Burnout in youth sports is a threat to the physical and mental stamina of young athletes.As competitive youth athletics engages younger participants each year, the threat of, both, physical and mental burnout in young players grows more imminent. Over involvement in competitive leagues has long-term consequences for kids, if after the first 12 years of their lives they abandon organized sports or, perhaps, physical activity completely. This alarming situation is compounded by the growing competition between youth sports and modern technology, which is driving youngsters to become sedentary, often in the form of sitting in front of a computer for hours at a time. Unfortunately, once young victims of burnout quit sports, they rarely return. This startling predicament of modern youth sports can be attributed to the actions of parents and coaches.
Parents that enroll their children in too many sports, or multiple leagues for one sport, end up constructing a trap that will inevitably catch up with their kid. These children are often bound by impractical time constraints, almost literally living out of their family vehicles in order to accommodate their hectic schedules. Parents must find a reasonable balance for their children and help budget their time. Youth coaches can also share the blame for the dilemma. Coaches who allow their practices to become drudgery can get feelings of resentment from their players. Conducting short, stimulating, fun practices that convey skills in the form of spirited activity can turn practices into a positive experience for young players. If players leave practice unmotivated to show up at the next one, something is amiss.
While burnouts result from participation in too many sports, as well as enrollment in too many leagues for a single sport, the latter scenario may pose greater danger for the player. Having a child play in numerous leagues in order to specialize their talents often leads to physical harm. Using the same muscles over and over again without varied activity can introduce problems with the child's growth platelets. This kind of damage can persist into long term health issues.
Consider a twelve year-old youth baseball player who is involved in two leagues and is a pitcher. Suppose the pitch count slips away from an attentive coach or parent, or the coach sneaks in a few extra innings for a game that the team needs to win. If this realistic scenario repeats itself enough, the perfect formula is created for serious arm injury. It is not difficult for parents to overlook this outcome when they are blinded by their personal motivations. Perhaps the parent is looking to vicariously relive their childhood. Hopes of a college scholarship seven years down the road could also drive a parent down this dangerous path. Some youth players are not only involved in multiple youth leagues but in some cases talented ones also play for their school team. I have seen how middle school coaches are oblivious to anything their player does outside of school. If a talented player pitched on a Sunday in one youth baseball league and then in another league he relieves on Monday, like the previous scenario, I have seen coaches start the same pitcher on Tuesday for their school team without any regard to how much he has pitched the previous days. And some parents either don’t think much about it or are too afraid to rock the boat with the all important school team. This is really playing with fire when the number of pitches must be coordinated amongst all the leagues. I really believe the onus falls mostly on the parents. This is because they should know exactly how many games, innings, and pitches their son throws each and every day. Besides all the studies that reinforce this, there is an epidemic of physical and mental over usage, parents have to use common sense.
I have also heard stories that some parents opt for “Tommy John” surgery when it is not needed and try to get doctors to agree to do it. This type of surgery is named after the former major league pitcher with the same name. It is a surgical procedure in which a ligament in the medial elbow is replaced with a tendon from another part in the body (usually the forearm, hamstring, hip, knee, or foot).The ridiculous thought pattern here is to try to increase the velocity of their son’s fastball by a few miles an hour, which happens in some but not all of the Tommy John type surgery. When I first heard that some parents would put their kids through this, I almost dropped. And to think that there are doctors willing to do this is also sickening. Hopefully no one in the medical profession would dare operate on a healthy young adult in order to help secure either a scholarship or a major league contract.
With all these organized teams, we are also taking away from what I like to call the all important “Imagination time” for kids. When I coaches I encouraged my players with creative drills. If they made suggestions to make a drill better I not only tried it but used one or two in my video The 59 Minute Baseball Practice. Playing in the backyard and making up over-the-top fun games seems to be losing its luster as of late. I know myself, my favorite time as a kid playing sports was when my friends and I were able to be creative without any restrictions. Those days seem to be fading. So what is the correct formula? Unfortunately, there is no single answer to this question. All kids are different and some are more physically resilient than others. Parents need to prioritize their children's physical and mental well-being over their own emotional and monetary incentives. A lifestyle that emphasizes a balance between school, extracurricular, and free time, is probably the best thing for all kids in the long run. And if you, as parents, or your kids, who participate in youth sports leagues always seem tired, maybe this is an indicator to slow down. Remember, kids also need some free time away from organized sports to be creative in their backyards or the schoolyard. The burnout factor is something parents and communities need to pay attention to. Competition is great, but the overindulgence might be doing more harm than good.
Marty Schupak has coached youth sports for 25 years. He has written 11 books and produced 26 sports instructional videos. His is the founder of T-Ball America.
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