According to the Aspen Institute’s youth sports parent survey, part of the nonprofit’s State of Play 2022 report, the number of hours kids played sports is back to pre-pandemic levels.

The survey, taken in September and conducted in partnership with Utah State University, Louisiana Tech University and TeamSnap, found that kids ages 5 to 18 spend 16.6 hours playing sports each week, higher than the 13.3 hours pre-pandemic. Hours playing sports each week among that age group had decreased to 7.2 hours in June 2020 during the pandemic and had recovered to 11.3 hours by September 2021.

The rebound was driven by increased competition, up 32 percent from last year and back to a pre-pandemic total of 3.7 hours per week. Practice time, with and without the team, increased to 8.1 hours per week from 3.3 hours a year ago.

Virtual play was the only activity with a lower participation rate than in 2021, down to 1.4 hours per week from 1.7 hours, as in-school gym class returned.

Community-Based Sports Programming Recovering
The Institute’s annual study showed that more kids returned to community-based sports, with more than half (58 percent) of kids who participated in sports played their primary sport through community-based programming in Fall 2022, an increase from 38 percent in Fall 2021.

The Aspen Institute reported, “Foundations, corporations and other entities have subsidized local, low-cost forms of play and support from the federal government’s American Rescue Plan Act has helped in places, allowing providers to reduce the fees they charge families. But it’s a shaky foundation.”

The data found that 3 of 10 youth sports parents said their kid’s community sports program had closed, merged with another organization, or exists with less capacity compared to 2021, an improvement from 4 of 10 parents who said the same in Fall 2021. However, the Institute said continued closings continue to highlight community programs’ pressures as families took their time and money to support travel leagues. “The cycle perpetuates itself. If parents believe community sports are not a quality experience, many spend more time and money than they wish through private, often tryout-based club programs that require travel,” said the Institute.

The rate of youth playing travel sports doubled in 2022 to 29 percent, indicating parents are looking for “a more intense, often year-round experience” for their kids in a specialized sport.

Probing how to revitalize in-town leagues, travel sports parents in the survey rated more play time (74 percent), more inclusive environment (67 percent) and lower costs (65 percent) as reasons to encourage prioritizing community sports over travel leagues.

Kids Losing Interest In Sports
Among the continued concerns in the study was how time away from organized sports during the pandemic could have impacted kids’ long-term interest in playing sports.

The survey showed 27 percent of parent respondents cited their kid’s lack of interest in sports as a barrier to returning to play, about equal to the 28 percent cited in its Fall 2021 survey. However, respondents were less hopeful in the early stages of the pandemic when 18 percent and 19 percent of youth sports parents in surveys taken in May and June of 2020, respectively, saw their kid’s lack of interest in sports as a barrier to return to play.

Aspen Institute said, “Interestingly, 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. It’s not clear how many children stopped playing sports specifically because they lost interest.”

Only 26 percent of youth sports parents in the Institute’s Fall 2022 survey saw their kid getting side from COVID as a barrier to playing sports, down from 50 percent in Fall 2021.

U.S. Receives Low Grade For Physical Activity Among Kids
Aspen Institute’s study noted that The Physical Activity Alliance’s latest U.S. Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth showed another year of “C” and “D” grades. The body mass index for U.S. kids during the first nine months of the pandemic approximately doubled compared to its pre-pandemic data due to a decrease in moderate-to-vigorous physical activity, light physical activity during the pandemic, and an increase in sedentary time compared to previous years.

The U.S. grade of a “C” for organized sports participation, while an improvement from past studies, was lower than in 16 other countries. Only Denmark measured an “A.” The U.S. received a “D-” for physical activity in schools and ranked 51 out of 52 countries, despite playgrounds, gyms and fields of play.

Coaches Encouraged To Offer Mental Support
Coaches are being asked to do more because the survey showed “youth [are] suffering from mental health challenges enhanced by the pandemic.”

According to a National Coach Survey of more than 10,000 coaches conducted in partnership with The Ohio State University LiFEsports Initiative, the Aspen Institute, Susan Crown Exchange, and Nike, only 18 percent of coaches reported feeling highly confident in their ability to link athletes to mental health resources. Few coaches felt confident in identifying off-field stressors for athletes (19 percent) and referring athletes to support (18 percent). Beyond sports skills and strategy, coaches expressed interest in more training on relationship building (70 percent), performance anxiety (70 percent), motivational techniques (70 percent), leadership development (69 percent), team dynamics (67 percent), and mental health (67 percent).

The National Coach Survey, a new addition to this year’s State of Play 2022 report, comes as youth sports parents surveyed expressing more trust in their kid’s coach than national, state and community leaders and their kid’s school, teachers and peers to develop life skills, foster belonging, create safe environments to play, help kids identify and cope with off-field stressors, and earn kids a college scholarship.

The National Coach Survey found that one-third of coaches reported parents criticized their coaching, and half said parents criticized their kids’ teammates or opposing players.

Other findings in the State of Play 2022 report include:

  • In the first year of the pandemic, when physical activity was impacted, some kids rode bikes, walked and found ways to play outside during free time. In Spring 2021, when the COVID vaccine became widely available, 55 percent of kids who played sports played their primary sport through free play and more structured settings. By Fall 2022, free play had decreased to 41 percent. In Fall 2022, children spent 3.4 hours weekly on free play, down 6 percent from before the pandemic.
  • Participation in tackle football continued to decline while more kids, especially girls, played flag football. Cycling lost participants over the past year as organized sports returned but remains up from its pre-pandemic levels. In high schools, martial arts, bocce and bass fishing saw major upticks, as did unified sports (teams comprised of students with and without intellectual disabilities) in softball, cheer and basketball.
  • The average family paid $883 annually in one child’s primary sport, down 6 percent from pre-pandemic. Travel costs to play sports increased 19 percent in Fall 2022 compared to before COVID, while the amount spent on individual lessons declined 23 percent. Wealthier parents spent about four times more than low-income families.
  • Inflation remains a concern around youth sports spending. One in three parents in the study, whose sports expenses increased since 2021, cited inflation as the number one reason. Other factors included buying more or better equipment, electing for more frequent training, paying for more or better coaching, and costs associated with increased frequent travel.