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Pickleball is a hit with kids, but interest in team sports drops

The Aspen Institute’s new ‘State of Play 2022’ report shows positives but also disappointing trends in youth sports.

Fifteen-year-old Anna Leigh Waters plays in a September women's pro singles match against Anna Bright during a Professional Pickleball Association tournament in Mason, Ohio. (Arden S. Barnes for The Washington Post)

The Aspen Institute recently issued its annual report on kids’ sports called “State of Play 2022.” The Aspen Institute is an organization that studies lots of important issues, including kids’ sports.

The report is full of interesting facts and trends that have occurred in the games kids play. So let’s take a look.

Here are the five favorite competitive sports among kids ages 6 to 12:

1. Basketball

2. Baseball

3. Soccer

4. Tennis

5. Football, if you combine tackle and flag.

(Bike riding is still kids’ favorite activity.)

The big surprise on the list is tennis. There was a 29 percent growth of kids who played tennis on a regular basis between 2019 and 2021.

It makes sense that kids might want to play tennis during the coronavirus pandemic. The sport is a great workout, and you don’t get close to your opponent during a match.

Another racket game that grew like wild is pickleball. The sport with the funny name is popular with grandparents, but kids like to play, too. Pickleball grew an amazing 83 percent from 2019 to 2021, attracting almost a half-million regular players among people ages 6 to 17.

One reason for pickleball’s popularity among young people is that a big star in professional pickleball is a teenager: 15-year-old Anna Leigh Waters.

Anna Leigh Waters and her mom picked up pickleball because of a hurricane

One sport that has fallen in popularity is tackle football. Participation in the rough-and-tumble sport among kids ages 6 to 12 has gone down 29 percent from 2016 to 2021. Clearly, parents are worried about kids getting their bodies — including their brains — injured.

That doesn’t mean kids aren’t playing football. Participation in flag football — a gentler game in which players “tackle” other players by taking a flag from their belt — grew 15 percent during the same period. Now more kids play flag football than tackle football.

The report revealed some other trends in the past few years. Some good and some not so good.

A good trend is that more parents and their kids are staying closer to home to play sports. More than half of kids (58 percent) have played their primary sport in a community-based program this fall (up from 38 percent last fall). That’s great, because community-based teams are less-expensive than travel teams and let more kids play.

Unfortunately, some kids seem to have lost interest in playing sports during the pandemic. Team sports participation is down. Only 37 percent of kids ages 6 to 12 played sports on a regular basis in 2021. That’s way down from 2008, when 45 percent of kids played sports.

But even worse is that 27 percent of parents report that their kids’ lack of interest in sports is what is keeping them from playing.

Hopefully that will change in 2023, and more kids will be on the courts and fewer on the couch.