Home » Burnout In Youth Athletes: Risk Factors, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

From the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine

Burnout In Youth Athletes: Risk Factors, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Treatment

 

While geared to sports medicine professionals, a new position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (DiFiori JP, et al. 2014) provides helpful guidance to sports parents on the causes, risk factors, diagnosis, and treatment of burnout in youth athletes.

Response to chronic stress

Burnout is considered a response by a young athlete to chronic stress in which he or she ceases to participate in a previously enjoyable activity, withdrawing from the sport because they perceive it is not possible to meet the physical and psychological demands of the sport. 

Burnout is considered by experts to be part of a spectrum of conditions that includes overreaching and overtraining syndrome.

Overreaching may either be functional or nonfunctional:

Sad basketball player
  • Functional overreaching is defined as intense training that leads to a period of decreased performance which results in full recovery after a rest period.
  • Non-functional overreaching results in a longer period of decreased performance, and is further accompanied by increased psychological and/or neuroendocrinological symptoms, but, like functional overreaching, results in full recovery after a period of rest.

Overtraining syndrome is a series of psychological, physiologic, and hormonal changes that result in decreased sports performance.  It is characterized by:

  • extreme non-functional overreaching, with a longer period of decreased performance lasting 2 months or more
  • more severe symptomatology
  • maladaptive physiology, and
  • an additonal stressor not explained by other disease.

Although it is difficult to determine the extent of overtraining/burnout in children and adolescents, due in part to the lack of standard terminology used in different studies, it is believed to occur in about 30% to 35% of adolescent athletes.

Burnout occurs in stages

Four stages of burnout have been proposed:

    1. the young athlete is placed in a situation that involves varying demands

    2. the demands are viewed as excessive

    3. the young athlete experiences varying physiological responses; and

    4. varying burnout consequences develop, including

  • low self-esteem
  • low personal performance expectation
  • worrying more about failure and adult expectations 
  • increased anxiety as a result of increased parental pressure to participate
  • excessive athletic stress leading to a loss of sleep, physical injury, lower performance, and 
  • ultimately withdrawal from sport.

Dropping out: burnout not always cause

Not all youth athletes who drop out are burned out.  Youth sports attrition is a complex phenomenon influenced by a variety of personal and situational variables.  The most common variables are:

  • time conflicts and interest with other activities (most common reason for dropping out of sport, either permanently or temporarily)
  • lack of playing time
  • lack of success
  • lack of skill improvement
  • lack of fun
  • boredom; and
  • injury.
Remember, also, that a young athlete who discontinues participation may reenter the same sport or participate in a different sport in the future.  

Risk factors

There are multiple risk factors for young athletes developing overtraining/burnout: 

  • Environmental
    • Extremely high training volumes
    • Extremely high time demands
    • Demanding performance expectations (imposed by self or significant others)
    • Frequent intense competition
    • Inconsistent coaching practices
  • Personal characteristics
    • Perfectionism
    • Need to pleases others
    • Non-assertiveness 
    • Uni-dimensional self-conceptualization (focusing only on one's athletic involvement)
    • Low self-esteem
    • High perception of stress (high anxiety)
  • Early specialization: 
    • several studies have suggested that athletes who had early specialized training withdrew from their sport either due to injury or burnout. 
    • A study of swimmers found that those who specialized early spent less time on the national team and retired earlier than those who specialized later
    • Early specialization also seems to be correlated with reports of decreased general health and psychological well-being.
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