Most of us are familiar with feeling burned out. What you might not know is that young athletes are capable of getting burned out, too. Burnout is defined by sport psychologists as “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment” (1). This is an important issue in youth sports because it is thought to contribute to dropping out of sports altogether. Given the tremendous benefits that accompany exercise and sport participation, the athlete who gives up sport participation is also giving up the important health benefits. Even at a young age, children are developing lifestyle patterns that will carry over into adulthood. Active youth are much more likely to be active adults. But if we allow our youth to become burned out of sports, this may become be a barrier to leading a healthy lifestyle as an adult.
As young athletes enter middle school and high school, the rate at which they dropout from sports increases yearly. Burnout can be avoided. It is important that cases of dropping out related to burnout be corrected so that as many youth as possible will continue their involvement in sports. In this section, we present some of the reasons that might contribute to burnout in young athletes. We also include signs to look for to help you detect whether or not your young athlete might be experiencing burnout. Finally, you can find some helpful suggestions on how to cope with burnout.
There are three main theories about how athletes become burned out. One possible explanation has to do with excessive stress and pressure (1). Constant pressure to win, train and perform could lead to mental and physical exhaustion and stress, leading to burnout. A second possible cause is the feeling of entrapment (1). The athlete who experiences feelings of entrapment has invested a lot of time and energy into the sport but does not experience any rewards from participation or enjoyment in the sport. The costs begin to outweigh the benefits, and they will eventually burnout and drop out. A final theory to explain burnout involves the issue of empowerment (1). Sociologist Jay Coakley proposed the idea that the structure of organized, competitive youth sports becomes controlling. It controls the identity of participants and controls their lives, leaving them feeling disempowered. Coakley theorizes that a desire for personal control over one’s life is a possible cause of burnout in youth sports.
If your child participates in sports at a high level, and especially if he or she specializes in one sport, he or she might be at risk of burning out. There are several physical, behavioral, and psychological sings and symptoms that you can look for to help you identify athlete burnout so that you can stop it before it reaches the dropout point. Physical signs to look for include tension, fatigue, irritability, decreased energy level, problems sleeping, increased occurrence of illness, inconsistent performance (2), and exhaustion (3). Behavioral indicators of burnout are depression, feeling helplessness, anger (2), feelings of disappointment, and feeling that one’s contribution to the team is insignificant (3). However, it should be pointed out that some of the symptoms such as depression can occur independently of burnout (3).
If you notice these symptoms occurring in your child, or members of your team, what should you do to combat or prevent burnout? There are several strategies that you might try.
- First, start with taking time off from the sport, or cut back on the time that is being invested in the sport. One way to do this is to participate in whichever sport happens to be in season, rather than specializing in one sport. You could also cut back on the number of days required for practice or the length of each practice.
- A second way to prevent or deal with burnout is to teach your child relaxation and stress management techniques (3).
- Thirdly, look at what pressures they might be experiencing. Are there pressures at home or by the coach to win, win, win? Does the athlete have control over his/her own participation, or is there someone forcing them to continue with participation. Sports are expensive, some more costly than others. If a child realizes the financial and time investment made by the parents and themselves in their participation, they may feel pressure to continue even though they may have lost enjoyment in the sport. As we have said, this can lead to decreased performance and burnout. Give your child increased involvement in making sports-related decisions (3) and they will feel more in control.
- Finally, look at their interactions with their teammates. Help them by providing positive social support (3) and encouraging positive thoughts about their role on their team.
Athlete burnout is a very preventable syndrome that occurs far too often in modern day youth sports. By being aware of what causes burnout, what signs to look for, and ways to deal with it, you can help your child on his/her way to a positive youth sports experience. Should you happen to find yourself with a burned out athlete, chances are if you catch it early some time off and a change of athletic scenery will
(1) Cox, R. H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed). Boston: McGraw Hill.
(2)Fender, L. K. (1989). Athlete burnout: Potential for research and intervention strategies. The Sport Psychologist, 3, 63-71.
(3) Cresswell, S. L. & Eklund, R. C. (2003). The athlete burnout syndrome: A practitioner’s guide. The New Zealand Journal of Sports Medicine, 31, 4-9