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Player Burnout

Date: December 2014 Posted by: Luis Gomez, Director of Coaching and Technical Development

Let me know if the following situation sounds familiar to you: Your child is a gifted soccer player; he plays on multiple teams and is training all the time. There aren't enough camps, clinics and tournaments to sign them up to. After a few years of this, you begin to notice they no longer enjoy the sport as much as they used to, or maybe they are becoming more predisposed to injury. Eventually they tell you they no longer want to play soccer. How do you react; what do you do to try to change their mind? You try to talk them out of it, but they are adamant they just want to focus on other things at the moment and no longer want to continue spending time playing a sport they no longer care for.

This situation is a direct result of player burnout. I've had many conversations and seen many related articles recently regarding this topic, so I thought I'd share my perspective. First, there is a lot of research regarding the physical and psychological effects of overtraining, and it's up to all of us coaches to help educate parents. Before we get into the details, it is important to know exactly what player burnout is. Burnout is the physical and mental exhaustion caused by the stress of overworking and pressure that is heaped upon a player by themselves and those around them. It usually happens in people that are hard working and push themselves harder and further than they probably should.

Levels of burnout can vary depending on the player, but symptoms are fairly consistent and can be both physical and psychological. Fatigue, a higher vulnerability to viral infection, breakdown of immune system, as well as a higher risk of injuries to the muscles and tendons are some of the physical symptoms, while a belief that they are not improving as a player, general negative thinking, a loss of purpose, a feeling of no control, or a loss of enjoyment fall under mental symptoms.

It is true that overtraining and stress can lead to overuse and consequently more injuries. Studies show that half of all injuries in sports are a direct result of overuse. Yes, half! The main problem in youth sports is that pressures we put on young children can cause them to play through injury, not letting anyone know that they're hurt. As a coach or parent it's important to pay close attention to any injury a child has. If the injury persists and doesn't go away, then you need to ensure the child rests to prevent it from getting worse.

The causes of burnout can fall under two separate categories: environmental and personal. Environmental causes can include physical factors which can lead to "overtraining syndrome." This is where too much training actually leads to a decrease in performance and increase in injuries. Rest is important for the body to recover and strengthen itself, so making sure to have adequate breaks between training sessions allows the body to recuperate and the athlete to train longer and harder as a result.

Other environmental factors include logistical and relational problems. Logistically, being a part of multiple teams and having to keep up with multiple commitments, such as practices, games, and personal training are contributing factors to stress. Relational problems, especially with coaches, however, can easily become the biggest setback a player can have in any sport. Much research has been done and many more articles can be written on this topic alone. Keeping it simple, coaches should understand that while these are athletes that need development, pushing them too hard can alienate them and many times leading them to quit. Conversely and more importantly for elite athletes, not challenging them enough can also have negative consequences over the perceived satisfaction with their own progress.

Moving on to personal factors, these refer to the child's mental state for the most part. The biggest problem that athletes face is the pressure that they put on themselves unnecessarily. A common dilemma that children face is that they tie their self-worth to their performance. If they do not play well, they think that they are less important to their family/coaches/whoever. It is extremely important that they understand that even if they don't live up to expectations of themselves or others, it doesn't mean that they are not as significant. Pressure they heap upon themselves can lead to other problems including not being able to cope with the stress as well as performance problems.

Identifying and Preventing Player Burnout

So how much training is too much? How much training should be done offseason? These are all common questions that really have the same answer: how much can your child handle? As you can imagine, only the player can determine how much they can deal with. The problem is that many times it's not the player that's consulted on the training regimen. If the training program is deemed too rigid by the player they could experience a "disconnect" and are more likely to burn out faster than they normally would. Because of this, it is extremely important to make sure that the player is consulted and their opinion respected when determining the type and amount of training the player is ready to experience.

Rest is the strongest medicine against physical stress and burnout. Scheduling mandatory breaks and making sure that your child has some downtime in the offseason can go a long way towards keeping them fresh and interested in their sport. Mentioned earlier, giving the child some decision-making gives them a feeling of control and autonomy that can improve the player's confidence and productivity. Another major step towards preventing player burnout is making sure that your child understands how to deal with stress. Knowing ways to manage their stress can keep them from feeling overwhelmed and getting down on themselves.

So what do you do if burnout has already occurred? At this point self-esteem is most likely low, so parents should work towards helping improve their confidence. It's important to listen to your child, find out what they want to experience out of the sport and then help them pursue those goals, instead of pushing them to complete goals others set for them. Lastly, as was the case with preventing physical burnout, rest and relaxation will be the most important. Let your child decide how long they need a mental break, because it is likely that the longer they stay away from the sport, the more they will miss it and likely want to come back.

Finally, while all these things are important, it is crucial that you make sure that the coach and team are right for your child. The wrong coach can easily lead to a player leaving the sport. As coaches, we need to find the balance between challenging players for development purposes, competition and managing the team. Unfortunately, as someone who hires and evaluates other coaches, this is the part we struggle with most. Interestingly, researchers claim that these are the three major domains where coaches need to be effective in their roles. For me, quality over quantity is the best formula for success. Quantity and repetition can lead to boredom and physical stress, while quality and variation coupled with a positive competitive environment will ensure engagement and development. We've all seen it, a boring practice can lead to a player feeling like they are not being challenged enough. In fact, studies show that for elite athletes, higher levels of perceived coaching competencies focusing on relational issues were associated with higher satisfaction with their progress in their sport. Quality goals and objectives and a well thought out curriculum with lesson plans take preparation but it's the key to a healthy balanced training.

I'll end by saying that it's not where you begin, but where you end. The development of your child as an athlete is a long multiyear process. So, focus on the future, not the present. Remember it's not just about winning but about continuous improvement. A focus on winning puts undo pressure on the child. Remind the child to have fun and not put so much pressure on themselves, and you as the parent should not either! Remember that these are still just kids, and soccer is still just a game.

See you on the fields!

References

"Competitive Advantage Sports Quote." Competitive Advantage: Sports Psychology and Mental Toughness. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Dec. 2014.

"How to Avoid Burnout in Young Athletes." Schupak, Marty. ACTIVE.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

"Coaches' Coaching Competence in Relation to Athletes' Perceived Progress in Elite Sport," Frode Moen' & Roger A. Federici, Department of Education, Norwegian University of Science and Technology, Norway. Dec. 2013.

"What Is Burnout?" BBC News. BBC, 14 Sept. 2005. Web. 09 Dec. 2014.

"Understanding Burnout in Sport," M. Ryan Flett, Sport Medicine & Science Council of Saskatchewan. [http://smscsqlx.sasktelwebhosting.com/services/firstaid/burnout.pdf]