It is a well-known fact that young athletes are participating and competing in year-round sports at younger ages than their older peers. It used to be common for athletes to participate in several sports throughout the year. Unfortunately, that has changed in recent years.
The move to year-round sports has led to an increase in chronic injuries for young athletes because the same muscles are stressed year-round with no time to rest fatigued muscles. A secondary fall-out from year-round sports is burnout.
Athlete burnout can result in both physiological and psychological reactions. Physiologically, the athlete may experience fatigue, lack of energy, a decrease in performance, and chronic injuries. Mentally, the athlete may experience a decreased desire to participate, lack of enjoyment of the sport, depression, and lack of motivation.
This is a phenomenon that is now gaining attention from the field of sport psychology. Although historically, there was very little research on athlete burnout, but that is now changing with an increase in research studies to better understand what is causing the burnout and how to prevent it.
According to Goodger, K., Lavallee, D., Gorely, T, and Harwood, C. (2006), there are two major strains of athlete burnout: physically driven and social-psychologically driven. Physically driven burnout is a result of “over-training and heavy training and competition loads” whereas social-psychologically driven burnout is the result of “athlete perfectionism and situation pressure such as parent or coach pressure.”
Possible Causes of Burnout in Young Athletes
One study examining the causes of burnout in young high-school golfers resulted in identifying the following causes:
- too much playing/practice
- lack of fun and enjoyment
- no new goals to strive for
- going into a slump
- pressure to do well from self, coaches, and parents
Coaching Behaviors that lead to Burnout in Young Athletes
Another study cited by Goodger, K., Lavallee, D., Gorely, T, and Harwood, C. (2006) identified a number of coaching behaviors that may lead to burnout including:
- year-round training with few rest periods
- little variety in the type and intensity of training
- a “more is better” philosophy
- focus on winning rather than on performance or improvement
- only seeing the individual as an athlete and giving little recognition to other aspects such as school or work commitments
- autocratic decision making and failure to share goals or reasons for training with the athletes
- treating second-tier athletes as “invisible”
- making sure the athlete is aware that “my coach career is dependent on your performance”
- failure to acknowledge and deal with post-competition emotions in an effective way
Youth sports coaches need to be aware of the phenomenon of burnout and the behaviors that may lead to it. An awareness of the specific behaviors should result in proactive behaviors by the coaching staff to prevent the problem by focusing more on the individual and less on the outcome of the competition.
Preventing Burnout in Young Athletes
Although much of the causes of burnout are in the hands of the coach, parents need to be attentive to early warning signs of their young athletes. Parents can make a change for their children before the young athlete experiences burnout and leaves the sport for good.
Recommendations to prevent burnout in young athletes published by Goodger, K., Lavallee, D., Gorely, T, and Harwood, C. (2006) include the following:
- Identify early warning signs – prevention is better than a cure.
- Involve athletes in decision making.
- Schedule time-outs away from the sport for physical and mental recovery.
- Utilize athlete input – listen.
- Appropriate coach and parent support.
- Make it fun – enjoyment is crucial for young athletes.
Although there remains a lot to be learned about athlete burnout, understanding the possible causes can go a long way in preventing young athletes from walking away from a sport they once loved.
Coaches of youth sports especially need to be aware of the causes of burnout and be intentional about reducing their required practice/competition schedules, scheduling intentional rest times, treating young athletes as individuals, and focusing on performance rather than outcome.
Goodger, K., Lavallee, D., Gorely, T., & Harwood, C. (2006). “Burnout in Sport: Understanding the Process” in Applied Sport Psychology (5th Ed.). McGraw Hill: Boston, MA.