In part one of this series of three blog posts, we looked at the characteristics of burnout. In part two, we explored various explanations for burnout, including stress, feeling trapped, lack of motivation, and the culture of performance sport. Here in part three, we’ll think about what we can do to reduce the chances of our young athletes burning out and maybe leaving sport behind.
How do we stop young athletes from burning out?
So in part two, we looked at four different, often overlapping explanations for burnout. Now that we have a few different perspectives on how and why burnout actually occurs, we can start thinking about ways to prevent our young athletes from burning out, or at least reduce the likelihood of it happening. And prevention is always better than cure.
Well I keep saying that sport psych is an important part of performance, so let’s get young athletes learning awareness and relaxation skills so that they can understand when they feel pressure and are better equipped to deal with it. There’s also nothing wrong with setting up pressure situations in training so that they can get used to the feeling, but help them understand that actually, it’s ok to feel nervous and anxious or under pressure. Perfectly normal.
But we can also remove some of the stressors that young athletes face. Parents and coaches can, without even meaning to, put a bit too much pressure on young athletes. We all want our kids to do well. I say that like I have kids. I don’t, but I used to be one and I know there are a whole load of stressors that young athletes have to deal with both in and outside of sport.
Especially at a young age, the emphasis should be on having fun and enjoying sport. You could argue that to be truly exceptional, you need to start early to get your 10,000 hours in (especially true in some sports where athletes peak at a young age) but that doesn’t mean it can’t still be fun. And yes, I know… 10,000 hour rule… dubious.
We want our young athletes to take part in sport because they want to (intrinsic motivation), and we want them to enjoy what they’re doing (attraction, not entrapment). Even if they are committed to one sport, we want to make sure they have other interests and opportunities (developing an identity outside of sport), so that they feel like they have some control over their lives (autonomy).
We need to make sure their goals are mostly based around improving and learning new skills (competence), rather than having a heavy emphasis on winning (pressure). And these are all things that both coaches and parents can help with.
If you’re a parent of a young athlete, think about how you talk about sport with your child. A typical and well meaning question when a kid comes home from a game is “Did you win?” Even just by asking the question first, we’re reinforcing the idea that winning is the most important part of participating in sporting competition. How about “Did you have fun? What did you do really well today?”
Even if the answers are “Not really” and “Nuffink” then you can ask “Ok well what can you do differently next time?” Help them figure it out for themselves, but remember: No pressure! If they don’t feel like talking about it right away, that’s fine. Just give them the space to go and sulk for a bit.
If you’re a coach, think about how you can set up your coaching environment to address some of these issues. Keep it fresh and fun so that kids want to go to practice, rather than feeling that it’s a chore. Again, think about the goals that you have for training and competition.
Where’s the emphasis? If we coaches, parents, and sport psychologists can help with some of the things I’ve discussed here, then we can absolutely reduce the chances of young athletes burning out and leaving sport behind for good.
Have you had experience of working with burned out athletes? Have you burned out at any stage? What was the experience like and how did you recover from it? Leave a comment below if you like.