Help Your Kids Avoid Sports Burnout

When a child becomes overly consumed with the sport and the physical demands placed on them by parents, teammates, coaches or themselves, it can lead to burnout.


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Q: My child loves playing soccer.  As a parent, I want her to thrive and learn, but I do not want to burn her out.  What is burnout, and what can I do as a parent to protect my child?

A: One of the best childhood experiences is playing team sports. Team sports teach children healthy habits. They learn responsibility, accountability and how to be a good winner — and a good loser. But team sports can also lead to burnout and your child no longer enjoying the game she once loved. Burnout is defined as physical/emotional exhaustion, sports devaluation and reduced athletic accomplishment. When a child becomes overly consumed with the sport and the physical demands placed on them by parents, teammates, coaches or themselves, it can lead to them dropping out of sports. 

There are three main reasons children burn out of sports:

1. Excessive Pressure. This means pressure to over train, win every game and not make a mistake. These pressures lead to emotional and mental fatigue, causing stress and eventual burnout.

2. Feeling of Entrapment. Feelings of entrapment can stem from investing time and energy in the sport, but not experiencing any rewards from participation. When the costs begin to outweigh the benefits, burnout becomes more likely.

3. Disempowerment. Sociologist Jay Coakley proposed the idea that the structure of organized, competitive sports becomes controlling. It controls the identity of participants and their lives, leaving them feeling disempowered. Coakley theorizes that a desire for personal control over one’s life is a possible cause of burnout in youth sports.

As a parent, your role is to encourage and shield your child from burnout, which can be done by watching behavior. Physical signs to look for include tension, fatigue, irritability, decreased energy level, problems sleeping, increased occurrence of illness and inconsistent performance. Behavioral indicators of burnout are depression, anger, feelings of helplessness, feelings of disappointment and feeling that one’s contribution to the team is insignificant.

Parents should be aware there may be some push back from the child about going to practice or games when there is a birthday party or another fun engagement they want to attend instead. This is normal and not to be confused with burnout. However, if the child continues to have negative behaviors toward the sport/activity, parents can:

  • Take time away from the sport or cut back on time invested. One way to do this is to participate in whichever sport happens to be in season, rather than specializing in one sport. 
  • Teach your child relaxation and stress management techniques.
  • Discuss what pressures they might be experiencing. Are there pressures at home or from the coach to always win? Does your child have control over their participation, or is there someone forcing them to participate. Is your child being bullied on the field by another player, or did they have a bad game and fear of failing is crippling them?

Athlete burnout is very preventable but occurs far too often in youth sports. By being aware of what causes burnout, what signs to look for and ways to deal with it, you can help your child to stay in the game and really enjoy one of the best experiences of childhood.

Hannah Coble is a licensed clinical social worker at Moses Cone Hospital with a background in behavioral health and outpatient therapy.

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