According to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association, more than 21.5 million children between the ages of six and 17 play team sports 1. With such a large number of America’s youth involved in team sports, Pop Warner Little Scholars and DSM Nutritional Products conducted a new survey to uncover current trends in youth sports to better inform parents and coaches. The national survey results of more than 3,600 parents and coaches involved in Pop Warner youth sports were unveiled at an expert panel discussion in New York City. The findings reveal head injury prevention and the lack of balanced nutrition for young athletes are among top concerns of parents and coaches alike.

The survey is part of the Eat Smart, Play Safe program developed by Pop Warner Little Scholars and DSM Nutritional Products and explores the four dimensions of youth sports: 1) nutrition; 2) physical fitness and injury prevention; 3) social well-being and sportsmanship; and 4) cognitive development.


Nutrition: Young athletes still not getting enough of the right nutrients
The survey showed that while nutrition was cited as a top concern, parents and coaches may not be providing the optimal diet needed for active children.

When it comes to snacking, 71 percent of survey participants regularly provide fruit as the snack of choice for their kids, but on-the-go snacks are particularly popular. In fact, more than half of parents (56 percent) provided chips or crackers as a snack whereas a mere 17 percent regularly provide vegetables as a snack for their children.

According to the Pop Warner survey, only 39 percent of parents said they provide their athletes a daily vitamin or supplement to fill nutritional gaps. Knowing the average U.S. diet falls short of USDA’s MyPlate recommendations for three major food groups, vegetables, dairy and fruit 2, it is even more important to start children off on the path of good nutrition.

“The survey showed that parents and coaches ranked protein as the most important nutrient, when in fact most kids are already getting plenty of protein. Vitamins such as D and E, and omega-3 DHA ranked after protein even though these nutrients are vital for optimal health and wellness in general,” said Katherine Brooking, registered dietitian, co-founder of Appetite for Health. “The Eat Smart, Play Safe program educates parents about the importance of a well-rounded diet that includes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein and healthy fats for their young athletes. In addition, choosing fortified foods and beverages along with daily multiple-vitamin supplements can help nourish athletes as they continue to grow and develop.”

Physical fitness and injury prevention: Safety is the No. 1 concern
According to the survey, the biggest youth sports injury concerns of Pop Warner coaches and parents relate to head injuries, dehydration, back injury and ankle sprain or strain. The good news is, experts agree that putting a focus on safety regulations and proper equipment can help protect young athletes from injuries.

Pop Warner takes injury prevention seriously and has implemented several policies to ensure young athletes and coaches are educated when it comes to playing safe. It was the first youth sports organization to implement a dedicated concussion rule and to limit contact in practices. In addition, Pop Warner provides coaching clinics to teach proper techniques and risk management training. For example, football players are matched by age and weight and there are strict mandatory equipment requirements to ensure they are playing safely. And starting in 2014, Pop Warner mandated that all coaches and staff on a cheer or dance team must take and pass Youth Cheer and Dance Alliance (YCADA) Online Coaching Education.

Social well-being and sportsmanship: Shaping tomorrow’s leaders
Seventy-four percent of parents and coaches cited their kids making new friends as a benefit to participating in Pop Warner activities. In addition, good sportsmanship (73 percent) and leadership skills (42 percent) were listed as benefits gained by children active in Pop Warner programs.

“We are proud of the many lifelong lessons our athletes learn while playing football, cheering and dancing in Pop Warner, and we’re grateful that with the help of DSM Nutritional Products, we’re able to equip our members nationwide with important health and nutrition information that educates them about proper nutrition to keep them fueled on the field and nourished when hitting the books,” said Jon Butler, executive director, Pop Warner Little Scholars. “The health and safety of our young athletes is always our No. 1 priority.”

Cognitive development: Sports involvement = engaged kids
The Pop Warner survey highlights several mental and social benefits of youth sports. According to the parents and coaches surveyed, playing sports gives the young athletes a boost in: alertness and excitement (50 percent), mental engagement and talkativeness (29 percent), focus in school (27 percent) and activity in other extracurriculars (18 percent).