Burnout in Youth Athletics

With the summer approaching, many families will find their weekends filled to the brim with youth sports activity. Without a doubt, the agenda for many people across the state will involve weekend tournaments, travel for regional or national competition and specialty training camps extending through the summer months.

The benefits to a child’s involvement in youth sports are numerous. And few people would dare to argue the value children receive by participating in athletics at an early age. Not only is there the obvious aspect of physical activity, which can instill the lifelong importance of an active lifestyle, but children will likely gain much more. The social and mental gains are equally, if not more, important in development. Athletic participation can promote discipline, cooperation and teamwork, friendship, leadership, the ability to set and achieve personal goals, learning from defeat, as well as just having a good time. The list could go on and on.

However, as the days of free play have largely been replaced by well-organized leagues, sports medicine physicians have noticed an increasing trend in both overuse injuries and burnout. The increased rates of overuse and burnout have become so apparent that the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) has established the STOP (Sports Trauma and Overuse Prevention) Campaign to address injuries and burnout in youth athletics. In addition, experts at the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons have also presented their findings in recent meetings.

Although overuse injury is certainly an important topic to consider and discuss, I want to focus more on the issue of burnout in our youth athletes, with the goal of drawing recognition to the problem and, more importantly, preventing it in order to keep our youth participating in sports.

Burnout has been defined by experts as a child’s response to chronic stress, causing the athlete to cease to participate in a previously enjoyable activity. Since the goal is to prevent the final step of withdrawal, parents and coaches should look for early signs of stress. Children can exhibit this in many ways, however, common signs of excessive athletic stress can include loss of sleep and appetite, lower performance in sports or school, physical injuries and decreased fun and satisfaction. 

Burnout cannot be fully addressed without also discussing early sports specialization. The AOSSM defines specialization in youth sports as children under the age of 12 who engage in a single sport for at least three seasons (8 months) per year while excluding other sports. Why is avoiding early specialization important? Several reasons. Children who specialize in one sport have been found to quit that sport earlier compared to peers who do not specialize. In addition, those who quit playing due to burnout are more inactive as an adult. Furthermore, early specialization increases the risks of injury, specifically in baseball, cheerleading, gymnastics, running, swimming, soccer and volleyball. 

As a general gauge, if children are doing more hours of a sport per week than their age (in years), then they are overdoing it.

On the contrary, multi-sport participation has many advantages. In addition to lower rates of overuse injuries and less burnout, playing several sports allows children to cross-train, which can lead to improvement in balance, quickness and core strength. Playing multiple sports can ultimately elevate a child’s overall athletic ability. This will lead to better long-term performance and a likelihood of lifelong enjoyment in sports and physical activity.

As with any topic there are always counterpoints. One must consider that “sports dropout” is a complex phenomenon which can be influenced by numerous personal and situational variables. Parents and coaches should realize that most adolescents who stop playing a sport do so more often as a result of time conflicts and/or stronger interests in other activities, not as a result of burnout. Studies also show some children will re-enter the same or different sport in the future.

Ultimately, if children are going to be successful at a single sport, the drive to specialize must come from within. As parents and coaches, we should expose our children to as many activities as possible and support what they like. I believe our goal should be similar to that of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to “develop healthy, capable and resilient young athletes while attaining widespread inclusive, sustainable, and enjoyable participation and success for all levels of athletic achievement.”

For questions about burnout or overuse injuries, contact your McBride physician. For more online information,
visit stopsportsinjuries.org. 

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