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How to Prevent Burnout in Young Athletes

University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children'sExperts in Children's Health
Coach talks to young rugby player

Playing sports can improve children’s physical health, emotional well-being, social skills and academic performance – all while being fun and teaching important life lessons. But the benefits of youth sports can be tainted when burnout and overuse injury come into play.

“Taken together, burnout and overuse injury represent one of the biggest risks to the health and well-being of young athletes,” says James Voos, MD, Chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at University Hospitals. “The good news is that parents and coaches have a degree of control in recognizing, preventing and reversing both burnout and overuse injuries.”

What Is Athlete Burnout?

Athlete burnout is when an athlete loses interest in playing their sport, often due to a combination of physical and emotional exhaustion. The condition can include feelings of resentment, loss of enjoyment and a reduced sense of accomplishment, often leading to lower performance/achievement than previously demonstrated in the sport.

Burnout can occur for different reasons. For example, the condition is fairly common in kids who play a sport primarily because of their parents’ encouragement rather than their own interest.

“Some parents may push a sport onto their child,” Dr. Voos says. “Maybe it’s a sport one of the parents played when they were young. Sometimes it’s a sport the child’s older siblings play. In such cases, the child may not share the parents’ interest or passion in the sport.”

Burnout can also occur when a young person plays the same sport over and over again, missing out on the variety of trying different things.

What Are Overuse Injuries?

Overuse injuries are sports-related injuries caused by repetitive motion of the body, typically from overtraining or insufficient rest and recovery between sports activities. Unlike acute sports injuries, overuse injuries do not happen suddenly – instead, they develop over time.

While overuse injuries can affect athletes of all ages, children and teens are particularly vulnerable because their muscles, tendons, ligaments, bones and growth plates are still growing.

Common overuse injuries in youth sports include:

  • Soccer: Knee and ankle injuries
  • Baseball: Shoulder and elbow injuries related to pitching
  • Basketball: Jumper’s knee
  • Volleyball: Jumper’s knee
  • Running: Plantar fasciitis and knee injuries
  • Gymnastics: Back, elbow and ankle injuries
  • Tennis: Elbow injuries

Recent years have seen a rise in overuse injuries in young athletes. In fact, more than 50% of medical visits by young athletes are due to overuse injuries. The high level of intensity that often accompanies many year-round training programs for certain sports is a major contributing factor to the increase.

“On top of many kids specializing in one sport and subjecting their bodies to the same repetitive movements and stresses throughout the year,” says Dr. Voos, “the year-round training regimens of these young athletes often incorporate either heavy lifting or high-intensity endurance programs that are designed for adults. This practice puts young athletes at even greater risk for overuse injury.”

The Value of Playing Multiple Sports

One of the most effective ways to prevent sports burnout in young athletes is also one of the best ways to prevent overuse injury: participation in different sports from a young age.

“Studies show that athletes who specialize in just one sport from a young age are more likely to develop overuse injuries,” says Dr. Voos.

These one-sport athletes are also less likely to earn athletic scholarships and participate in sports at the collegiate and professional levels than athletes who played multiple sports. This tends to hold true even for multi-sport athletes who begin playing sports a little bit later in life than the single-sport athletes.

Dr. Voos emphasizes that, for child athletes, the focus should be on having fun and moving their bodies in new and different ways, while learning the fundamentals of multiple sports. Young athletes who practice more varied movement patterns by mixing up their sports throughout the years develop more diverse neural connections. These connections help them perform better and stay in athletics longer, including later on when they might choose to focus on one sport.

The Importance of Rest and Recovery

In addition to playing different sports, one of the best things a young athlete can do to avoid both burnout and overuse injury is to take breaks from athletic activity. Rest and recovery are essential for reducing injuries and improving performance. What’s more, taking breaks is an important part of safe participation in multiple sports.

“It’s an all too familiar story,” says Dr. Voos. “For example, a young woman plays in her regional or state soccer finals, wraps up her season on a Saturday, and then injures herself the following Monday during the first week of basketball practice.”

He advises young athletes to take a week or two off between sports seasons when possible. This allows a growing body to recover and recharge while the athlete’s brain mentally prepares to refocus on that next sport. If unhealed injuries are involved, the period of rest may need to be longer and should be discussed with a doctor.

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The pediatric sports medicine experts at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s are dedicated to treating athletes of any age – from toddlers through adolescence and teenagers or young adults.