Sharpening the athletic edge

Diverse interests, regular breaks can reduce chances of burnout in sports

Diverse interests, regular breaks can reduce chances of burnout in sports

September 07, 2007|By TIFFANY ARNOLD

Ashley Binau, 16, has been playing soccer since she was 5 years old and sometimes wonders whether she'll ever get sick of the sport.

But instead of letting herself burn out, Binau has learned when to take breaks, like this summer when she took a soccer-free trip to Germany.

"When you're not enjoying it, when it's not fun, when you're just there to be there, you probably need a break," said Binau, a junior and a member of North Hagerstown High School's varsity soccer team. "When you (take breaks), you come back as a whole new player."

Coaches and officials from national athletic organizations say burnout among youth athletes is a growing concern. More parents are prodding their children to specialize in a single sport, and student athletes are going above and beyond to give themselves an athletic edge.


Youths who start specializing in a sport at an early age are more likely to suffer burnout by the time they are teens, said John Engh, chief operating officer of Alliance for Youth Sports, a Florida-based organization that trains volunteer coaches.

"Parents think, 'If I don't put my kid in baseball, he's going to be behind the other kids,'" Engh said.

"By the time it becomes important to (the athletes), are they really going to have a desire to get a college scholarship or keep playing?" Engh said.

Symptoms of athletic burnout are overall unhappiness, physical fatigue and loss of interest in the sport. Burnt-out athletes end up quitting the sport and are more likely to suffer injury, Engh said.

Researchers say prevalence of athletic burnout is difficult to determine. Locally, it affects a small percentage of athletes, said Marcia Nissel, North Hagerstown High School's athletic director and a member of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association's executive council.

But it has become enough of a concern to prompt efforts by the Alliance for Youth Sports and other organizations to raise awareness of it among parents, coaches and athletes.

The answer isn't to cut out sports participation altogether, especially with childhood obesity concerns, Engh said. Regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence lays the foundation for future health, according to data from the National Center for Chronic Disease and Prevention, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Instead, young athletes should know that it's OK to take breaks and should be encouraged to dabble in other sports, Engh said.

Nissel said the same is true at North High.

"The kids who do the most complaining are the kids who have been doing the same sport the whole four years, all year long," she said. "The kids who fare better are the ones participating in a variety of sports."

Ashley said she's played "basically every sport" and also plays lacrosse and basketball at North High. A similar story is true for some of her teammates.

Lindsay Irving, a 15-year-old sophomore at North, plays basketball and softball as well as soccer.

She said student athletes sometimes put too much pressure on themselves to perform, especially when they're injured. Injury forced Lindsay, a starter on the varsity soccer squad, to sit out most of last year's soccer season.

It was hard having to watch from the sidelines.

"You just have to suck it up and get over it," Lindsay said. "If you want to play again, you should take it easy because, if you go out there and make it worse, you'll never forgive yourself."

Tips for preventing athletic burnout

Parents can take steps to decrease the chance of a child getting fed up with a sport. John Engh, of Alliance for Youth Sports, and Marcia Nissel, athletic director at North Hagerstown High School, offered the following tips:

· Let your kids pick the sport and don't force them to play

· Listen to the doctor if your child is injured. If the doctor says rest for two weeks - it's two weeks.

· Keep it fun. There's always going to be time to get better.

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