Stress, Overtraining and Burnout

Stress, Overtraining, and Burnout Associated with Participation in Sport:

Is Your Child At-Risk?

Article written by Jennifer J. Waldron, M.Ed.
Institute for the Study of Youth Sports

Most people agree that sport provides many benefits, such as cooperation, skill development, teamwork, and fitness, for youth participants. In recent years, many parents, coaches, and athletes have felt the pressure for youth sport participants to specialize in order to be successful.

However, specialization or year-round involvement of youth in one particular sport, at the expense of playing multiple sports, may not provide the expected benefits and may be harmful in the long run. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (July, 2000) released a statement recommending that children should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and to develop a wide range of skills.

This article examines three potential consequences of specialization: stress, overtraining, and burnout. Regardless of the type of sport children are involved in and the level of competition, there is a good chance that children may experience some stress during sport participation.

This stress may not be negative. However, 1 out of 10 children will experience excessive stress that can lead to greater problems (Weinberg & Gould, 1995). A useful definition of stress is childrenís perception of the sport environment and their perceived ability to meet the demands of the environment. Thus, stress includes both childrenís personal characteristics as well as environmental factors. Personal characteristics that may place children at-risk for experiencing excessive stress include:

Environmental factors that may increase childrenís level of stress include situations such as losing a competition or competing in a very important event.

It is important for parents and coaches to recognize possible signs and symptoms of stress in youth athletes. Signs and symptoms of stress can be placed in four different categories: feelings, thoughts, behaviors, and physical. Table I below gives examples from each category.

Because every individual will experience different signs and symptoms of stress, it is essential that parents and coaches know their children and athletes in order to detect, and help them deal with, stress. Overtraining is a specific type of stress that may occur in children. Unrealistic time demands and physical training demands may be placed on children, leading to overtraining (Hollander, Meyers, & LeUnes, 1995). Overtraining encompasses physiological and psychological changes in athletes and is caused by constant competition and excessive training. General signs and symptoms of overtraining include (Fry, Morton, & Keast, 1991):

In order to help reduce the risk of overtraining, unrealistic practice demands should not be placed on children. Furthermore, time should be made for social interaction between teammates during practice and outside of practices (Hollander et al., 1995).

Finally, burnout is a response to chronic stress. Burnout causes children to withdraw from or to stop participating in sport because it is no longer enjoyable (Smith, 1986). This is a severe response to stress. It has been suggested that chronic stress is caused by: a) the perception that the self and others only see the athlete in an athletic role and b) the lack of control the athlete feels in his or her life (Gould, 1993).

To help curtail burnout in young athletes, adults can help athletes realize that sport is only one aspect of their lives and also to give the athletes some power or control in the decision-making process. Other factors that are related to burnout in youth include (Weinberg & Gould, 1995):

Hopefully, techniques will be implemented by parents and coaches to help children deal with their stress in sport before they burnout. One technique to try is to have the athlete create a "stress bag". The "stress bag" becomes a personal place where the stressed athlete can leave current worries and fears. Another idea is to have athletes pretend their mind is a television. Similar to a television, the athletes practice switching channels in order to change their focus from something stressful to something positive (Weinberg & Gould, 1995). These are only two of many techniques that can be used to help youth athletes deal with stress.

As adults involved in promoting youth sport, it is important that we realize that excessive stress or burnout may eventually lead to athletes withdrawing from sport. One possible source of excessive stress could be specialization or year-round involvement of children in one particular sport.

Another potential source of stress for the youth athlete is excessive parent and/or coach pressure. Table 1 lists possible signs of stress that may be seen in youth athletes.

One way adults can become more aware of these signs of stress is to listen to the athletes. For example, athletes might tell an adult that they do not want to go to practice on a particular day. It is the responsibility of the adult to ask why; perhaps the athleteís body hurts - this could be a sign of overtraining - or perhaps the athlete has a stomach ache and feels ill - this could be a sign of stress.

By listening to athletes and asking them specific questions, adults are able to gain information about athletesí sporting experiences. This information is valuable in helping adults identify excessive stress in young athletes. It is then necessary to address the issue of athletic stress in the child and find ways to make the sporting experience less stressful and more enjoyable.

Feelings Thoughts Behavioral Physical
Anxiety Limited attention span Pacing Tight muscles
Fear Self-criticism Nail-biting Sweaty palms
Moodiness Poor decision-making Nervous laughter Heart pounding
Irritability Fear of failure Crying Trembling
Worry Making mental errors Restlessness Headaches

References

- American Academy of Pediatrics. Intensive Training and Sports Specialization in Young Athlete (RE9906). http://www.aap.org/policy/re9906.html..
- Fry, R.W., Morton, A.R., & Keast, D. (1991). Overtraining in athletes: An update. Sports Medicine, 12:32-65.
- Hollander, D.B., Meyers, M.C., & LeUnes, A. (1995). Psychological factors associated with overtraining: Implications for youth sport coaches. Journal of Sport Behavior, 18(l):3-20.
- Smith, R. E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8:36-50.
- Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (1995). Foundations of sport and psychology.


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Last updated on Tuesday, November 20th, 2001.