top of page

Feelin’ the burn

December 13, 2023 at 5:00:00 PM

Solie Stenger ‘25 

In the intense world of competitive youth athletics, where dreams are pursued with passion and aspirations soar high, a dark cloud looms over the playing field:  burnout. The quest for excellence and pressure from both parents and peers, paired with relentless training regimens, has created a noticeable trend that threatens the very essence of competitive youth sports. 

The first question we must ask is about what “burnout” really is. Burnout can be defined as “a negative psychological and physical state in which young athletes feel tired, less able to perform well, and less interested in playing their sports.” Experts say that two main factors cause burnout: overstress and overtraining. 

Overstress, rooted in the mental aspects of youth athletics, stands as a primary factor in this phenomenon. While physical training often takes the spotlight in discussions about young athletes, the significant mental pressure they face is frequently overlooked. Youth engaged in sports often strive to earn approval from parents, coaches, family, and teammates, creating an immense amount of pressure, even for young children. Additionally, athletes must also juggle academic responsibilities with their athletic pursuits, requiring effective time management. Especially at institutions like Mercersburg Academy, where intense academic rigor is present, putting the “student” before the “athlete” can be extremely difficult. However, despite the mental challenges, research indicates that athletes often experience improved grades during the season, attributed to enhanced time management skills. According to NATA, student-athletes can perform up to 40% higher in overall test performance. So, while the mental toll of sports is formidable, the potential for valuable life lessons and benefits is significant, if students can learn to manage the stress associated with the sport.

Athletic burnout is also physical as much as mental. The overuse of certain muscles and body parts can cause significant damage and have long-lasting impacts on developing bodies. Many researchers have found that if an athlete plays one sport for too long without taking adequate time off, then not only will it hurt them physically, but it will damage their belief in and love for the sport. 

Dr. Richards, an orthopedic surgeon specializing in athletes, supports this view. He told me, “Athletes often get injured for not taking time off: for example, little league pitchers and baseball players come into my office all the time with a case of something we call ‘little league elbow.’ This is a bad strain from throwing repetitively, never taking time off, and never using other muscles. I will tell parents he can't throw again for two months if they want it to get better. If the child keeps pitching, it will only worsen.” This proves that overuse injuries are real and athletic burnout isn't simply all mental or even a “dislove” for the sport. Some children just become overworked after years and years of non-stop practice.

Now that an overview of why youth athletes become so burnt out is evident, it's important to be able to identify some preventative practices. Contrary to most people's beliefs, the answer is not to press your child to quit sports or completely give up. Rather it is the opposite, as countless studies have proven that being multisport athletes benefits children both mentally and physically. It also prevents overuse injuries. Richards stated, “Encouraging participation in various sports is good: for instance, advising a baseball player to stop throwing for three months not only helps physical recovery but prevents mental burnout. Overuse injuries are the things I see most in baseball and running, often leading to stress fractures, as I’ve seen at Shippensburg University. Cross-training, involving activities like stationary biking and water jogging, is an effective solution, relieving pressure on bones and injuries.” 

On the mental side of things, being able to take time off a “main sport,” and moving to one with less pressure is great for the mind. The best parts about cross-training are that it works different muscles, children learn to become coachable, and they obtain body control year-round. Bo Jackson is a testament to this belief: he was a star outfielder in Major League Baseball (MLB) while he simultaneously pursued a career in the National Football League (NFL) as a running back. Jackson shows that the benefits of playing more than one sport are visible at all levels. 

To further mitigate the problem, parents, faculty, and coaches must recognize the symptoms of burnout, including fatigue, lack of effort, or just growing dislike for the sport. In such an instance, let the child try another sport for a while to see if they will eventually come back with a more positive and brighter outlook. Taking a hiatus does not mean completely “dropping the ball”; it is the best course of action and has been proven by many sources as well as doctors, such as Dr Richards. Being a multisport athlete is a great solution to helping stay healthy both mentally and physically. It keeps young athletes alert, engaged, and quite literally on their toes. 

Overall, the issue of youth athletic burnout demands our attention and concerted effort. As we watch the passion of the younger generation on playing fields, it becomes increasingly clear that a rethinking of priorities is essential. The search for excellence should not come at the cost of physical and emotional well-being. However, both can be prevented if recognized quickly and treated appropriately with care. It is imperative for parents, coaches, and sports organizations to recognize the signs of burnout, and to create an environment that encourages fun as well as peak performance. By embracing a flexible approach, balancing competition with rest, and nurturing the love for the game, the path can be paved for a sustainable and positive athletic journey for our youth. 

bottom of page