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Are we burning out our children?

Youth Athlete Burnout

Sports are such an awesome part of our society. The joy we find when we play sports is not comparable to anything else. With that said, sports take time, dedication and a lot of hard work. It’s not easy... there are tears, pain and mental fatigue.

As a current athlete and a former Baylor Women’s Soccer player who is competing to play at the professional level and a youth soccer coach, there is a lot to know about what it takes to get to the most prestigious level of sports.

Athlete burnout is real and the number of athletes who are burning out in their teen years is increasing drastically. What is athlete burnout? Burnout is defined by sport psychologists as “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment” (1).  So why do athletes burnout? One explanation is that there is excessive stress and pressure on the athlete. They feel like they can’t keep up with all the expectations that their peers or family members have put on them (1). Pressure comes from the expectation to always win and perform mistake free in training and games.  Another explanation of burnout is entrapment (1). Athletes feel like they are putting a lot of time and energy into their sport, but not seeing any benefit. For example, this could be an athlete who is training extremely hard to play at the collegiate level, but has no coaches interested in them. The athlete believes the costs outweigh the benefits, and drop out. The last explanation is empowerment (1). Sociologists believe that since youth sports are so controlled, athletes feel that their lives and identity feel controlled and in turn, they feel the need to take back control, so they drop the sport.

As a child, my mom introduced me to soccer. I loved it. There was no pressure to keep playing. I made the choice to continue with the sport, because I enjoyed it so much. This doesn’t happen to everyone. I have been coaching youth soccer players for years and this isn’t the case for most athletes. Yes, some athletes have the passion and love for the game that is undeniable, but others feel the need to continue to play, with little to no enjoyment for the game.

It is a great idea to start your children in youth sports when they are young. It is beneficial because it introduces them to an active lifestyle, a competitive environment and the ability to work with their peers in a team setting. Things start to shift when the athlete gets into middle school and they become more aware of the time and energy that they are investing into the sport. Parents, we all know you want your child to be the best. But, if your child doesn’t have the drive within themselves to pursue their sport relentlessly and endlessly, they will never make it to the highest level. With that said, stop putting pressure on your children to be the best. Let them figure it out. If they want it enough, they will get there.

How do we prevent burnout? First, don’t pressure the athlete to work on their sport more than they want to. Again, if the athlete doesn’t want to invest time into their sport, do they really want it? Do they truly love it? Encouragement to work on their sport outside of practice is awesome, but again, it should be their choice to invest hours outside of their sport’s schedule. They need to find it within themselves to work hard. It’s a mentality they need to develop to become great. There is a fine line between pushing your child to be a better athlete and pushing your child to the point of burnout.

You may be asking, how does this 23 year old know this when she doesn’t have any idea what it’s like to have kids. Well, I’ve been through it all. I use to play basketball and my dad was my coach. He was extremely hard on me compared to all the other girls on the team. I began to hate practicing and lost the love of the game. My dad had no idea he was doing this, he only thought he was making me better, but never asked me how I felt about the way he was “pushing” me in practice.  On the other hand, my mom was my soccer coach. She did push me, but she always gave me constructive criticism to be better. She supported me in my choices with the sport. She never told me I had to practice X hours a day. All she did was give me the opportunities to succeed in my sport. If I wanted to take them I could, but it was my ultimately my choice. For example, after playing a few years in the local club and succeeding, my mom asked me if I wanted to try out for a more competitive club where I would have to dedicate more time with practice and travel further and longer for practices and games.

With that said, if you think your child has the ability to be a great athlete, give them the best opportunities that you can provide for them in their sport. Encourage them to be great, but give them the opportunity to develop the mentality to work hard on their own. If they don’t succeed in their sport, it’s ok. There are so many other things out there they can be great at. 1% of athletes play a Division 1 sport in college. Why is this percent so low? Because it takes work. Day in and day out it’s a grind. Sports aren’t about just having talent. Again, it’s a choice. Are you in the gym getting stronger, are you drinking enough water, are you eating right, recovering, etc.

I see so many kids who have talent, but don’t know if they want to pursue their sport in a serious manner, that quit because their parents and peers are drilling them into the ground. The best athletes yes, had people pushing them to be the best version of themselves, but in the end it was their choice to continue on in their athletic career. We need people in our corner rooting us on, but we need to find it within ourselves to decide if we want to dedicate our lives to a sport. It takes a special mentality and lifestyle to do this. Let your child figure out if that’s what they want. If they show that, support them completely and help them become the best version of themselves they can be on and off the court.

(1) Cox, R. H. (2002). Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications (5th ed). Boston: McGraw Hill.

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