by Beau Dure

The Aspen Institute released its annual State of Play report this week and found that a lot of sports had rebounded to pre-pandemic numbers. Many kids have joined the pickleball craze, and there’s an upsurge in bass fishing for some reason, but kids have also returned to the soccer fields.

“Soccer, the third-most popular team sport for kids, rebounded with a 20% increase in 2021 for kids 6-12 and returned to pre-pandemic levels,” the report says. Great.

The bad news: This is still a big drop from 2008. The report cites the familiar concerns: high costs, sport specialization, and the emphasis on intensive travel soccer experiences instead of just getting out and playing.

Another reason for the drop isn’t really a concern for us as concerned parents, teachers and coaches. Birth rates have been declining for more than a decade. That might be bad news for the soccer-industrial complex’s bottom line down the road, but the rest of us are more concerned about making sure there are no barriers to entry keeping kids from enjoying our sports. In other words, we’re concerned about good experiences for the kids who are born, not about kids who don’t exist. Besides, it’s a bit beyond the scope of a soccer club to make sure parents are procreating.

But the rest of the numbers are healthy. Literally. By the report’s calculations, the average school-age person spent 13.6 hours a week on sports pre-pandemic. In 2020, at the height of the first COVID wave, that dropped to 7.2. In September 2022, it’s up to 16.6. (No word on whether that includes the time spent by football players at my local high school who were watching game film in class while I was trying to redirect them to work on essays for their English teachers.)

And one point of emphasis among any good sports organization, outreach to lower-income families, is paying off: “In a hopeful sign, more children ages 6-12 living in homes earning less than $25,000 regularly played team sports, according to [Sports & Fitness Industry Association] data. The rate increased to 24% in 2021, marking the third straight year this number improved, even during the pandemic.”

Soccer has bounced back better than most sports. It’s still nowhere near the 2008 figures, when 10.4% of kids aged 6-12 played regularly, but it’s up from 6.2% in 2020 to 7.4% in 2021, a 19.5% increase. In contrast, lacrosse (down 23.7%) and tackle football (down 17.9%) plummeted.

The big battleground, though, will be on tennis courts. Tennis added 679,000 players age 6-17 from 2019 to 2021, but they’re starting to face competition for court time from the exploding sport of pickleball, which went up 83% over the same time period. Enterprising futsal players have managed to take advantage of vacant tennis courts in recent years, but that might be more of a challenge today.

One other aspect of the report deserves mention, and it’s a thorny one: “Coaches are being asked to do more, with many youth suffering from mental health challenges enhanced by the pandemic. But as coaches told us, they need help addressing these issues with players. Very few coaches feel confident identifying challenges with players’ mental health and linking them to the right resources.”

It’s worth remembering that the Aspen Institute isn’t tracking these numbers for some sort of economic goal or to encourage youth sports clubs to build talent pools for pro and college teams. The goal is identifying and then eliminating barriers to public health and happiness.

Kids are already dealing with the pressure of seeing economic forces causing a lot of uncertainty for Millennials and Gen Z, and they’re signing up for Advanced Placement courses by the half-dozen to get a foothold into elite education and the new economy. Coaches are dealing with a generation that will be forever marked by a traumatic time of isolation. U.S. Soccer, in addition to its strides in addressing a variety of physical health issues, in 2021 added a Mental Health Awareness section to its Recognize to Recover Player Health and Safety Program. While no one would want the federation to play doctor, perhaps coaching license courses could play up U.S. Soccer’s compilation of mental health resources.

Ideally, youth sports would be an escape from all that pressure and a way to forge a sense of belonging. Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, youth soccer became one of the pathways to getting that prized acceptance to a good college. It’s not just about a scholarship — parents are savvier than a lot of people think, and they’ve seen that even the “preferred walk-ons” can get into the door at elite schools, taken to the extreme in the Operation Varsity Blues case.

Today, we also have more youth soccer at a pre-professional level, with teenagers competing to land pro contracts and using college as the fallback option. At this level, the federation and elite clubs might need to get more heavily involved with mental health. There’s a reason sports psychology is big business at the top levels of any sport. These resources need to reach down to help kids, who are already dealing with the usual aspects of growing up, deal with any added pressure.

At lower levels, the task should be simpler. We need to be sure sports are offering an escape from, not an addition to, the challenges kids face through adolescence. Only then can we have healthy sports — and healthy children.