Avoiding burnout in adolescent athletes
Overtraining and burnout among child and adolescent athletes are a growing problem in the United States. Although inactivity and obesity are on the rise, the number of children and adolescents who participate in organized or recreational athletics has grown considerably over the past two decades. It is estimated that 30 to 45 million youth 6 to 18 years of age participate in some form of athletics. The variety of organized sports has also grown from the typical American favorites. For example, lacrosse, field hockey, rugby and dance are all now more readily available.
How much athletic training is too much? There are no scientifically determined guidelines to help define how much exercise is healthy and beneficial to the young athlete compared with what might be physiologically harmful and represent overtraining. However, injuries tend to be more common during peak growth velocity, and some are more likely to occur if underlying biomechanical problems are present.
A sound training regimen is essential, recognizing that although repetition is important, it may induce harm. Sport-specific drills that use a variety of modalities, such as water running for the track athlete on alternate days, may provide similar fitness benefits with
less stress to the body. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness recommends limiting one sporting activity to a maximum of five days per week with at least one day off from any organized physical activity. In addition, athletes should have at least two to three months off per year from their particular sport during which they can let injuries heal and refresh the mind. Some strength training is appropriate in these off months, and can help reduce injury risk.
The psychological component to overtraining syndrome in athletes is known as burnout. It can be defined as a series of psychological and hormonal changes that result in
decreased sports performance. There are physical symptoms as well, such as chronic muscle and joint pain and elevated resting heart rate, which dovetail closely with symptoms of overtraining syndrome. Personality changes accompanying the decreased
sports performance are a sign a young athlete may be burning out. In particular the youngest athletes may be more susceptible to fatigue, show a lack of enthusiasm about practice or competition, or exhibit difficulty in completing ordinary routines.
To help prevent burnout, encourage the athlete to become well-rounded in a variety of activities rather than one particular sport. The following guidelines, from a review article published in the June 2007 issue of the journal Pediatrics, may help:
1. Keep workouts interesting, with age-appropriate games and training, to keep practice fun.
2. Take time off from organized or structured sports participation one to two days per week to allow the body to rest or participate in other activities.
3. Permit longer scheduled breaks from training and competition every two to three months while focusing on other activities and cross-training to prevent loss of skill or level of conditioning.
4. Focus on wellness and teaching athletes to be in tune with their bodies for cues to slow down or alter their training methods.
The ultimate goal of youth participation in sports should be to promote lifelong physical activity, recreation and skills of healthy competition that can be used in all facets of future endeavors. Too often the goal is skewed toward adult goals. Coaches and parents should remember that the plan should be to promote fun, skill development, and success for each individual athlete.
(Pediatrics, 2007, Vol. 119, No. 6, pp. 1242-1245)
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