Preventing Burnout in Youth Sports: Strategies for Success

Mike Keenan
preventing burnout in youth sports
preventing burnout in youth sports
Youth sports offer countless benefits, from promoting physical fitness to teaching valuable life skills like teamwork and discipline. However, the relentless pursuit of excellence in today's competitive youth sports culture has raised concerns about the well-being of young athletes. 
Burnout has become an all-too-common issue among young athletes, threatening their performance, overall happiness, and long-term engagement in sports. According to the National Council of Youth Sports, 70% of adolescents discontinue playing organized sports by age 13. 
To ensure that young athletes thrive both on and off the field and have longevity in their sports careers, it's crucial to implement strategies for preventing burnout. This article explores the causes of youth sports burnout, signs from athletes, prevention strategies you can take, and ways to address burnout in youth athletes.

What is burnout in youth sports?

According to the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, burnout is considered a response by a young athlete to chronic stress in which they cease to participate in a previously enjoyable activity, withdrawing from the sport because they perceive it is not possible to meet the physical and psychological demands of the sport.
Burnout can decrease the motivation that young athletes have for their sport. What was once a passion or a fun hobby can turn into a burdensome obligation. As their enthusiasm lowers, athletes may find it increasingly difficult to summon the dedication and drive needed to excel in their sport. This loss of motivation can lead to a downward spiral, where athletes no longer wish to participate and drop out.
Recognizing the signs of burnout in youth athletes and taking proactive steps to address it is important. Coaches, parents, and sports organizations should prioritize their athletes' well-being over immediate success. By valuing a player's physical and mental health first, you show that your organization's priority rests with the individual. 
a youth tee ball player
Source: Pexels

Causes of burnout

There are many reasons why an athlete could experience burnout. Knowing the signs is important so you can work to prevent them. We'll cover three leading causes in this section.

High training intensity

High intensity training in youth sports can be a double-edged sword. In most cases, coaches want athletes to train hard, improve their performance, and play to a high standard. While that's reasonable and expected—it can go too far. 
Excessive and relentless training can lead to youth sports burnout when a program isn't designed in a way that supports an athlete's physical or mental health. Intense training can be scheduled in small doses, but it's essential to have recovery days.

Parental and coaching pressure

Being a parent of a child who plays youth sports can be a rewarding and fun experience. Naturally, you want your child to perform well and might feel disappointed when they're not playing their best. But, there is a fine line between pushing them to do well and becoming overbearing.
a youth baseball player learning from his coach
Source: Pexels
As a coach, you have set goals for your program related to winning. While this is expected and encouraged, you should be mindful that not all goals are related to outcomes. Having your athletes focus on skill development, having fun, and making friends are good ways to minimize burnout.
Too much pressure from parents and coaches can be a big stressor for adolescent athletes. Both parties must find a balance between setting a high performance standard and remembering that they're just kids.

Psychosocial factors

Psychosocial factors combine psychological and social elements that influence an individual's thoughts, emotions, behaviors, and overall mental well-being. 
A child who seeks perfectionism may experience burnout because they aren't performing to a perfect standard. It's vital to help the athlete understand what's attainable to prevent them from overtraining.
Children with low self-esteem may seek validation from coaches or other teammates. They can experience burnout if they think they aren't good enough to participate or they aren't being welcomed onto the team. Positive reinforcements such as team huddles, rewards, or encouraging feedback may help build their confidence.

Signs and symptoms of burnout

Now that we've discussed the causes of burnout, we will dive into the signs and symptoms of an athlete who is burnt out. 

Physical signs

Burnout can increase the risk of sports-related injuries. Fatigued athletes are more prone to accidents and overuse injuries due to decreased concentration and compromised physical abilities.
Coaches and parents should be aware of the physical signs of overtraining, which can include:
  • Weakened immune system
  • Persistent muscle soreness
  • Frequent injuries
  • Hormonal imbalances in female athletes
  • Changes in heart rate

Emotional and behavioral signs

Burnout isn't just physical; it also takes a toll on an athlete's emotional and mental well-being. Young athletes experiencing burnout may become irritable, anxious, or even depressed. The relentless pressure to perform at a high level can lead to stress, a sense of inadequacy, and low self-esteem. This can affect their athletic pursuits, academic performance, and relationships.

Performance decline

Burnout often manifests as a decline in athletic performance. Physically exhausted and mentally drained athletes are more prone to making mistakes, experiencing decreased coordination, and suffering from reduced speed and endurance. As a result, their ability to perform at their best deteriorates, potentially leading to frustration and self-doubt.

Burnout prevention strategies

As a coach or parent, you must implement burnout prevention strategies at a young age. While not all athletes will participate in high school sports or become elite athletes, it’s still important to take burnout seriously.

Encourage a balanced approach

Early sports specialization isn't encouraged for youth athletes because it puts them at a high risk for burnout. Instead, encourage your athlete to participate in other non-athletic activities. By allowing them to explore other avenues, they won't feel like their social and personal life depends on doing well in sports.
two youth soccer players fighting for possession
Source: Pexels

Open communication

It’s important to have an open line of communication with your child to ensure the sport they’re playing is one that they actually enjoy. Putting time aside at home or during practice to set clear expectations is a great way to minimize burnout.

Stress management and coping skills

It's important to help young athletes manage stress, build resilience, and cope with competitive pressure. This lifelong skill will only help them manage life stressors better.
If your child is participating in year-round activities, you should prioritize encouraging relaxation time. This could include hanging out with friends, playing video games, walking, or reading.
Other coping strategies can include breathing exercises, open communication, structured rest, and seeking professional help.

Holistic development approach

Youth sports aren't one size fits all because of the diverse needs of athletes. You can find ways that work with most by putting together a comprehensive approach that nurtures physical, mental, and emotional development.
A balanced approach to workouts while emphasizing recovery time is a great way to start a holistic approach to youth sports. You can minimize burnout risk factors by incorporating different approaches in your programming. 

Addressing burnout

If you’ve noticed that your athletes have decreased motivation, their confidence is falling, or they aren’t as interested in the sport—you may be headed for burnout. To quickly reverse this, we recommend a couple of ways to address burnout.

Modify training and competition

You could cut back on your program’s training volume to allow for adequate rest and recovery. Instead of practicing five days a week, you could reduce it to 3 days instead. Having more recovery days could give athletes a much needed break.
Suppose you're working with first time athletes, schedule practices for skill development rather than many competitions or games. The pressure of performing well may be too much on children at such a young age.

Reinforce passion and fun

Studies have shown that children stop participating in youth sports because they no longer find it fun. As a coach, it's important to encourage activities that reignite your athlete's passion for sports and emphasize enjoyment.
A few different ways you can make practice more fun are:
  • Substitute running laps with a relay race
  • Play tug of war to practice stability while encouraging friendly competition
  • Use weighted diving sticks for swimmers and make it a treasure hunt
  • Have a water balloon fight in the summer to practice their aim

Final thoughts 

Recognizing the signs of burnout early and implementing these skills can help young athletes manage stress, regain their passion for the sport, and continue to benefit from their participation in sports.
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