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Youth hockey player sitting in dressing room

Prevent Burnout for Young Athletes

By Michael Mosciano, MA, ATC, LAT

Last year, ESPN ran an important advertisement. In it, an athlete sits down to begin a press conference and proceeds to announce his retirement from sports. He begins to thank his parents and coaches, and finishes his statement with, “I said I would play this game as long as I was having fun.”

The athlete in the commercial was 9 years old.

In recent years, we have seen more athletes starting to play organized sports at a much younger age. Many are specializing in a single sport at a younger age and are playing year-round. They often have school practice followed by travel team practice or technical training on the same night. It is not uncommon to see athletes having some type of sports activity five to six days a week. All of this work is done with the hope and dreams of one day playing in college, professionally, or qualifying for the Olympics.

But as the competition increases, so does the stress placed on these young athletes to perform. They may feel the need to please their teammates, parents, and coaches. All this external stress has led to a growing number of athletes leaving sports due to burnout or overtraining syndrome. According to a national survey conducted by the Aspen Institute and Utah State University, most kids will spend less than three years playing sports. Kids are quitting at an average age of 11 because “the sport just isn’t fun anymore.” Seventy-five percent of kids quit playing sports by the time they’re 13.

The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine states that burnout results from “chronic stress that causes a young athlete to cease participation in a previously enjoyable activity.” Risk factors for burnout include: early sports specialization, competing on multiple teams in the same season, and year-round sports participation. An athlete experiencing burnout may show several symptoms including: mood changes, chronic joint pain, sleep changes, a decrease in appetite, physical exhaustion during easy workouts, and an increase in injuries.

Burnout is a relatively chronic state. There is no cure, and you can’t just train through it. Taking steps to manage different factors associated with sports can help prevent burnout from occurring.

The first step is to promote balance in the athlete’s life between sports and other activities. Parents can make sure that their children are not overbooked with sports using the following guidelines:

  • Limit organized sports activity to five days or less per week.
  • Allow for at least two to three months away from a child’s primary sport during the year – in one-month increments.
  • Limit training progression to 10 percent per week.
  • Limit participation to only one sports team per season.

According to Advocate Children’s Hospital, only six percent of high school athletes will play college sports and only one to two percent of college athletes will ever play professionally. So the overall goal of sports should not just be about wins and losses, but to produce a well-balanced individual. Keeping the fun in sports will help prevent youth sports burnout and promote lifelong physical activity skills.

Additional Resources

Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine

About CHKD Sports Medicine  CHKD's sports medicine program offers the most comprehensive care for your young athlete. From diagnosis and treatment to customized rehabilitation plans, we specialize in physical therapy and injury prevention programs for active children and teens. Our team is composed of pediatric orthopedic surgeons, sports medicine specialists, physician assistants, certified athletic trainers and pediatric sports medicine physical therapists.