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Is the Over-Organization of Youth Sports Taking Away from Their Benefit?

     

With school back in session and fall sports in full swing, young student athletes face mounting academic, athletic, and social time commitments. Although sports undoubtedly contribute to the positive health and well-being of student athletes, recent cultural changes in youth sports including overtraining, early sport specialization, and increased parental pressure are contributing to burnout and pushing student athletes out of sports. This is a public health concern. Parents and coaches can foster an environment that supports the personal, professional, and athletic development of these student athletes. They are uniquely positioned to identify signs of burnout and mental health illness in order to quickly and effectively get students the care they need. 

Physical and Mental Benefits of Sport

For many children, participation in youth sports establishes behaviors and skills that are key to leading a healthy life. For example:

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  • Early involvement in sports refines motor skills, balance, and coordination. 
  • Regular physical activity maintains a healthy body weight, builds strong bones and muscle12, and reduces the risk of high blood pressure and cardiac disease.9 
  • Participation in youth sports is associated with lower rates of anxiety and depression7, increased self-esteem3, reduced risk of suicide5, lower substance misuse4, and overall improved life satisfaction.11
  • Children learn important life skills like leadership, teamwork, determination, perseverance, problem solving, goalsetting, and time management.
  • Student athletes are more likely to succeed academically as compared to their peers and are 15% more likely to go to college.8, 10
  • Youth sports involvement is crucial for maintaining long-term health as student athletes are eight times more likely to be physically active as an adult6, earn higher salaries1, and have lower healthcare costs as compared to those who did not play sports in childhood or adolescence.2 Therefore, involvement in youth sports is imperative for optimization of public health. Most importantly, sports are fun!   

The Culture Problem

Unfortunately, there has been a slow, but steady decline in youth sports participation since the mid-2000s. Over this same period, there has been a cultural change in youth sports that negatively impacts the mental and physical wellbeing of its participants and ultimately contributes to burnout. Since the mid-1990s, there has been a heavy push towards more organized sports. This means structuring the entirety of a child’s athletic development around year-round organized practices, camps, or travel teams devoted to sport-specific skill development. Not only does this increase the costs of youth sports, which excludes groups of children financially, but it also decreases the fun. Much of children’s social and athletic development comes from recreational, imaginative play. Masking this form of sport with overly structured activity eliminates the trial and error necessary for the development of children. 

A group of kids playing football

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Given the ffinancial incentives for athletic success, there has also been increased pressure to specialize in one sport at an early age. While some specialization may be necessary to achieve elite status, early specialization leads to overtraining, reduced enjoyment in the sport, and increases the risk of injury, stress, and burnout. On the contrary, early participation in multiple sports may increase the likelihood of athletic success as the young athlete develops skills that transfer across sports. 

Finally, the overinvolvement of parents and coaches has ultimately deterred many children from sports. Consider this: what is the likelihood that a child, who voluntarily participates in a sport for pure enjoyment, will continue in that sport if all they experience is increased pressure, harassment, and grief from the people they look to as role models? Not likely. The truth is that the majority of youth sports participants will not make it to the collegiate, let alone professional, level, and that is ok! As Mike Matheny, former MLB catcher, manager, and youth baseball coach, stated in his now viral address to the parents of his select baseball team, the role of the parent is to be “the silent, constant source of support.” Our children need positive role models to look to for guidance. Coaches and parents have the unique task of shaping the character and development of our youth to becoming meaningful contributors to society. This is the greatest gift you can give to youth sports.    

Burnout in Sports

Taken together, overly rigorous structure, early specialization, and overinvolvement of parents and coaches contribute to rising rates of burnout in athletes, but what is burnout and how can parents and coaches identify signs of burnout?  Burnout is characterized by physical and mental exhaustion as a result of increased stress, which contributes to declining athletic performance despite ongoing training. Many factors contribute to burnout including psychologic and physical overload (overtraining, shortened recovery times), social factors (parental pressure, negative coaching behaviors), and personal factors (baseline anxiety, perfectionism, identity issues). Signs that a student athlete may be experiencing burnout include:

  • Decreased sports performance.
  • Decreased school performance.
  • Missing practices and/or games.
  • Lack of enthusiasm for sport.
  • Increased irritabilit.y
  • Sleep disturbances (difficulty falling asleep, staying asleep, waking up feeling refreshed).
  • Chronic muscle and joint pain.
  • Weight loss and loss of appetite.
  • Frequent illness or injury.
  • Over emphasis of winning by parents and coaches.
  • The child’s sport dominates home conversation.

Being aware of these signs of burnout is an important first step in ensuring a student athlete is not becoming overwhelmed by their sport. If you notice a child is experiencing any of these signs, it is best to seek advice from a pediatrician, school counselor, psychiatrist, or another mental health provider. Early assessment and intervention, which may involve removing the child briefly from sport, is key in managing the downstream effects of burnout and will likely benefit the child’s academic and athletic performance in the long-term.

While it may be difficult to change the current culture of youth sports, coaches and parents play an integral role in identifying student athletes most at risk for burnout. Being aware of how the culture of youth sports contributes to burnout is necessary for understanding the physical and mental pressure today’s youth face. With greater awareness of burnout, we can work towards preserving the physical, mental, and social benefits of youth sports for generations to come.

By
Matthew Beilfuss, 4th year medical student
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

Reviewed by
Claudia L. Reardon, MD
Associate Professor, Department of Psychiatry
University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health

References

  1. Barron, J. et al. The Effects of High School Athletic Participation on Education and Labor Market Outcomes. 2000. The Review of Economics and Statistics. 2000;82. 409-421. 10.1162/003465300558902.
  2. Ding D, et al. The economic burden of physical inactivity: a global analysis of major non-communicable diseases. Lancet. 2016;388(10051):1311-1324. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(16)30383-X
  3. Eime RM, et al. A systematic review of the psychological and social benefits of participation in sport for children and adolescents: informing development of a conceptual model of health through sport. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act. 2013;10(1):98. doi:10.1186/1479-5868-10-98
  4. Kwan M, et al. Sport participation and alcohol and illicit drug use in adolescents and young adults: a systematic review of longitudinal studies. Addict Behav. 2014;39(3):497-506. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2013.11.006
  5. Logan K, et al. Organized sports for children, preadolescents, and adolescents. Pediatrics. 2019;143(6). doi:10.1542/peds.2019-0997
  6. Perkins DF, et al. Childhood and adolescent sports participation as predictors of participation in sports and physical fitness activities during young adulthood. Youth Soc. 2004;35(4):495-520. doi:10.1177/0044118X03261619
  7. Sanders CE, et al. Moderate involvement in sports is related to lower depression levels among adolescents. Adolescence. 2000;35(140):793-797. Accessed September 10, 2021. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/11214216/
  8. Snyder E, Spreitzer E. High school athletic participation as related to college attendance among Black, Hispanic, and White males. Youth Soc. 1990;21(3):390-398. doi:10.1177/0044118X90021003005
  9. Telford RM, et al. The influence of sport club participation on physical activity, fitness and body fat during childhood and adolescence: the LOOK Longitudinal Study. J Sci Med Sport. 2016;19(5):400-406. doi:10.1016/j.jsams.2015.04.008
  10. Troutman KP, Dufur MJ. From high school jocks to college grads: assessing the long-term effects of high school sport participation on females’ educational attainment. Youth Soc. 2007;38(4):443-462. doi:10.1177/0044118X06290651
  11. Yazicioglu K, Yavuz F, Goktepe AS, Tan AK. Influence of adapted sports on quality of life and life satisfaction in sport participants and non-sport participants with physical disabilities. Disabil Health J. 2012;5(4):249-253. doi:10.1016/j.dhjo.2012.05.003
  12. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee. 2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Scientific Report. Part F. Chapter 8: Youth. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services; 2018.

     

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