Sport burnout is a relatively new term, one that most people are loosely aware of yet not exactly sure what it is — or how to prevent it from occurring. Since sport burnout is not a recognized mental illness, most experts have hodge-podged together a collection of symptoms for sport parents and their kids to review to see how they stack up. Sport psychologists often talk about how sport burnout is the final stage for athletes after previously experiencing sport staleness and fatigue, but even those differences are very nuanced and not always easy to understand. A general sport burnout definition is when an athlete plays sports on a consistent basis with few (if any) breaks, resulting in a host of mental health challenges including waning motivation for the sport, anxiety, mood fluctuations, and sometimes anger. Since there is no blood test or EKG that reveals if an athlete is burned out from sports, assessing someone as a victim of sport burnout is a subjective call. Still, there are things we know about sport burnout, including how and why it happens, the symptoms most likely experienced, and tips to help improve upon those symptoms.
The evolution of sport burnout
Prior to the turn of this century, most student athletes competed in one new sport each season (also known as sport sampling), and regularly took breaks when needed without facing much consequence. Generally speaking, kids who did not enjoy their chosen sport could see a finish line in sight to pull them through tough days, thereby providing mental comfort and guarding against the hopelessness that often accompanies sport burnout. Compare that experience to the one many kids have today where their sport(s) continue throughout the year at an intense pace and with few — if any — breaks from the action. The previous fun associated with youth sports is now seen as a job by many kids, with heavy instruction replacing free play, laughs, and an emphasis on life skills development over the pursuit of eventually earning a full-ride athletic scholarship.
To be clear, not every kid gets burned out from sports. The problem, however, is that many kids do get burned out, and we are trending toward even more intense youth sport competition in the future, not less. Making things even more challenging is that most kids do not feel comfortable reaching out for help in an attempt to slow down the action, fearing that they will let their parents and coaches down and possibly look “soft” and unable to compete at a high level. Throw in parents and coaches with their own unfinished business from when they played sports as kids and you now have a “perfect storm” for kids to burn out from youth sports.
Signs of youth sport burnout
Since youth sport burnout is not something you can easily see with the naked eye, what signs should you look for if you think your child might be burned out from sports? Some of the more observable symptoms include:
- Aches, pains, & injuries. Yes, injuries occur ion sports all the time, but if your child seems to be chronically injured it is possible that some of the problems are due to waning focus and attention while competing. If kids are mentally tired and not focused, they leave themselves open for a host of umps, bruises, and potentially serious injuries. Also, evaluate the consequences that follow an injury — is it worth it if your child is in pain, struggles to keep up with school, and experiences mental distress?
- Disinterest. Some kids will speak out directly that they are tired, while others show their fatigue in different ways — including being passive-aggressive by not being ready to play or losing pieces of their equipment. In an ideal world kids should be excited to play sports, but when kids experience burnout they will often display the exact opposite behaviors including boredom, lethargy, and even anger.
- Less pride and affiliation. When kids are proud and excited to be a part of something, they usually show their enthusiasm in many ways — including hanging out with teammates and wearing team gear. Conversely, when kids become tired of their sport they tend to talk about the team less and spend little time beyond the field hanging out with teammates.
- Direct conversations. Interestingly, some kids will tell their parents directly that they are mentally fatigued and want to slow down — the question is whether parents will listen? Parents can also begin these conversations by asking their child how he or she feels about playing sports, making sure to listen unconditionally while providing emotional support.
Tips to help
- Know the realities. Keep in mind the vast majority of kids will not compete in sports beyond high school (studies show only about 5% of high school athletes play college sports). Of the 5% who make it to college sports, only a small percentage of that group will earn a full-ride, with most receiving partial scholarships, book stipends, or no money at all as a walk-on athlete.
- Evaluate the decision as a family. Yes, some of the families in your neighborhood sign their kids up for travel sports all the time — but is this the best decision for you? These days we have increasingly more families that simply go with the flow and sign their kids up for travel teams and clubs without ever stopping to think about the potential consequences that flow from that decision.
- Take regular breaks. Granted, it isn’t easy to take break during a busy sport season, but evaluate the potential problems that occur when you do not take breaks and decide if those risks are worth it. Talk to the coach about the importance of your child’s mental health, as well as time and rest needed to perform well in school and other important activities. If you get push back from the coach, consider other sport opportunities that are less intense and more amenable to your child’s overall health.
- Seek professional help. Increasingly more kids are not only receiving counseling today, they are seeking it. Talk to your child and ask him or her about the idea of talking to a professional to help deal with sport burnout and work through whether continuing on with intense youth sports makes sense.
Youth sport burnout is a big deal, and many kids deal with the complications of trying to keep up in sports while at the same time having time for school, clubs & activities, and friends and family. Going all-in on youth sports can be a lot of fun, but it can also bring unrealistic expectations that kids are simply not prepared for and leave them vulnerable for sport burnout. Take the time needed to think about how your family views youth sport participation, and make decisions that are unique to your family interests and values keeping safety at the forefront of your decision making.