Prevent Sports Burnout in Young Athletes

Just a generation ago burn out from youth sports was relatively unheard of. Professional athletes occasionally retired early because of it, but among athletes age 10-14, sports burn out wasn’t even part of the vernacular.

Flash forward to today’s young athletes who specialize early and fill their schedules with never ending year-round elite games, practices, and specialized training sessions to the point where they’re spending as much if not more time training than some professional athletes.

Sports psychologists define burnout as “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment.” Studies have shown that youth athletes who specialize in a single sport before the age of 16 suffer more overuse injuries, more emotional burnout, and spend less time with their families. Paradoxically, playing a sport more intensely to improve skills and performance often results in the child quitting the sport completely.

Athletes experience burnout when the constant pressure to win and perform becomes overwhelming and stressful. There is also the feeling that he/she is investing a lot of time and energy into training, but not reaping the rewards as a participant or enjoying playing. Some athletes even feel powerless—as if their coach and the sport itself controls their lives. When the costs begin to outweigh the benefits, the need to assume control causes burnout.

What are the Symptoms of Sport Burnout?

There are several physical, behavioral, and psychological markers and symptoms you can look for. Physical signs include tension, fatigue, irritability, decreased energy level, problems sleeping, increased occurrence of illness, inconsistent performance, and exhaustion. Behavioral indicators of burnout are depression, feeling helplessness, anger, feelings of disappointment, and feeling that one’s contribution to the team is insignificant. However, it should be noted that some of the symptoms, like depression, can occur independently of burnout.

So, how do you prevent your child from burning out?

  • Exposure Them to Multiple Activities: Experts suggest exposing children to as many activities as possible and allowing them to pursue what they like. The rule of thumb is that if they are spending more hours a week playing a sport than their age, they are overdoing it.
  • Take a Break: Taking a break is important. Seasons blend together and tournament play is unending. Make sure your child takes a physical and psychological break. When soccer ends in late fall, hang up your cleats and pick up a basketball for a couple months or hit the pool for some swimming. Cross-training is a great way to help core muscle development and can help prevent burn out. Or, take a complete break from any sport. Take up an instrument or enroll in a yoga or art class.
  • Learn relaxation or stress management techniques.
  • Let your child assume control. Allow your child to be the decision maker as to what sports he/she plays and his/her level of intensity/competition. Playing for a less competitive team with fewer practices and less of a commitment could renew your child’s love for the sport and take off the pressure.

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