Why are younger athletes burning out of sports?
with advice from Jeff Rothstein, MS, CSCS
and Mark Salandra, CSCS
There are many reasons to sign your kids up for sports teams. They’ll build strong muscles and bones by being active, make friends and learn how to get along with others, and become more confident as they improve on the field. But many kids burn out and quit playing before they graduate from high school. Why?
“Parents and coaches need to remember that the primary goals of playing sports when younger are to improve motor skills while learning how to be a part of a team,” says Mark Salandra. A certified strength and conditioning coach who works with many student athletes as the founder of StrengthCondition.com (a Physiquality partner vendor), Mark often sees parents (and coaches) that emphasize competition over fun.
These parents will see that a child has a talent for baseball or tennis and start encouraging the child to sign up for multiple leagues for the same sport. Or the coaches will suggest that Noah or Ashley won’t be able to get an athletic scholarship if he or she doesn’t start practicing the same sport year round. Mark explains that this constant practice and competition can cause two types of burnout: physical and mental.
Jeff Rothstein, an exercise physiologist and the Director of Sports Enhancement at the PT Center for Sports Medicine in Akron, Ohio, equates physical burnout with increased risk of injury. Jeff encourages parents to think about the repetitive motion many sports require — repeated kicks of a soccer ball with one leg, the constant swinging of a bat in baseball, or the motion required to serve in tennis. If athletes have off seasons or play multiple sports throughout the year, he says, they will strengthen multiple muscle groups and let other muscles recuperate. But add up two to three leagues a year in one sport and the athlete’s muscles never get a chance to recover, leading to overuse injuries.
Mark and Jeff agree that mental burnout can be just as detrimental. Ask any eight-year-old what his favorite color or cartoon character is, and he won’t hesitate to answer. But if you ask him again a week later, his answer may be completely different. So why should he choose which sport to do at such a young age? In reality, Jeff says, by the time that boy reaches high school, the sport he loved as an eight-year-old has become a chore. Weekend fun with friends is passed over for tournaments played out of state. Holiday breaks are spent refining techniques with specialized coaches. Athletes who burn out like this may quit playing all sports, leading to a sedentary lifestyle and the health risks that come into play when one is overweight.
The irony in all of this is that kids (and the parents who encourage them) who specialize at such a young age usually think that this will help them to succeed in the sport, leading to scholarships or even a professional career. But Jeff points out that many of our most revered professional athletes excelled in multiple sports. Basketball star LeBron James was an all-state receiver on his high school football team. Tom Brady was drafted by the Montreal Expos baseball team before playing football at the University of Michigan and for the New England Patriots. And this goes for successful collegiate teams as well: At Ohio State University, 42 of the 47 football players on the team that won the 2015 college football national championship were multi-sport athletes.
Aside from reducing the risk of overuse injuries and mental burnout, these multi-sport players gain more athleticism. The skills gained in one sport can enhance those for another. And best of all, each sport feels fresher on the field when not played every week, and the athlete can enjoy the sport for what it is — a game.
||Jeff Rothstein, MS, CSCS, is an exercise physiologist and Director of Sports Enhancement at the PT Center for Sports Medicine, a Physiquality network physical therapy clinic in Akron, Ohio. A certified strength and conditioning specialist, he is particularly interested in sport-specific strength and conditioning and ACL injury screening and prevention.
||Mark Salandra, CSCS, is the founder of StrengthCondition.com, a Physiquality partner program. Mark educates and trains athletes young and old in strength and conditioning, with the goals of better fitness and lower rates of injury.
For further reading, look through our selection of articles on children’s health, in addition to the below links:
Wright, Scott. Football recruiting: Urban Meyer isn’t the only one who prefers multi-sport athletes. The Oklahoman, February 1, 2015.
Benefits of youth sports. The Datalys Center: Sports Injury Research and Prevention.
Rabin, Roni Caryn. The hazards of the couch. New York Times, January 12, 2011.