Player Burnout: Overreaching and Overtraining in Youth Athletics

Overtraining is one of the new hot topics in youth sports. Like concussions, the majority of the panic stems from two issues: the danger it presents to the athlete and the lack of understanding of the subject matter. Unlike concussions, the sports performance professionals have pretty good handle on overtraining and the symptoms aren’t quite as severe as head trauma. Most of the mishandling seems to come from parents and coaches that know nothing at all and allow the athlete to play with overtraining syndrome or know a little and shut the athlete down prematurely.

All athletics involve periods of functional overreaching: moments where you push your physical and mental limits to improve and get an edge on the competition. In strength and conditioning, overreach is used to make timely and systematic improvements to muscle function. It is a tactic necessary to the athlete’s skills and functional ability. When performed properly and under the right supervision, there is no danger in functional overreach.

Because of the heightened intensity relative to normal training stimuli, overreaching comes at a small cost. The neuromuscular system becomes fatigued and as a result, needs a longer period of time to recover. This doesn’t refer to a few hours. It refers to a few days of rest to allow the body to recover. Older athletes, such as upperclassmen high schoolers and collegiate athletes have a little room to play. They’re still young and in most cases, they’re highly-trained. This creates a slightly larger margin of error when prescribing periods of overreaching.

For younger athletes, the margin of error is smaller.

The spectrum of player burnout ranges from non-functional overreaching all the way to overtraining syndrom. Non-functional overreaching, like functional overreaching, involves periods of intense activity followed by a long necessary period of rest. Non-functional overreaching tends to happen when the playing schedule gets too heavy rather than in the weight room when overreaching is designed and monitored. Overtraining syndrome is a little more serious. It is a psychological, physical, and hormonal issue that occurs in an estimated 30% of youth athletes. It can and will decrease player performance and endanger the athlete’s health.

Overtraining occurs when athletes are placed in prolonged situations of overly excessive physical demands such as playing one sport year-round or playing for three or more teams at the same time.

Symptoms / early warning signs of overtraining include, but are not limited to:

  • Decreased passion for the sport.
  • Abnormal stress about performance, particularly in practice.
  • Chronic injury/ joint pain.
  • Irregular sleep patterns/ poor sleep quality.
  • Increased susceptibility to illness.
  • Declining sports performance not necessarily related to the score sheet.
  • Increased craving for carbohydrates.
  • Personality changes.
  • Elevated resting heart rate.

Having one or all of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily mean that you or your child has overtraining syndrome but it should put you on alert to be more observant moving forward.

The list of symptoms isn’t meant to scare you into pulling the plug prematurely. Before jumping to conclusions, speak with the player’s support staff: team coaches, skills coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, doctor, etc. They are the ones who have a better understanding of the subject matter and in some instances, are the ones who are controlling the athlete’s periods of functional overreach.

There are several proven strategies to prevent the likelihood of overtraining syndrome from occurring in the first place:

  • Play multiple sports. Participating in just a single sport year-round will eventually lead to mental burnout and progress into physical symptoms of burnout and overtraining as well.
  • Take a break. Even though a change can be as good as a rest, athlete’s still need time away from competition to mentally recover from grueling competitive seasons.
  • Recover. This goes beyond the amount of time not actively participating in sports. Dialed-in nutritional habits, proper sleep, active recovery such as stretching, and scheduled leisure time will go a long way toward keeping the athlete’s hormonal balance in check.
  • Train for strength and power. Safely building a more durable body will decrease the likelihood of chronic/ overuse injury and make your athlete more efficient in his/ her energy expenditure. Don’t believe the nonsense. Athletes CAN begin resistance training as early as 7 years old if the maturity level is there.

Be informed, be smart, and above all else, be a parent. Just because your child wants to do something doesn’t mean they should. Too much is too much. Best case scenario, your athlete becomes sick of the sport he/ she once loved and eventually quits. Worst case scenario, they experience debilitating neurological, physical, and hormonal effects that will be a danger to their health moving forward. Keep your eye on the big picture. The mind and body need time to recover and once they do, they come back stronger than before.

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