• September 11, 2018


We all have a vague understanding of burnout, but should we advise our athletes to drop out, take a break, make some changes, or suck it up? Because burnout is a popular term, we need to carefully consider what is true and not true about burnout in youth athletes.

Burnout is a negative psychological and physical state in which young athletes feel tired, less able to perform well, and less interested in playing their sports. Three symptoms characterize burnout.

  • Physical and Emotional Exhaustion
    • The exhaustion associated with burnout involves the depletion of emotional and physical resources beyond the typical tiredness that comes and goes throughout a sports season.
  • Reduced Sport Accomplishment
    • A lack of performance success or inconsistent performance, or it can be more about the perception on the part of the athlete that he/she is not playing up to his/her potential.
  • Devaluation of Sport
    • The athlete doesn’t care as much about his/her sport. Athletes may say “I’m sick of doing this”; “I don’t care about playing anymore”; or “It’s just not fun anymore.” Another common symptom is questioning things – for example, “Why am I doing this?”

Several factors contribute to burnout in youth athletes:

Factors Related to Burnout in Youth Athletes

Overload Factors




Social Climate Factors

Pressure from parents

Negative coaching behaviours

Feeling trapped in sport participation

Lack of personal control

Personality Factors

Trait anxiety

Weak coping skills

Negative perfectionism

Obsessive passion

Unidimensional identity

Overload factors represent what people usually think about when they hear that someone is burned out. Overstress involves demand that exceeds athletes’ abilities to cope, such as when they are overloaded without adequate physical and mental recovery. Overtraining is the result of excessive training and inadequate recovery, which typically leads to decreased performance and psychological distress (Richardson, Andersen, & Morris, 2008). Some overload is needed to induce a training effect and improved performance, but too much overload without adequate recovery results in decreased performance (called staleness), exhaustion, decreased interest in training, and negative moods (burnout).

Social climate contributors to burnout are those negative aspects of the youth sports culture that are harmful to the psychological development and well-being of kids. These include pressure from parents to perform or achieve certain outcomes (e.g., winning, making the varsity team, gaining a college scholarship) and negative coaching behaviours, such as extreme controlling behaviours and developmentally inappropriate training and performance expectations.

Although the structure of youth sport and the behaviour of coaches and parents are critical in influencing burnout, several personality factors have been related to burnout in youth athletes. […] Youth sports athletes should protect themselves from burnout by engaging in different types of activities to define themselves in multidimensional ways.

Strategies to Help Athletes Avoid and Deal With Burnout

  1. Although definitiveness is lacking, it is thought that physical and emotional exhaustion serves as a first indicator of developing burnout in young athletes. Observing these symptoms should prompt coaches and parents to intervene immediately and work with the athlete to find the best strategy to ensure some rest, recovery, and mental rejuvenation.
  2. Identify athletes whose personalities or life situations predispose them to burnout, and make it a point to intervene with guidance and suggestions to help them achieve without crossing the line into harmful training behaviours.
  3. Anyone can help young athletes learn active coping skills. Better lifestyle management, healthier decisions, more rational perspectives on competition, and skill in identifying and pursuing personal mastery goals are all coping skills that can be learned by young athletes.
  4. Guide young people in adopting multiple areas of interest and achievement. Such variety and multidimensionality guard against burnout that occurs from a single-minded obsession gone awry.

From Best Practice for Youth Sport by Robin Vealey and Melissa Chase. Copyright © 2017  by Human Kinetics Publishers, Inc. Excerpted by permission of Human Kinetics, Champaign, IL. Available to order from Human Kinetics Canada at www.HumanKinetics.com or by calling 1-800-465-7301.

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Coach Responses

Did you ever experience burnout as a youth athlete?

Why do you think it happened? How did it affect your sports experience?

How can we as coaches reduce the possibility and impact of burnout in athletes?

Share your tips and best practices!

Jayden Vanneste – Ringette – Exeter – 4 years

“I have never experienced burnout as an athlete but I understand the many factors that can lead to burnout and which to reduce the possibility of an impact in the athletes I coach. I think it is important for athletes to rotate sports throughout the year. I do not encourage a young athlete to play one sport year-round. Rather, I believe it is more important to play multiple sports year-round. This gives their bodies a break from the stress of single sport play and exposes them to different coaches, teammates, expectations and rules, and sporting venues. Within a season I think it is important to have “rest days” or days in which the athletes are not playing their sport directly. I believe one to two practices and one to two games per week is significant and effective. On the days that athletes are not dedicating a couple of hours at the arena, I encourage them to go walking, running, or swimming. These activities use different discipline and muscle groups to help reduce the possibility of burnout. Also, engaging with athletes, being supportive of them not only as a sports coach but as a life mentor, and making the practices and games fun can help to reduce burnout.”

Sean Ferguson – Swimming – Waterloo – 21 years

“I believe that this burnout in sport is primarily an issue that comes from the top – down, as too often the PSO/NSOs are solely focused on podium/medal/trophy finishes (at least that is what is filtered down to coaches in my sport) and we need to get back to “sport” as the percent of athletes – even elite level athletes – that will make a career out of sport is extremely small. *sorry for the reality check, but it’s true, and we need to stop this Americanized obsession that everyone will be a ‘sports star’ and making millions of dollars.

Instead of PSO/NSOs focusing on training camps/centres where only a select few out of the thousands of sports participants in Ontario get to attend, we need to start creating a more balanced environment where there are opportunities for all competition levels and a more recreational approach where healthy active lifestyles are pushed; when we approach things that way, someone who competed when they were 14 is still excited to compete at 24, 54, and even 84 in their sport, or maybe they choose to pick up other sports along the way!

I think when we start to change the sports system in Canada to be truly Canadian and less Americanized, then we will see less burnout in our sports in general and we will create inclusive & diverse environments where people enjoy participating in the sport for their entire lives.

As someone who has dedicated a lot of time and effort to: develop/spread movements, creating policy & frameworks, working at the grass-roots level, etc., I can see how the PSO/NSOs (or sports system in general) just aren’t adhering to the prescribed research that many associated organizations & post-secondary institutions have done (such as LTAD, Sport4Life, The Framework for Recreation in Canada, TrueSport, PHE Canada, Parks & Recreation Ontario/High Five, OPHEA, York & Brock University, etc).

Maybe it will all change sooner than later with more discussions like this.”

Francois Belle-Isle – Track and Field – Hawkesbury – 31 years

“…To reduce burnout in athletes, I consider four pillars:

1) Variety and fun in training sessions.

2) Avoid overspecialization especially in youth.

3) Encourage participation in other sports.

4) The off-season is necessary, a 3 to 4-week break, where unstructured play occurs.”

Rebecca Brown – Equestrian – Coburg – 25 years

“…Yes As a youth I experienced burnout in Track & Field. I think at that time sports training wasn’t as well developed and understood as it is now. It makes me more aware now when I see my athletes in training that they are getting burned out. It makes me take a moment and pause and rethink the training program we are on.

I think as coaches we need to be aware all athletes are different, learn differently, train differently, peak differently. We need to modify programs with the standards to ensure we don’t have dropped out.”

Paul Bullock – Baseball – Collingwood – 40 years

“There are different types of “burnt out” I am just talking about the mental challenges faced by athletes.

…As coaches, it’s important to have long term goals but these milestones don’t come round too often and can dishearten young athletes. So it’s important to break the thing down into short more achievable chunks. Never stick on one aspect of their development keep the training varied and engaging.

In old athletes, it’s becoming more about developing the character of the type athlete than the skills and basic knowledge. What I mean by this is encouraging question, experiment, let them fail, and teach them to pick themselves up ( really important in team sports)

These couple of points keep kids mentally active and avoids mental burn out.”

Emmanuel – Soccer – Manassas – 5 years

“…coaches have the obligation of duty of care to the team at large. Conceive innovative ideas in building a stronger team spirit for great performance in creating a better atmosphere which is free and conducive for training and play. Determine short term and long term goals and ensure it’s implementation evaluation and monitoring. Ensure a close follow up for everyone and encourage those that do not meet up to the task with soft words. Promote effective and friendly collaboration among teammates and the coaches.”

Nick – soccer – Ajax – 8 years

“I did experience burn out when I was younger, and it actually led to me leaving the sport for 2 years. So thought this rejuvenated me, it’s a path I try to get my players to avoid. As a coach, I have seen this as well and I’ve tried to bring something different each year so that things never feel like a job, and there’s a good balance so as not to overload the kids with technical information and “work”.”

Raj – Judo – Ottawa – 10 years

“‘Burnout’ in judo can happen at any time, to anyone. It can happen to elite competitors and recreational players alike. In judo, however, the underlying focus is not on competition, but on using the sport to build better citizens, and encourage players to seek self-perfection. Judo’s founder, Jigoro Kano, was deeply suspicious of medal-chasing and preferred instead for judo to be viewed as a lifelong passion. Knowing this, how can we discuss the question at hand? When a judoka experiences mental, physical, or spiritual fatigue, we encourage them to take as long as they need in order to return to judo when they are ready. By focusing on long-term participation rather than short-term performance, we de-emphasize the idea that sports participation takes priority over human emotion. In judo, competition is available to age ranges of 5 to 80+, so there is no fear that the ability to compete will vanish.

This said the danger to elite competitors is that their self-life is rather short. This is our most vulnerable category. In any event, when we stress that judo is for life, and not just for today or tomorrow, and we emphasize the underlying philosophy of judo as a way to perfect the human condition, we lengthen the time horizon in which our athletes conceptualize participation in judo. In other words, when we think about judo as a lifelong sport, rather than a short-term competitive undertaking, we try to minimize the likelihood of burnout. I hope this insight into our coaching philosophy helps other coaches work with their athletes to use long-term athlete development (LTAD) as a tool to combat burnout. The world of sports benefits when people stay active and happy in their chosen sport.”

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