An Introduction to Avoiding Youth Sports Burnout
Youth sports continue to grow with every passing year. More parents are signing up their children to play sports, and as participation is continuously on the rise, so too, is the competition.
Playing youth sports has clear positives, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014*, “Youth sport participation offers many benefits including the development of self-esteem, peer socialisation and general fitness,” the article reads. Not only that, but a survey of 75 Fortune 500 companies revealed that 95 percent of executives, ranking as the executive vice president or higher– played sports in high school.
While these positives are widely accepted and mostly indisputable, the growing prevalence of youth sports has also given rise to a larger focus on competition.
“It is estimated that roughly 70% of children quit organized sports by the time they are 13 years old,”
A Rising Current
“Pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Ron J. Tucker, who’s done a plethora of ACL knee surgeries on young athletes, says the paradigm has changed from kids growing up “playing” sports to becoming professionalized athletes,” reads a Huffington Post article by Ken Reed about youth sports injuries.
As the British Journal of Sports Medicine paper puts it, “An emphasis on competitive success, often driven by goals of elite-level travel team selection, collegiate scholarships, Olympic and National team membership and even professional contracts, has seemingly become widespread.”
This competition can have benefits, like young athletes learning how to handle tough and adverse situations, and is obviously important for athletic development and future success. However, there has been some drawbacks to this increase in intense youth sports competition.
For this series of articles, we will focus on a condition that is known as “burnout”, which was defined by the BJSM paper as “Part of a spectrum of conditions that includes overreaching and overtraining. It has been defined to occur as a result of chronic stress that causes a young athlete to cease participation in a previously enjoyable activity.”
In this introductory article, we will look into how to recognize the symptoms of burnout, and what can be done to help your child if they are starting to feel the pressures of modern-day youth sports.
What good is youth-sports if young people get burnt-out from playing them? “It is estimated that roughly 70% of children quit organized sports by the time they are 13 years old,” Dr. David Geier says in a blog post he wrote about youth sport burnout.
“…overtraining can lead to burnout, which may have a detrimental effect on the child participating in sports as a lifelong healthy activity…”
Identifying the Risk Factors
So, what are some of the risk-factors that drive young athletes to burnout? According to an article from the Children’s Hospital Colorado , there are a couple of common traits that can lead to an athlete burning out.
These characteristics include things like specializing in or focusing on one sport from a young age. While specializing, if that athlete is focusing on one sport, playing for multiple teams in the same season, or the same sport for multiple seasons, these are all common factors you see amongst athletes who burnout.
Specialization is just one of the common threads amongst some burnouts, and is something we will discuss on this blog in the future, but other burnout risk factors include: year round sports participation with no “offseason” to relax and recoup, having a “type-A” personality that will drive ambitious, determined, driven, and intense behavior almost to a breaking point, children with lower self-esteem and high anxiety levels are also at risk, and lastly, and possibly most importantly: parents or coaching pressures to train and compete at high levels.
A clinical report from 2007, written by Joel S. Brenner and the Council of Sports Medicine and Fitness, boils down the burnout process in a much simpler form.
“As more children are becoming involved in organized and recreational athletics, the incidence of overuse injuries is increasing. Many children are participating in sports year-round and sometimes on multiple teams simultaneously,” the report reads. “This overtraining can lead to burnout, which may have a detrimental effect on the child participating in sports as a lifelong healthy activity… One contributing factor to overtraining may be parental pressure to compete and succeed.”
There are ways to ease the stress of burnout, as well as ways to combat it once it appears it is setting in.
Knowing the Signs
With all of that being said, the real question is– how can we identify young athletes who are on the road to burnout? According to Dr. Geier, there are a few categories in which changes caused by burnout will become apparent in young athletes. Changes in sports performance, attitude and emotional make-up, and overall health are the major factors to look out for.
Some sports performance related changes you may notice when observing a child who is potentially on the verge of burning out may be inconsistency, or performances becoming routinely below the normal level of the athlete. There is also the tendency to become combative with coaches and teammates, derived from the stress they are under. This stress can also lead to a noticeable lack of enjoyment or motivation put towards their sport.
As far as emotional and attitudinal changes, you may observe decreased energy and even exhaustion, as well as common traits like depression, anger, irritability, and seclusion. A burnt-out athlete may also display a lack of concentration and out of the ordinary hunger patterns.
Finally, the health changes you may notice, according to Dr. Geier,include frequent complaints of vague and non-specific muscle or joint pain, slow recovery time from injuries that normally heal quickly, and getting sick more often.
All of these changes are warning signs that your child may be on the verge of burnout, and may be ready to call it quits on sports altogether. There are ways to ease the stress of burnout, as well as ways to combat it once it appears it is setting in.
Managing and Preventing Burnout
In Joel S. Brenner’s clinical report he observes that, “Prevention of burnout should be addressed by encouraging the athlete to become well rounded and well versed in a variety of activities rather than one particular sport.”
Brenner suggests these guidelines when trying to limit or reduce the feelings of burnout in young athletes:
- Keep workouts interesting, with age-appropriate games and training, to keep practice fun.
- Take time off from organized or structured sports participation one or two days per week to allow the body to rest or participate in other activities.
- Permit longer scheduled breaks from training and competition every two to three months while focusing on other activities and cross-training to prevent loss of skill or level of conditioning.
There are also these tips from the Children’s Hospital Colorado on how to avoid and treat burnout:
- Periodization: a process of varying the training stimulus to promote long term fitness gains and avoid overtraining. The year as a whole is taken into consideration and divided up into phases. In each phase, the workout emphasizes a specific type of training. Periodization can also be placed in the span of a single week.
- Cross-training by varying workouts to focus on conditioning, weight lifting, strength training, flexibility, or core strengthening.
- Emphasis on sports as tools for fun, sportsmanship, fitness, skill acquisition, safety, or education.
These are all general facts about athlete burnout, a problem facing more and more young athletes as the competition in youth sports continues to grow as much as the number of children participating in them does.
AthleteTypes future posts about burnout will evaluate how individual athlete types may respond to burnout, and more specific activities and exercises that can help treat or prevent this problem.
“As a society, we need to start focusing more on sports as a vehicle to build teamwork and leadership abilities, improve sports skills, enhance fitness and health, gain experiences that teach lifetime lessons and shape values, develop friendships — some for a lifetime — and have fun (what kids want most from sports participation), and less — much less — on scholarships, pro contracts and gold medals,” says Ken Reed, in his piece for the Huffington Post.
More on Burnout
Obviously, every child is different, and each athlete type will display their symptoms of burnout in their own unique ways. In upcoming posts, we will have a series of eight articles describing unique ways in which each individual athlete type can work towards reducing stress they may be feeling from athletic burnout. There will be tips in order to spot and treat burnout in the young athletes in your life.
* DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner JS, et al Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine Br J Sports Med 2014;48:287-288.