Related Story: espnW/Aspen Institute Survey of Parents on Youth Sports Issues [PDF]

A national survey of parents showing broad and often deep concern about a variety of key issues involving youth and athletics – though no issue drew more unease than the coaches who work with children – was released today at the espnW: Women + Sports Summit in Dana Point, Calif. Other concerns included concussion risks, an over-emphasis on winning and the costs of participation.

More than 8 in 10 parents with children old enough to play sports say they are concerned about the “quality or behavior” of youth coaches, with 61 percent calling it a “big concern,” according to results from an ESPN Sports Poll of households conducted during the month of September.

At the request of espnW and the Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program, the ESPN Sports Poll added a series of questions to its monthly panel that were specifically aimed at capturing the thoughts of parents and guardians of children age 18 and under, given falling participation rates in team sports among children and teens.

Among the findings of the espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play Survey of Parents:

  • 7 in 10 parents have concerns about the both the time commitments and rising costs of participation in youth sports, which has seen escalation of private club teams and multi-season travel squads. Just over three in 10 parents call these issues a major concern.
  • Two-thirds of parents say there’s “too much emphasis on winning over having fun,” with mothers and fathers sharing roughly equal concern.
  • More than 87 percent of parents worry about the risk of injury, with concussion cited as the injury of most concern. A quarter of all parents have considered keeping their children from playing a sport due to fears about head injuries.
  • By far, football is the sport that parents most worry about when it comes to concussion. Soccer is a distant second.

“There is a realization by parents that we have a significant problem on our hands,” said Matthew Geschke, executive director of the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation USA, which funds community sport programs. “I think they understand now that the trajectory we’re on is detrimental to their kids. They think these programs are expensive, they don’t think there’s any good coaching, they don’t see kids having enough fun, and they think they’re going to get hurt.”

The survey shows that mothers are overall more concerned about the state of youth sports than fathers, in most categories. The only feature that fathers have more concern about is youth coaching, and it’s significant – with 85.2 percent registering some level of dissatisfaction.

“Parents need to demand better training of coaches, and they need to demand it of themselves,” Geschke said. “If they’re going to sign up to be volunteer coaches, they need to know what that word means.”

The survey was requested as a means of informing an Aspen Institute Project Play roundtable discussion on how to bring the voice of mothers into the decisions made within youth sports programs. Project Play is an initiative of the Sports & Society Program, a thought leadership exercise designed to identify ideas that stakeholders can use to get and keep children active through sports. Participation in team sports among children ages 6-12 has declined from 44.5 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2013, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, which conducts an annual survey of households to measure sport participation trends. Football has been beset with concerns related to concussions, but basketball, baseball and soccer, among other sports, have also seen double-digit declines in participation. Lacrosse and hockey have bucked the trend.

Mothers are more concerned about head injuries than fathers, according to the espnW/Aspen Institute Project Play survey. But 4 out of 10 fathers also identified it as their primary concern, higher than any other injury. The topic of concussion has been in the national conversation for several years, but has been magnified in the past week with the death of three high school football players – in Alabama, North Carolina and New York – possible due to football causes.

“Concussion is the injury du jour but it’s been a 10-year process of coming to consciousness about the risks,” said Anita DeFrantz, president of the LA84 Foundation, which funds youth sports programs in Southern California. “There’s this fear that parents have, and sometimes coaches do stupid things (in not mitigating concussion risks).”

In an effort to promote flag football as an alternative, the LA84 Foundation this year stopped funding youth football programs that sponsor tackle football for children before age nine. Of the 30 applications the foundation received, 20 programs were eliminated from consideration because of that grant criteria.

The overall sample of the ESPN Sports Poll was 1,511 Americans drawn by random sample, with data weighted by age, gender, race and income to match the overall characteristics of Americans 12 and older. From that sample, 21.3 percent were parents or guardians of children under 18 living in their homes (a total of 322 people with a general margin of error of 5.46%).

The survey shows that parents continue to see youth sports as a valuable institution, with more than 8 in 10 saying they still allow their child to join a team. But to Geschke, the results serve as a warning shot that further participation declines lay ahead if issues, including rising costs, are not addressed. Nearly 3 in 4 mothers expressed concern about costs.

“I don’t think the fathers are as worried about that because they’re not holding the purchasing power to the checkbooks,” Geschke said. “If you lose the mothers on that one, we’re done.”

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