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Burnout in Young Athletes: How to Keep the Fun in Sports

Too Much, Too Soon Can Lead To Child Injury and Burnout Too Much, Too Soon Can Lead To Child Injury and Burnout

By: Joel S. Brenner, MD, MPH, FAAP & Drew Watson, MD, MS, FAAP

Does your child dream of becoming the next Olympic star or pro athlete? While you might share those goals, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages all parents and families to take a commonsense approach when it comes to sports training. Here's why.

The benefits of organized sports

These days, it's less common to see kids outside playing pick-up games or racing each other to see who's the fastest. Open, free play seems to be less popular as young kids choose a single sport or activity and play it all year round.

Organized sports can be great for kids. They can help them develop physical skills and get regular exercise that supports healthy growth and well-being. Participating in sports can also help them make friends, learn how to be part of a team and play fair, improve self-esteem and have fun. But studies show that nearly 70% of kids across the U.S. drop their favorite sport before age 13.

When kids drop out of sports

This is a warning sign that far too many young people are experiencing burnout, which can cause them to turn away from the activities they once loved. Burnout also interferes with a budding habit of physical activity and the lifelong physical and mental health benefits it provides.

Read on to learn more about burnout and how to keep the fun in sports.

How and why do young athletes burn out?

Burnout is when kids no longer feel a sense of fun and accomplishment when playing or practicing. It can happen with sports specialization, which is when a child focuses on only one sport or activity, usually year-round.

Single-minded, non-stop focus on just one activity—whether it's baseball, swimming, football, dance, gymnastics, hockey, lacrosse or any other choice—can cause kids to lose interest and enthusiasm.

What sports burnout may feel like to your child

Overtraining and burnout can leave a young athlete feeling physically or mentally exhausted. They may believe that specializing (and winning) in the sport is what coaches, parents and families want and need them to do. In the worst situations, kids may assume this sport is their only chance for success in life.

How can I encourage a healthy approach to sports?

We encourage families to take a positive attitude toward sports that focuses on fun, teamwork and regular exercise. This way, sports can become part of a balanced lifestyle that keeps kids active and healthy into adulthood.

8 tips for healthy youth sports participation:

  • Wait to start organized sports until about age 6, when kids are fully ready. Younger kids should enjoy free play every day to help bones, muscles and balance develop and give them a chance to exercise social skills, too—all without pressure to perform.

  • Encourage your child to play a variety of sports. Studies show that kids thrive when they try out many different activities before puberty. They also are less likely to lose interest or drop out when they engage in more than one sport.

  • Focus on fun. Did you know that kids say fun is the #1 reason they want to play sports? Give them the freedom to choose activities they truly enjoy. Avoid too much emphasis on outcomes or performance, especially in younger children.

  • Set training limits. A good general rule is that kids should not train more hours each week than their age. AAP experts advise parents and families to plan for 1 to 2 days of rest every week with at least 2-3 months off during the year. The time off can be divided into 1-month increments.

  • Consider what's driving your child. Are they thinking about success in college? Or becoming wealthy, famous athletes later in life? These are exciting dreams, but parents and caregivers should present a balanced view. Remind your child that only 3% to 11% of high-school athletes go on to compete in college, and only 1% receive athletic scholarships. The percentage of college athletes who go on to professional careers is even smaller. (Fewer than 2% of NCAA student athletes play professionally after they leave school.)

  • Keep an eye on your child's health. Growing athletes need plenty of sleep and good nutrition to recover from the stress that training puts on their bodies. Be sure your child gets plenty of foods high in iron, calcium and vitamin D. Female athletes should watch for issues caused by overtraining, like missed periods. And because many sports stress the value of maintaining a certain weight or body type, always watch for signs of disordered eating in your child.

  • Watch for signs of abuse. If anything makes you uneasy about your child's relationship with coaches and other adults in an athletic program, take action. If you see or hear something that suggests abuse, or your child complains of mistreatment, speak up immediately. Your child's doctor can help you map out a plan to advocate for your child.

  • Set a positive example. If kids see you working out or playing sports 7 days a week, even when you're feeling tired or suffering from pain, they may try to do the same. After all, kids pick up cues about what parents expect. If you practice healthy self-care, they will too.

    Your attitude about your child's athletic performance matters, too. Look for ways to appreciate everything they do, not just what they accomplish on the court, playing field or gym. Knowing you love them unconditionally fosters the confidence they need to enjoy sports to the fullest.

More information

About Dr. Brenner

Joel S. Brenner, MD, MPH, FAAPJoel S. Brenner, MD, MPH, FAAP is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness and Past Chairperson. He practices sports medicine at the Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters and Children’s Specialty Group, PLLC in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a professor in the Department of Pediatrics, Eastern Virginia Medical School. He is a team physician for a local high school and a performing arts high school.

About Dr. Watson

Drew Watson, MD, MS, FAAP is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine & Fitness. He practices pediatric sports medicine within the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Wisconsin–Madison and is a team physician for the university's athletic department.

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American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness (Copyright © 2024)
The information contained on this Web site should not be used as a substitute for the medical care and advice of your pediatrician. There may be variations in treatment that your pediatrician may recommend based on individual facts and circumstances.
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