What You Can Do to Help Athletes Stay in the Game
July 22, 2021
“Burnout” is a trendy post-pandemic topic these days—for media organizations, psychologists, and employers—but the youth sports world has been well aware of it for some time. Close watchers have long blamed mental burnout for participation drop-offs, particularly in the upper levels of competition. And now, after Covid-related shutdowns gave parents and athletes a taste of a less-pressured schedule, even more participants are hesitant to return to the previous level of intensity.
To help you prevent, prepare for, and respond to player burnout, check out the following primer, which explores who is most at risk, how to notice the first signs and what to do when a player is experiencing difficulties.
Risk Factors and Signs of Burnout
The Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago defines mental burnout, or overtraining syndrome, as “a condition in which an athlete experiences fatigue and declining performance in his/her sport despite continuing or increased training.” Factors that increase the likelihood of burnout include:
- Specializing in one sport
- Sudden and large increases in training
- Participation in endurance sports
- High anxiety level
- Low self-esteem
- Pressure from parents and coaches
For every young athlete who thrives under the expectations and demands of youth sports, there are many others who are turned off by them. Usually, though, that change of heart occurs over time. That gives coaches and parents the chance to prevent burnout, as long as they can recognize the warning signs.
Dr. David Geier, a sports medicine specialist in Charleston, South Carolina, lists the following tell-tale indicators:
- Performance shifts: Inconsistent play or play below one’s usual level might just be slump. If it comes with a lack of motivation or a loss of enjoyment, though, it could be burnout.
- Emotional shifts: Depression, anger, lack of concentration, an uncooperative or disagreeable demeanor … maybe, it’s just adolescence. But maybe it’s burnout.
- Health shifts: Burnt-out athletes complain of vague pains, get sick more often and recover slower. They also tire more easily and may even have a higher resting heart rate and blood pressure.
What Coaches and Organizers Can Do
Shifting the trajectory of burnout takes a caring and committed all-hands approach. Here are some ways to address the issue:
- Train your coaches. In 2019, the Aspen Institute, with support from the late Kobe Bryant, launched the #Don’tRetireKid campaign to stem the high dropout rate among young athletes. One of their findings: coaches are on the front line of burnout defense, with the power to “make an athlete for life — or wreck enthusiasm for sport altogether.” Good, well-trained coaches, the initiative found, lower kids’ anxiety levels, lift their self esteem and help them enjoy the sport. In that vein, take time to teach your coaches about the triggers and signs of burnout, and drive home how important it is for them to raise burnout concerns to superiors as early as possible. Most of all, remind them to keep the overall experience positive.
- Communicate with your parents. After Tyler Kreitz, COO of Advnc Lacrosse, realized that his team had grown into a national organization, he opened up an ongoing discussion with his community, spending the most time on topics related to the undue pressure placed on the kids. His “A Note to Parents” series offers thoughts and suggestions on how to help players keep perspective throughout their experience. You can do the same through a blog, email newsletters or social media.
- Provide coping tools to your athletes. The best way to overcome a negative behavior is often to replace it with a positive one. That’s why Dana Burkholder, co-founder of Forza1 Volleyball in Southern California, has been emphasizing the mental and emotional aspects of the game from the start. At a LeagueApps town hall on supporting your community’s mental health, she described how she educates her players on meditation and breathing exercises and other mental wellness techniques in addition to regular programming. Similarly, LeagueApps has collaborated with Mallika Chopra, author of the Just Be series, to teach coaches mindful exercises they can share with their players: a body scan, a motivational meditation and an intention-setting exercise.
- Push self-care. In the pedal-to-the-metal world of competitive youth sports, the emphasis is too often on showing up,playing, and winning. But in their book Best Practice for Youth Sport, authors Robin S. Vealey and Melissa A. Chase advise coaches and parents to treat the first indication of burnout with the proper amount of rest, recovery and mental rejuvenation. That might mean one or two days off, or it can be much more than that. In any case, time away from the sport can be the best remedy of all.
Burnout is unhealthy for everyone; it’s bad for athletes and bad for the health of their youth sports programs as well. But you don’t have to be a psychologist or sports medicine doctor to protect your players or organization from the harmful effects of burnout. . By arming your coaches with quality information, opening channels of communication with your parents and players, and establishing clear policies around mental health and self-care, you’re setting your organization up for success in the long run.