As a former burnt out swimmer, I can say the early morning classes along with the evening practices everyday, at a young age, led to my distaste for the sport competitively. I never lost my love for swimming itself, I still miss it six years later. I do have memories of friends though, asking me to come to their house or go to group outings, asking my parents and hearing “we have swim practice” over and over. Though I had fun and had a love for the sport, it was starting to feel like it was becoming my life. At this time, especially, I was entering adolescence when athletics are taken to another level. To me, it was either sink or swim faster, harder, stronger, and better; as a child I was not ready for that pressure. As one of the best swimmers in my age group I felt the pressure on me to win it for my team and family, but it got to a point I wasn’t doing it for myself. Once I realized that, that’s when the burn out started. Practice was a bore, meets were more of a chore than anything, the excitement of winning first place faded, it was the same stuff just a different day; so I stopped.
We asked experts and coaches in this field about their thoughts on the topic. It seems a major cause of “burn out” could be a lack of balance in the children’s lives between sports, friends, family, and everyday life. That with the added pressure of obtaining a scholarship through athletics and competition to be the best of the best, leads kids to quit altogether. An example of this pressure can be seen in an interaction Coach Chad White witnessed at an AAU tournament where after a game a parent of a player pulled their child to the side and said “you make me sick, you played horrible, what if a college coach was here watching?!” he recalled, “This was said to a 12-year-old!”
Another aspect is that as sports become more competitive, that leaves less room for other activities, and if this happens when athletes are too young, it can cause them to fall back. Coach and former athlete Avis Fields expanded on this topic in saying “When a child is doing more athletics a week than academics a week and less ‘normal’ child-like activities burn out is bound to happen. I’ve seen many times where a child has reached a high level at a young age and by 8th-9th grade the child will either do one of two things; rebel and not play or constantly craving the next level of success in the sport.” She continues, “Pacing the sport out will help minimize the affects of burn out. I’m a firm believer in either taking a season off or try a sport that the kid would need to use a different skill set.” Coach Taber Martin added on to this idea saying, “I think there needs to be a balance. If you’re blessed enough with the talent, the opportunity, and the work ethic that it takes to play on the next level then by all means put your best foot forward and go get it! But you still need to take the time to be a kid. Take the time for family. For friends. For other interests. Put your time in towards your goals, but take time off or risk burnout!”
Coach White also said that not only can playing a sport year round increase the likelihood of burn out but playing multiple sports can. He said, “Athletes participating in multiple sports year round, can increase the risk of injury if they are not properly using preventive measures. The emotional toll that it takes on young athlete is even more prevalent. With the increase in mental health cases in the world, this does not help combat the issue.”
Most importantly though, parents need to listen to their kids. Coach Fields touched on the issue of parents sometimes living vicariously through their children, though it is usually from a place of love and care, it can hinder the athlete. She encouraged parents to, “listen to your children verbally and nonverbally. When they are hesitant about going to a practice or the mention of signing up for yet another season that just ended yesterday causes them to sigh or eye roll.” she says, “as a parent ask the child if they would like to play in a more rigorous league or take private lessons before doing so. Remember, this is their bodies and lives that are being affected.”
Communication is key in any relationship, especially in parent-child ones. As parents there needs to be communication to the child that encourages their passions but also lets them know that their opinion is valid. If there is too much pressure and not a space that leaves room for the athlete’s thoughts, the child will feel they have no choice in the matter and who wants to do something that is not of their own volition? Besides, when an athlete is too stressed about being the best of the best for scholarships, for their parents, or both, the “essence of a team sport” can be lost, as Coach Avis Fields said. When it comes down to it, that essence is what these sports are all about, sportsmanship, building character and even developing communication skills, she says.
“I am a firm believer in letting the children lead the way athletically, they will thank you later” – Avis Fields
Written by Tori Carter-Johnston