Burnout in sports has become a prominent topic in the media in recent times. So many keen sports men and women leave sport in their late teens and early twenties. While people leave for various reasons, with changing life circumstances being one of many reasons, many also leave for lack of enjoyment through mental and physical burnout.

Andre Agassi is thought to have suffered from burnout during his mid twenties when not being able to find a healthy balance between his personal and professional life. The same was said of Michael Phelps (USA star swimmer and world record holder) after the Olympics and it resulted in him retiring from his sport while in his prime. Sven Hannawald, a former German ski jumper and multiple Olympic medal winner, surprised the sports world when he terminated his athletic career in 2005 due to burnout.

LEIPZIG, GERMANY - JULY 29:  Felix Magath, head coach of Wolfsburg argues with Simon Kjaer of Wolfsburg during the DFB Cup first round match between RB Leipzig and VfL Wolfsburg at the Red Bull Arena on July 29, 2011 in Leipzig, Germany.  (Photo by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Physical Burnout

While professional soccer players are afforded a day of rest after each match to recuperate after competitive matches, many of our young talented athletes between the ages of 14 and 21 are being bombarded by coaches to come and train for one of the numerous teams for which they play. Numerous young team sports athletes participate enthusiastically in many sports ranging from Gaelic football, hurling, soccer, rugby, basketball and athletics. In addition to being involved at club and schools level, more talented athletes are sought by elite level programmes across a variety of such sports.

For example, talented sixteen year olds could be involved in GAA development squads in both hurling and football, emerging talent squads through the FAI development programme and or provincial development squads in rugby. Some could also be involved in basketball, athletics or other sports. Some young gifted athletes can be involved with over 10 teams at any given time and these are the prime candidates for burnout.

Rest and recovery is central to physical preparation, injury management and maximisation of fitness levels. However, due to demands of different coaches, many of these young potential sport-stars are under pressure to perform to high levels day in, day out for the various teams that they play for without the recovery time afforded to professional athletes. This often manifests itself in overuse injuries varying from muscle strains to stress fractures and cartilage damage in knee, hip and elbow joints. Additionally, these talented players are often rushed back from such injuries so that coaches can satisfy their needs by having their star on the pitch even if it is against the young player’s best interest. It happens time and time again.

Parents need to be vigilant that their talented sons and daughters are not being burned out. Physically, they may lose interest and enjoyment of their sport while school studies may also suffer due to a combination of tiredness, exhaustion and time constraints.


Mental Burnout

Such players are often the ones that we talk about when they are in their mid twenties as a talent gone to waste. Individuals like these may lose enthusiasm for sport due to pressure placed by aspiring coaches or pushy parents. How often do we see parents lose the run of themselves during games when their star son or daughter is not having it easy on the field of play. Many parents live out their sporting dreams vicariously through their sibling’s actions on the sports field. While it is most helpful to be supportive, it is a distinctly different thing to be over interested and pushy with external pressure to perform well being heaped on the young athlete.

When talented athlete’s leave home in their early twenties through change of life circumstances and sport is no longer pushed on them from outside forces (parents and coaches), many tend to leave sport as they equate it with pressure. They often enjoy the release of not having to meet training deadlines and requirements to satisfy a coaches demand. This lack of intrinsic motivation is often a by-product of a mind mentally burned out from over indulgence in sport through their youth sport experience. While many regain the bug in their late twenties and early thirties, for many it is a case of it being too late to revive the lost years and lost talent.

For coaches as we train young athletes, it is most important that training sessions are fun and enjoyable and that an environment is created where athlete’s want to be involved. Also, it is important that the talented player involved in other sports is not being flogged between sports because if they are, you may be doing irreversible harm to their sporting career. Sometimes less is more

Keith Begley is an accredited sport psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport.

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