Stress and Burnout in Youth Sports

Athletes, parents and sports psychology professionals often have different ideas about burnout in sports. Research indicates that burnout gets in the way of a young athlete’s joy in sport participation, participation longevity, and ultimately performance success.

A beginning baseball player has a limited idea whether he is competent or not at the skills associated with hitting a baseball. Typically, the beginner is to a large degree participating in the sport because he senses he can play with some level of skill, it is fun, and provides an opportunity to socialize and be with friends. Over time the athlete either succeeds or fails to master the concepts of executing a specific skill. Stress and frustration can develop as a result of many factors.

Burnout “is a condition of psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical withdrawal from sport participation as a direct result from chronic stress”, Rotella, (1991). Each year many young athletes turn their heads from sport participation because of their frustrating “experiences” in sport. Sport psychology research points out that it is the sum total of experiences over time, the judgment of ones performance, the pressure to perform, the stress of performing, the boredom, lack of joy, and the goals that others place on the athlete that ultimately lead the athlete to burnout and early retirement from sport.

Stress plays an important precursory role in burnout. Stress in reference to burnout is defined “as a perceived imbalance between perceived demands and perceived response capabilities”, Martens, (1977). Each person has a tolerance level for stress. If the stress becomes considerably greater than the tolerance, a person will suffer from emotional stress and its negative consequences, Humphrey, (2003).

Another noteworthy concept offered by Henchen (1986), makes a distinction between burnout and staleness. “Staleness, he claims, “refers to an overall physical and emotional state”, which can be seen as an early yellow flag of a more advanced negative state that may follow. If “staleness” is caught early enough, it is possible to “nip” burnout before it reaches a more advanced stage which may result in the athlete quitting the sport all together. Burnout is an averse condition that takes time to develop and therefore is gradual in onset. Coaches, parents, and others that make up a young athletes support system are well advised to pay close attention to these symptoms.

Sport Psychology professionals generally agree that at the core of burnout is a general combination of the following symptoms: “lack of energy, exhaustion, sleeplessness, some degree of depression, tension, irritability, anger, headaches or other physical ailments, decreased performance, a tendency to internalize all failures, disillusionment with sports, and loss of confidence”, Rotella (1991). Athletes today are often under great pressure from parents, and coaches to specialize at an early age.

Research indicates the most salient reasons why children participate in sports include; for fun, learning a new skill, excitement, action, and to experiences an ultimate challenge. Above all, however fun is the highest reason for participation in youth sports. With this in mind, Cohn (1990), insignificantly points out that, “lack of fun and enjoyment”, is a common reason for feeling burned out. There are alternatives and interventions that can be implemented to catch burnout in its early stages.

Research suggests; parent education, a healthy life balance, enabling the child to have input into practice and competitive situations, and congnitive-behavioral techniques such as the use of positive self-talk and relaxation training can be excellent alternative strategies to keep young continued interest in their sport of choice. Above all, and at whatever cost, it is critical to help children and young athletes to learn to enjoy their sport participation.

Professional practice experience has illustrated that athletes suffering from buronout typically encounter significant issues with positive performance success, and achievement. My experience has shown that athletes challenged by burnout lack self-efficacy, self-esteem, motivation, are often embarrassed, and feel signifant pressure from coaches, and parents to achieve higher levels of performance success. The athlete reaches a point where they are simply no longer enjoying participation, fail to perform with a process and present tense mindset, and want to get away from active sport participation at all costs. Often times these athletes feel like “burnt toast” and crumble under the drudgery of practice and the pressures of competiton. As a result, they often attempt to self-sabotage their performances consciously in an effort to get off the hook. No matter how hard the athlete may try, their performance is just not up to par with the other athletes. They may have grown past their “prime” with a particular sport or no longer wish to deal with the expectations of others. If pressured to continue the athlete will often quit the sport and carry unwanted resentment into the future. The resentment can and often does carry forward into other aspects of their lives. In the beginning everything was fun, but for many the fun turns to work at too early an age. As a result we may lose a promising athlete.

My message to parents, coaches, and others making up the support system of young athletes is this; give the athlete the opportunity to grow, experience, and have fun without the pressure to perform. In time they will decide on their own whether or not they are cut out for competition. Give the young athlete as much space as they need to explore as many sports as they can during their pre-and early teen years. At some point they will make a decision about whether they wish to become more specialized or simply play to enjoy the intrinsic value that comes with competition. By giving the athlete the freedom to “choose” without pressure they learn that life is not all about performance demands, but rather who they are is determined by how they see themselves in the world in relation to their life experiences.

If you would like to learn more about Burnout and how to prevent or manage a current case of burnout please reach out to me and Ask Coach John.



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