Athlete burnout from sport is becoming more prevalent alongside the increasing trend of early sport specialization in youth athletes. In this article, I offer 5 simple strategies to prevent athlete burnout.
In Case You Missed It…
If you haven’t read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of this article series on early sport specialization, I advise finding a bit of time to do so. You can view them here, here, and here… and you can thank me later.
Part 1: A review of the research investigating the true odds of becoming a collegiate or professional athlete.
Part 2: Whether or not early sport specialization leads to long-term athletic success.
Part 3: How early sport specialization increases injury risk and can lead to athlete burnout.
Now, onto the current article:
5 Strategies to Prevent Athlete Burnout
Winning may be important, but focus should be on perceived competence and having fun.
The primary reason why children decide to participate in organized sports it to have fun [1, 2]. In a study combining two nationwide surveys regarding U.S. girls’ and boys’ involvement with sports and physical activity (2007; 2185 total survey respondents), 38% of girls and 39% of boys suggested that lack of fun was the biggest reason for dropping out of sports . Oftentimes, success is defined as winning. As opposed to adopting this win-at-all-costs mentality, youth sport success should focus on development of skill and self-referenced competency to promote fun [3-6]. In a recent systematic review by Crane et al. (2015), it was determined that low levels of physical or sport competency, and enjoyment of sport, were the two factors most related to sport dropout . It’s imperative for coaches, parents, and practitioners to ensure that sport remains fun for youth athletes in order to promote their prolonged interest in physical activity, as well as long-term physical and psychosocial development.
Encourage multiple sport participation
A perception exists among parents, athletes, and coaches that early single-sport specialization is necessary for long-term success. Ironically, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s a wealth of research on elite athletes suggesting that participation in multiple sports during adolescence is more beneficial for long-term athletic success, compared with specializing in a single sport [8-12]. I review the details of these studies in Part 2 of this article series. West and Strand (2016) advise parents to encourage children to play multiple sports before the age of 12, and to give children a strong voice about the sports in which they choose to participate . Consistent with this advice, many research reviews and position statements from field experts have highlighted the potential negative effects of early specialization and the positive impact that diversified youth sport experiences can have for athletes, particularly for long-term positive performance, health, and psychosocial development [14-25].
Enable children to have autonomy and ownership over the sport experience
Autonomy is considered a basic psychological need in humans that must be fulfilled in order to enjoy optimal well-being . A small study of junior tennis players found that the burned-out players had less input into training and sport-related decisions, compared with the players who didn’t exhibit similar levels of burnout symptoms [27-29]. In a study of 201 athletes from 51 different sports, lack of perceived autonomy was a predictor of subsequent burnout . Similarly, lack of autonomy was associated with burnout in a study involving 18 male New Zealand rugby players . It’s clear that giving children a say in how they experience sport is an important contributor to burnout prevention.
DeFreese et al. (2015) suggest that adolescence is a developmental period in which athletes seek autonomy and control of their lives . Although athletes may have, initially, decided to participate in sport, the social structure of sport can quickly limit their autonomy because much of their sport experience is controlled by others (i.e. coaches, parents, and peers). It’s important that athletes are given autonomy throughout their athletic careers, particularly during adolescence, to promote enjoyment, motivation, and overall well-being.
Avoid excessive parental and coaching pressures
While lack of fun is a frequent reason for withdrawal from sport at earlier ages, performance pressure appears to become more central to withdrawal as athletes age [33, 34].
Vitali et al. (2015) suggest that placing too much importance on interpersonal comparison and competition may thwart feelings of success, make athletes more aware of their inadequacy and limitations and, ultimately, engender frustration, which can lead to athlete burnout . In a cohort of 267 Turkish athletes, Demirci et al. (2018) found that perceived parental pressure and concern over mistakes were significant predictors of burnout . Although performance pressure and having fun are not mutually exclusive entities, it’s easy to see how the former can negatively impact the latter. It’s not uncommon for performance pressure to decrease enjoyment and lead to subsequent burnout or withdrawal from sport.
Studies have shown that coaches and parents continue to pressure young athletes to play, even in the presence of known physical or psychological health concerns. For example, in a cohort of 203 young baseball players, Makhni et al. (2015) reported that 46% of athletes had been encouraged to keep playing despite having arm pain, on at least one occasion . Similarly, in a cohort of 328 U.S. collegiate athletes, Kroshus et al. (2015) found that roughly one-quarter reported experiencing pressure from adults, including parents and coaches, to continue playing immediately following a “head impact” . In the same study, athletes receiving the highest levels of pressure from adults had the lowest intention of reporting a concussion . As previously noted, parental pressure and behavior have been shown to diminish the youth athlete’s enjoyment and motivation as it pertains to sport [39-44], which can ultimately lead to burnout .
It may be easy for youth athletes to become trapped between their existing potential and the goals set by their family/coaches, which can wreak psychological havoc on the athlete and, subsequently, lead to burnout from sport. It’s important to note that parental and coaching behaviors are likely not to blame but, rather, it’s the athlete’s perceptions of these behaviors that result in the pressure-driven burnout symptoms experienced .
Don’t concern yourself with perfection, but it’s okay to strive for it
Perfectionism is a prevalent personality characteristic in athletes [47, 48], and is defined by striving for flawlessness and setting exceedingly high standards for performance, accompanied by tendencies for overly critical self-evaluation . Although “perfectionism” has traditionally been conveyed as a negative characteristic in the context of sport, this relationship is over-generalized. There’s a substantial difference between having perfectionistic strivings, and having perfectionistic concerns; each domain has different and unique relationships with athletes’ emotions, motivation, and performance .
For example, Appleton et al. (2009) found that socially-prescribed, but not self-oriented, perfectionism was associated with burnout symptoms, in a cohort of 201 junior-elite male athletes, ranging from 11 to 21 years of age . In 222 youth athletes, perfectionistic concerns shared a negative relationship with athlete engagement, and a positive relationship with athlete burnout, while the opposite was true when replacing perfectionistic concerns with perfectionistic striving . In 101 junior athletes, Madigan et al. (2015) reported that perfectionistic concerns predicted increases in athlete burnout over a 3 month period, but perfectionistic strivings predicted decreases in burnout .
In slightly older athletes, including male rugby players and elite competitive swimmers (mean ages 18-19 years old), high frequency of perfectionistic cognitions  and concerns over making mistakes  were associated with burnout symptoms. A recent meta-analysis by Hill et al. (2016) reported that perfectionistic strivings had small negative, or non-significant, relationships with overall burnout and symptoms of burnout, whereas perfectionistic concerns displayed medium to large and medium positive relationships with overall burnout and symptoms of burnout, respectively . The authors suggested that perfectionistic concerns warrant attention when considering vulnerability to burnout.
It’s easy to get confused between “perfectionistic concerns” and “perfectionistic strivings”, but there’s a clear difference between the two terms. Perfectionistic concerns entail second-guessing and self-defeating striving for perfection, which may include the inability to accept less than perfect performance, even when that is unrealistic. On the other hand, perfectionistic strivings involve attempting to be the best that one can be in the context of sport. The first means that the athlete focuses on the negative, or things he or she is doing wrong, while the second is the process by which the athlete learns from mistakes and tries to live up to athletic potential.
It would bode well to have a Hannah Montana attitude. She conveys a focus on perfectionistic strivings as she sings:
You live and you learn it
‘Cause everybody makes mistakes”
She’s right. Nobody’s perfect, and there’s nothing wrong with striving for perfection. Just make sure to focus on the positives and learn from past mistakes during the pursuit.
In the next article in this series, I’ll discuss the evidence-based sport volume recommendations for youth athletes, and who’s aware of them (or not aware of them…).
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