a more intense, often year-round experience. What might prioritize travel sports parents to place their child in local leagues? They cited more playing time, more inclusive environments, and lower costs to play.
  • Coaches are asked to do more, with many youth suffering from mental health challenges enhanced by the pandemic. But coaches said they need help since very few feel confident identifying challenges with players’ mental health and linking them to the right resources.
  • Parents significantly trust their child’s coaches. Youth sports parents expressed more trust in coaches than their teachers and peers to develop life skills, foster a sense of belonging, create safe environments to play, and cope with off-the-field stressors. Meanwhile, coaches shared frustration about parents’ behavior.
  • Tennis and pickleball emerged as popular sports. Tennis added 679,000 youth ages 6 to 17 between 2019 and 2021 who regularly played the sport. Pickleball participation grew by 83%, adding 462,000 youth ages 6 to 17 who played it at least once during that period. Meanwhile, among kids 6 to 12, regular tackle football participation declined 29% from 2016 to 2021 while flag football increased 15%.

“State of Play 2022” was informed by many sources including: Sports & Fitness Industry Association participation data from 2021 (the most recent year available); youth sports parent survey results from Fall 2022 through research by Utah State University’s Families in Sports Lab and Louisiana Tech University’s Minds in Motion Laboratory in partnership with the Aspen Institute and TeamSnap; and the National Coach Survey, an unprecedented 2022 study of youth sports coaches through research by The Ohio State University LiFEsports Initiative in partnership with the Aspen Institute, Susan Crown Exchange, and Nike.

The National Coach Survey, a new addition to this year’s State of Play 2022 report, is a first-of-its-kind analysis of coaching behaviors, experiences and needs in the United States. The study surveyed more than 10,000 youth sports coaches from every state and in various sports and settings. Future results and analysis will continue to be published in 2023.

“State of Play 2022” also includes the Project Play Impact Report, highlighting important contributions the Aspen Institute and its partners made over the past year to help build healthy communities through sports. =

For more information, visit