Keeping sports fun: Preventing burnout in young athletes

Dr. Miriam Rowan and Kelsey Griffith: two specialists who help athletes dealing with sports burnout.
Dr. Miriam Rowan and Kelsey Griffith: Having fun doesn't mean athletes aren't working hard. (Photos, Michael Goderre, Boston Children's/Design, David Chrisom, Boston Children's)

It’s easy to tell when a kid loves sports: Maybe they practice drills in the driveway until it’s dark and cold. Or they wake up excited on practice days and talk about practice at dinner. Even kids who keep their feelings under wraps may let their enthusiasm show in their laser focus. When the whistle blows or the curtain rises, they’re fully present.

When an athlete feels burned out, however, their love for their sport flickers and fades. They may drag themselves to practice or come home defeated over simple errors. A lost game can darken their mood for days.

Burnout — when an athlete loses interest in their sport due to physical and emotional exhaustion — causes an alarming number of kids to quit sports altogether. Sadly, these kids miss out on many benefits of athletics, including teamwork, physical agility, self-reliance, and confidence.

Here we talk with two experts from the Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Hospital about burnout, why it happens, and how parents can help preserve their young athlete’s love of sports with open communication and support.

What is burnout in sports?

“An athlete who is burned out loses interest in an activity that used to bring them joy,” says Dr. Miriam Rowan, attending psychologist in Boston Children’s Female Athlete Program. Worn out by the physical and emotional demands, they may “not be into it anymore.” If they continue to push themselves, the athlete may disconnect from friends, school, and other activities they used to care about deeply.

Children who aren’t spending all their time on one activity are at lower risk for burnout.”

Dr. Miriam Rowan

“Athletes often experience burnout at the end of a season,” says Dr. Rowan, a former dancer who works with ballet dancers and other athletes. Events at the end of a season — closing night or play-offs — can bring pressure to a peak. Add to this the current trend in early sports specialization and many young athletes are pushed to perform at a level well beyond their age or maturity level.

Pressure may come from coaches or parents, but often it comes from the athlete. “Some athletes tend to be overly critical of themselves and their athletic skills. They’re unable to separate their athletic development from whether they win or lose,” says Kelsey Griffith, mental skills specialist with The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention (part of the Sports Medicine Division).

“No matter how well they’re performing, they never feel like they’re good enough,” she says. Technically, the athlete is “playing” a sport, but there’s no room for actual play. The ability to try new things, learn from mistakes, and sometimes just goof around is overpowered by the need to be the best.

Signs of burnout in young athletes

  • loss of joy in a once beloved sport
  • loss of motivation
  • drop in athletic performance
  • persistent fatigue
  • lingering self-doubt

How parents can protect young athletes

While some parents pressure their kids to excel in sports, the desire to specialize in a single sport at a young age often comes from the athlete. Maybe a child pushes to specialize out of love for a single sport or because their best friend is joining a club team. Sometimes, unfortunately, young athletes believe they need to train like a pro athlete to have a shot at playing in high school or college. And often there’s a financial component, when the athlete believes a sports scholarship is their best chance of attending college.

There’s less self-critique when athletes play a sport for fun. Even highly competitive kids can pursue excellence without tying their success to their self-worth.”

Kelsey Griffith

For parents caught between wanting their child to be happy and concern for their emotional well-being, Dr. Rowan suggests talking in terms of options. For instance, you may allow your child to join a club team if they also pursue other areas like pottery, chess, or hiking. “Children who aren’t spending all their time on one activity are at lower risk for burnout.”

If your child does specialize, it’s doubly important to let them know you’re in their corner. If the pressure of their sport begins to mount, or if they have a bad sports day, communicating your commitment to their overall wellbeing will help them see they don’t have to be a perfect athlete to be worthy of love.

You can also point out that, with a few high-profile exceptions, most professional athletes did not train intensively at a young age. Rather, they waited until mid-adolescence to get serious about their sport, when they were mature enough to handle the physical and emotional demands of intensive training and competition.

How parents can support kids

  • encourage a variety of activities
  • focus on the process: ask your child what they’re working on rather than how they did
  • talk about plans for college that don’t depend on sports success

Keeping the fun in sports

Having fun doesn’t mean that athletes aren’t working hard. In fact, when researchers asked young soccer players what made sports fun, trying hard and being a good sport were two of the top responses. Positive coaching was another top reason the athletes considered sports fun.

Some coaches promote positive learning by giving their athletes choices, such as which warm-up exercises the team will do or what their goals will be for that practice. “Involving athletes in decision making can make a big difference,” says Griffith. “Athletes who have room for exploration and autonomy are less prone to burnout.”

Things that make sports fun according to kids

  • playing well as a team, supporting each other
  • working hard and trying your best
  • setting and achieving goals
  • learning from mistakes
  • having a coach who respects players and communicates well

Can kids bounce back from burnout?

It depends, says Dr. Rowan. “The answer can be yes, with a focus on what is causing burnout and creating coping mechanisms or new habits that allow for individual wellbeing,” she says. A young athlete experiencing burnout may need a break, but they may to return to sports in time if they can find a team that gives them room to be themselves.

Griffith has seen some athletes give up on one sport and gravitate to another they play just for fun. “There’s less self-critique when athletes play a sport for fun. Even highly competitive kids can pursue excellence without tying their success to their self-worth when their mindset is, ‘I can play this because I enjoy playing it.’”

Learn more about the Sports Medicine Division, Female Athlete Program, and The Micheli Center for Sports Injury Prevention.

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