The Times West Virginian

Prep Sports

July 13, 2014

Balance key to preventing youth sports burnout

FAIRMONT — Unless you’ve just won a NASCAR race, burning out is not a good thing.

All too often it seems that athletes are being pushed to a highly competitive level at a younger age each and every year.

Studies from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine have shown that an estimated 27 million youth in the United States between the ages of 6 and 18 play team sports; 60 million play at least one sport and 44 million play multiple sports.

While there is little data to support numbers for youth sports burnout due to the many reasons and factors that may contribute to the problem, it’s been said that things such as a pressure to specialize in a certain sport can lead to burnout, making multi-sport athletes less likely to burn out.

Youth sports burnout is defined as physical or emotional exhaustion to the point where it greatly interferes with the overall wellness and productivity of an individual.

A poll on the Times West Virginian website showed that 62.22 percent of readers believed youth sports burnout came as a result of not having fun while 31.11 percent said that it came from specializing in one sport.

ESPN The Magazine did a survey of teen athletes and found that 38 percent of girls and 39 percent of boys quit their team sport due to losing the fun aspect.

According to Chris Stankovich, Ph.D., “Study after study consistently shows that having fun is far more important than anything else — including winning.”

When athletes start to focus on winning and winning only, the sport turns from fun to a job — no matter if you’re playing one sport or multiple sports.

While swimming competitively in North Carolina, Fairmont Senior’s Brandton Ralston actually gave up on swimming because he felt “tired” of the sport.

“I was probably doing it for 12 years. It just started to take its toll,” Ralston admitted.

For Ralston, it wasn’t just the physical exertion from swimming which took its toll, as is most common in athletes who experience burnout, but rather the fact that he was doing too much with multiple sports.

While the little data that is available speculates that youth sports burnout is more prevalent in single-sport athletes who specialize, Ralston’s case proved that it could go either way.

“Going from lacrosse practice midday then going to swim practice, then getting up the next day and going to swim practice then lacrosse practice, I just got tired of it,” Ralston said, “I don’t want to call it an issue, but it was an issue where I was putting my body through too much physical activity in one day. And that became mentally draining, too.”

As a top-notch competitive swimmer, Ralston was competing at a high level, swimming at national tournaments and gaining looks from colleges as early as the eighth grade. But it eventually took too much out of him,  taking away too much time out of his life.

“When I was becoming so physically exhausted, that’s when I knew,” he said. “I felt like I wasn’t having the opportunity to be a kid. I felt like I was always training to be an athlete.”

During a typical week when sports are not in session, Ralston admitted to doing up to five or six hours of physical activity at least five days a week.

According to many medical practitioners and psychologists, it is suggested that you not do more hours than your age playing a sport each week, meaning if you are a 15-year-old athlete, you shouldn’t do more than 15 hours of physical sport activity during any given week.

Ralston, though, said that balance is the key, not a given number.

“I’ve always been told to go as hard as you can for as long as you can, but there’s definitely a limit,” Ralston said. “You always want to push yourself more than you can, but there’s a point where it can cause serious problems to your body. When it becomes clear that it’s a serious issue, it’s time to evaluate the situation.”

For Ralston, that time came when he was experiencing fevers of up to 102 degrees, even leading to being hospitalized on one occasion. Soon after, he gave up swimming altogether, lightening his load just a bit.

But after moving back to West Virginia, Ralston missed swimming.

With an itch to get back in the water, Ralston knew he needed to find a way to balance his work load so not to become burnt out again while swimming, playing lacrosse and football, and now cheering this upcoming season.

“This time I prioritized,” Ralston said. “I try to balance swimming and lacrosse. I’m looking at playing lacrosse at VMI, so I basically had to put it in order: lacrosse, swimming and cheer. They’re all important to me but on a different level. Cheer I take serious, but it’s more for fun for me.”

Competing for your own reasons such as having fun, Stankovich said, is one of the best things a young athlete can do to help prevent burnout.

“When kids are motivated to compete for their own, personal, self-satisfying reasons rather than being motivated simply to please a coach or their parents,” he said, “you will be less likely to witness youth sports burnout.”

For Ralston, it was all about prioritizing and scheduling, ultimately leading him back to the water. But he showed that simple playing multiple sports isn’t a way out of preventing burnout but rather having a variety of options and exercising those options appropriately.

“I feel like you just need to sit down and prioritize,” he said. “But understand that you’re a kid and realize that there’s more to life than being an athlete. You can compete at a high level and still have fun.”

Email Matt Welch at mwelch@timeswv.com or follow on Twitter @MattWelch_TWV.

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