How to Recognise Burnout in Youth Sports

Here’s how to recognise burnout to prevent a mix of physical and emotional stressors. 

Burnout in youth sports might just be more common than we think — with young athletes wanting to be professional football players, gymnasts, swimmers, runners, and everything in between, it can be difficult to find the line between “hard work” and “overtraining.” 

So, it likely comes as no surprise that it’s very common for young athletes to specialise in one given sport from an early age. Besides, it makes the most sense if they want to turn professional, right? Kind of — more on this below.

Whether that’s gymnastics, swimming, tennis, or running, for example, the physical and emotional costs of specialising in one sport are often quite large. Early sport specialisation requires increased training hours and may expose youth athletes to increased social isolation, including less time with family, increased stress and anxiety, and the big one: burnout.

Yep, burnout — hello again, old friend. 

But understanding burnout in youth sports is not as simple as reducing the time or dedication spent towards one given sport — it’s much more complicated than that. For instance, other factors may result in burnout, including increased school demands, a lack of recovery, success from an early age, low self-esteem, the list goes… These burnout risks are taken from Gustaffson and colleagues — although less is known about burnout and youth sport, we should still take these into consideration.  

So, this blog post will highlight what we do know — we’ll provide a quick burnout definition, we’ll touch on early sport specialisation, how to prevent burnout in youth athletes, and how to recognise the signs of burnout sooner rather than later.

What is burnout in youth sports?

We’ve covered athlete burnout in previous blog posts, but before we discuss how to recognise the signs of burnout — and how to prevent it — we need to provide a quick definition.

Burnout is often described as a lasting experience of physical and emotional exhaustion. 

For example, youth athletes who encounter burnout may feel unmotivated to train and are likely to experience a reduced sense of self-accomplishment. And most notably, the physical and emotional drain may lead to the young athlete quitting and withdrawing from their sport, as suggested by a 2007 study.

Early sport specialisation vs. early sport diversification 

Let’s start with what is thought to be the biggest risk factor for burnout in youth athletes…

Early sport specialisation involves a youth athlete focusing — or as instructed by a coach — on one sport. The two main sports culprits that come to mind are swimming and gymnastics. Although, it can be virtually any sport out there, from tennis to ping pong. 

The main problem, however, is the risk factors that come with specialising in one sport. And yes, you guessed it correctly, burnout is a part of it.

Anyways, risk factors of early sport specialisation may include:

  • Excessive training 
  • Balancing school/work demands becomes difficult and energy draining 
  • Lack of recovery between training sessions
  • Social constraints 

These risk factors are taken from the integrated model of athlete burnout. Other risk factors around various personality, coping, and environmental factors exist, too. But the above factors appear the most relevant for youth sports.

So, this poses the question: should youth athletes specialise from a young age, or should they play a mix of sports (sport diversification)?

Well, this debate has been going on for years. But researchers have provided guidelines to prevent overtraining and burnout. These guidelines are as follows:  

  • Keep workouts interesting — add games and keep it fun.
  • Allow at least 1 to 2 days a week for rest — participation in other activities is allowed.
  • Add longer scheduled breaks from training every 2 to 3 months — focus on other activities or cross-train to prevent a loss of skill and/or conditioning.
  • Teach athletes wellness and how to be in tune with their bodies — this will help reduce overtraining and the risk of injury. The Rewire app has numerous mindset recovery sessions that can help young athletes sleep better, improve focus and concentration, and even enhance recovery. 

A few tips on how to recognise burnout 

Burnout and overtraining go hand in hand. And although the research on youth athlete burnout is not as well publicised, we can take research from the adult population to help recognise common overtraining and burnout signs, as suggested in a study by the National Library of Medicine.  

Overtraining and burnout signs to look out for include:

  • A loss of appetite 
  • Muscle soreness 
  • Difficulty sleeping/sleep disturbances
  • Muscle twitches
  • Decreased motivation
  • A lack of concentration
  • Decreased self-confidence 
  • Common colds, sniffles, and coughs

These are a few of the main signs of overtraining in athletes. Recognising these early and introducing rest, recovery, and a period of less intense training is one of the best ways to reduce the risk of burnout and overtraining syndrome. 

To summarise  

Increasing awareness of the risk factors associated with burnout and overtraining in youth sports is key to preventing burnout. 

Coaches, parents, teachers, and others should have an understanding of what causes burnout to reduce the risk. Also, those in a coaching position should strive to keep workouts fun and interesting, allow a minimum of 1 to 2 days of rest a week, and should schedule longer breaks from training every 2 to 3 months — perhaps during seasonal holidays, to further reduce the risk of burnout.

And finally, the argument against early sport specialisation should not be ignored. 

If a young athlete does not want to specialise in one sport, then they shouldn’t exclusively focus on that one sport. Instead, coaches, parents, and teachers may wish to consider encouraging multiple sport participation. Sport diversification keeps things fun and interesting, and may lead to enhanced skill development. And all the while potentially reducing the risk of burnout.

If you’re interested in reading more about burnout, you can read our blog post on athletic burnout and stress.

If you’re a coach reading this, check out Rewire for Teams – our platform that helps coaches train their athletes more effectively by prioritising mental wellness and preventing burnout. Book a free consultation here


References:

Brenner, J.S. and Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, 2007. Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics, 119(6), pp.1242-1245.

DiFiori, J.P., Benjamin, H.J., Brenner, J.S., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G.L. and Luke, A., 2014. Overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports: a position statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. British journal of sports medicine, 48(4), pp.287-288.

Gustafsson, H., Kenttä, G. and Hassmén, P., 2011. Athlete burnout: An integrated model and future research directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(1), pp.3-24.

Gustafsson, Henrik. “Burnout in competitive and elite athletes.” PhD diss., Örebro universitetsbibliotek, 2007.
Winsley, R. and Matos, N., 2011. Overtraining and elite young athletes. The elite young athlete, 56, pp.97-105.

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5 Ways to Prevent Athlete Burnout in 2023

Understand how to prevent athlete burnout to stay motivated and reduce your risk of injury.

One minute, you’re enjoying training more than ever, and the next, you can’t focus, you don’t want to head out for that training session, and you feel as if that short-lived motivation has been zapped out of your system. So, what happened?

You could be experiencing early signs of athlete burnout — often described as a prolonged experience of physical and emotional exhaustion [4]. Knowing how to recognise and prevent athlete burnout is key — the more you know, the easier it is to stop burnout in its tracks, stopping you from experiencing more severe symptoms and perhaps even an increased risk of picking up an injury.

In this blog post, we’ll provide you with 5 ways to prevent athlete burnout — helping you stay motivated and focused on your training. 

What causes athlete burnout?

Before we dive into how to prevent athlete burnout, we first need to understand what causes athlete burnout.

We’ll give you the CliffNotes version — but if you want to find out more about the causes and how to overcome burnout, you can listen to our podcast with Joe Fuggle, a former Elite GB athlete.

The research surrounding athlete burnout is somewhat conflicting. Some researchers say burnout is caused by the inability to effectively cope with psychosocial stress involved with training and competition [3]. 

On the other hand, others suggest athlete burnout is caused by a mix of factors, including entrapment (high investment, low alternative attractiveness), antecedents (school/work demands, a lack of recovery), and personality and coping factors (low social support, lack of coping skills [5].

Athlete burnout is more complex than it initially appears… but knowing how to prevent it can keep those feelings of decreased motivation and drive at bay.

How to prevent athlete burnout 

Okay, now that you know what it is, let’s discuss how to prevent athlete burnout — after all, that’s why you’re here…

  1. Maintain variety and keep it fun 
  2. Monitor your training load and know the burnout signs 
  3. Prioritise getting quality sleep 
  4. Introduce scheduled periods of rest
  5. Use Rewire to reduce stress and lessen your risk of burnout

1) Maintain Variety and Keep it Fun

Dr Ralph Richards, a former swim coach and sports scientist at the Australian Institute of Sport, mentioned the importance of providing variety in workouts to reduce mental fatigue [6]. This is also a great way to keep your workouts and training fun and interesting.

If you’re a runner, that could mean switching up a session to include some fartlek work (unstructured speed training). A cyclist could add short sweet spot efforts in their weekly long ride. And a swimmer could combine short and long repetitions for a little variety.

Ultimately, if you can keep things interesting, fun, and even slightly unpredictable, you’re more likely to enjoy training. 

So, don’t be afraid to switch things up from time to time — this is also a great reminder for coaches and an excellent tool for keeping youth athletes motivated.

2) Monitor your training load and know the burnout signs 

You wouldn’t run a marathon without former training — so avoid taking the same approach with your training.

Progressive overload is key. Don’t jump in the deep end before learning to swim in the shallow waters.

Gradually increase your training demands over time, allowing your body to adapt and recover without increasing your risk of injury and burnout. 

You should also monitor your training load — note down each session, including what the workout comprised of, how you felt, and any other relevant notes. It also helps to track your recovery to improve your awareness of how your body adapts and responds to increased training loads.

You should also familiarise yourself with the symptoms of overtraining and burnout — the sooner you recognise these, the easier it is to dial back your training, prioritising recovery and preventing a more serious risk of burnout and physical injury.

Symptoms of overtraining and burnout may include [8,5]:

  • A loss of appetite
  • Muscle soreness & muscle twitches
  • A decrease in motivation and focus during training
  • Frustration over a lack of results
  • Increased stress
  • Mood disturbances
  • A lack of control
  • You find yourself getting sick easier (e.g., colds, sniffles, and coughs)

3) Prioritise getting quality sleep

You likely already know the importance of a good night’s rest, especially if you exercise regularly or compete at a high level — sleep is essential to recovery. 

Increased training loads, whether that means increasing your weekly mileage, adding more intensity, or adding an extra weights session, increase your risk of fatigue, injury, and overtraining.

But more importantly, an increased training load combined with inadequate rest (including sleep) could serve as a risk factor and an indicator of over-reaching and overtraining syndrome [7]. 

And for those unaware, overtraining syndrome is often associated with athlete burnout.

Ensure you get plenty of quality sleep to lessen the risk of over-reaching (the point before overtraining and burnout). 

4) Introduce scheduled periods of rest

Professional athletes take breaks during their season and once their competitive season is over. 

For example, Formula One drivers have a summer break midseason and a longer break before the next season begins. Road cyclists take a few weeks off in the winter before the next year of competition begins. And football players have anywhere from 1 to 3 weeks off training each year.

For elite athletes, these scheduled periods of rest are not only a time to physically recover from any niggles, pains, or injuries, but it’s also a time to mentally recover and prepare for the next season.

Competing and training at the highest level is physically, emotionally, and mentally demanding.

Even if you’re not a professional athlete, introducing your own off-season into your training can help you recover. It’s a time to switch off, mentally recharge, and assess your goals going forward. Moreover, if you train for countless hours, then it’s time to spend doing other things you enjoy — whether visiting family and friends or just sitting on the sofa catching up on the latest Netflix thriller.

You can also use periodisation in your training — add 1 week of less intense training every 1 to 3 months to reduce your risk of burnout.  

5) Use Rewire to reduce stress and lessen your risk of burnout

The relationship between stress and burnout has been studied extensively — some research [1] suggests stress causes burnout, and other work [2] proposes the opposite: stress is a burnout symptom. 

Nevertheless, we all experience stress — whether you’re a professional athlete, you run marathons, you participate in ultra-endurance cycling events, or perhaps you enjoy a parkrun on the weekends.

But I’m sure we can all agree that reducing stress is not a bad thing…

You can start using the Rewire Fitness app today for free to help reduce stress, improve your mental fitness, and reduce your risk of burnout.

FAQs

What causes athlete burnout?

There are many possible causes, but minimising stress, prioritising rest, and keeping training fun are great ways to reduce the risk. 

How do athletes recover from burnout?

Rest is key to recovering from athlete burnout. Athletes often need time away from their sport to rejuvenate and recover.

How to prevent burnout?

Keep training fun, monitor your training load, prioritise quality sleep, use periodisation in your training, and use the Rewire app to prevent athlete burnout.


References:

ACSM_CMS. 2022. News Detail. [online] Available at: <https://www.acsm.org/news-detail/2021/08/09/the-american-college-of-sports-medicine-statement-on-mental-health-challenges-for-athletes#:~:text=Professional%20and%20elite%20athletes%20also,%2C%20depression%20and%2For%20anxiety> [Accessed 20 December 2022].

Coakley, J., 1992. Burnout among adolescent athletes: A personal failure or social problem?. Sociology of sport journal, 9(3), pp.271-285.

Eklund, R.C. and DeFreese, J.D., 2015. Athlete burnout: What we know, what we could know, and how we can find out more. International Journal of Applied Sports Sciences, 27(2), pp.63-75.

Gustafsson, H., 2007. Burnout in competitive and elite athletes (Doctoral dissertation, Örebro universitetsbibliotek). 

Gustafsson, H., Kenttä, G. and Hassmén, P., 2011. Athlete burnout: An integrated model and future research directions. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(1), pp.3-24.

https://memberdesq.sportstg.com/assets/console/customitem/attachments/burnout-rrichards.pdf 

Lastella, M., Vincent, G.E., Duffield, R., Roach, G.D., Halson, S.L., Heales, L.J. and Sargent, C., 2018. Can sleep be used as an indicator of overreaching and overtraining in athletes?. Frontiers in physiology, p.436.

Winsley, R. and Matos, N., 2011. Overtraining and elite young athletes. The elite young athlete, 56, pp.97-105.

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Fueling for Success: The Importance of Personalized Hydration with Andy Blow, Sports Scientist and founder of Precision Fuel & Hydration

Join us in our conversation with Andy Blow, sports scientist, former elite triathlete, founder of Precision Fuel & Hydration.

In this episode, Andy Blow talks to us about:⁠

✔️ How personalising your own carb, electrolyte and fluid intake can lead to big differences in performance
✔️ The impact of hydration supplementation
✔️ Common mistakes by athletes
✔️ Sweat tests
✔️ Carb fuelling and meeting nutritional demands.
and many more…

We hope you enjoy this episode! ⁠


Looking for advice on your fueling plan? Click this link to book a free 20-minute hydration and fuelling strategy video consultation with the athlete support team at precision fuel and hydration. You can also use the discount code REWIRE15 to get 15% off your first order at precisionfuelandhydration.com

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How to Master Your Circadian Rhythm for High Performance with Phil Learney, Human Performance Specialist and Coach

Join us in our conversation with Phil Learney, an experienced coach with more than 20 years of experience coaching celebrities, elite athletes, and the general population. He is also the co-founder of the Human Performance Brand HMN24.⁠

In this episode, Phil Learney discusses how we can optimize our sleep for improved performance by understanding our circadian rhythms. We examine the impact that routines, environment, and habits can have on our sleep and explore the effects of various factors, including circadian rhythms, light exposure, jetlag, alcohol, and caffeine. 


Take advantage of Rewire’s Sleep Better collection on our free app to optimize your sleep quality today. In this collection, you’ll find a variety of active and passive sessions that utilize scientifically proven binaural beats and breathing techniques to help you get a better night’s sleep, prepare for bedtime, or overcome a bad night’s sleep.

Join Our Community Today!

Overview of Rewire’s Neuro-Training System

What is Neuro-Training?

Neuro-Training is cognitive training that involves mentally fatiguing activities to induce mental fatigue to help augment training stimulus and build more resilience.  The traditional way of building mental resilience and grit is to push your body very hard during training, hoping for a side effect that translates to more resilience. The problem is that while this works initially it has diminishing returns over time and can lead to burnout and injury as you will need to continually push yourself harder and harder to realize some form of benefit. Neuro-training is a direct path to mental resilience and targets the specific area of the brain responsible for goal driven behavior, sustained attention and the perception of effort. Neuro-training allows to you to layer on additional cognitive load without the negative consequences or risk of injury from over training. Learn More

How it Works

The Rewire system allows you to perform neuro-training before, during and after workouts using the built-in cognitive training system in the Rewire app in combination with the patented Neuro-Training hardware (only needed for brain training while working out). The most common response inhibition test is called the Stroop test where the subject tries to match the ink color (large word) with the matching word meaning (small word).

(On Left) example of neuro-training workout | (On Right) example of neuro-training Stroop task

How Does the Neuro-Training Hardware Work?

The neuro-training hardware consists of patented ergonomically designed buttons and straps that allow you to perform audio and visual based brain training tasks while working out. This first-to-market innovation enables a brand new way to train both the mind and body at the same time.

Running Example

Cycling Example (For Indoor Use Only)

Features of the Neuro Performance System

  • Neuro-Training hardware consisting of ergonomically designed buttons and straps, wireless Bluetooth technology with rechargeable batteries
  • Library of neuro-training workouts that can be done before, during and after workouts
  • Connects with standard power meters and heart rate monitors to track physical performance
  • Audio and visual-Based neuro-training
  • Voice controls (audio only neuro-training)
  • Comprehensive training analytics for cognitive and physical analysis over time
  • Custom workout builder for creating workouts for a variety of different sports including:
    • Cycling (indoor use only)
    • Duathlon
    • Functional Fitness
    • Flexibility Training
    • Powerlifting
    • Running
    • Triathlon
    • Walking
    • Weightlifting
    • Yoga
    • And More
Custom workout builder for creating mental and physical workouts

What is the Science Behind Neuro-Training?

The science of brain endurance training (BET) was first established in 2009 and has been validated across a variety of different sports. As validated in the lab and numerous peer reviewed studies, BET works by targeting the anterior cingluate cortex (ACC) with a specific type of cognitive task called response inhibition i.e. impulse control tasks.

The anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) is the frontal part of the cingulate cortex that resembles a “collar” surrounding the frontal part of the corpus callosum

Many studies attribute specific functions such as error detection, anticipation of tasks, attention, motivation, and modulation of emotional responses to the ACC.  In the landmark study in 2009 and subsequent studies, scientist proved that the ACC is also responsible for managing the perception of effort which has been shown to be a limiter to athletic performance when this part of the brain is fatigued during challenging physical and mental efforts.

These response inhibitory tasks such as Stroop taskgo/no-go and others add more cognitive load to the brain creating an adaptation overtime that translates to a greater level mental resilience translating to improved physical performance when an athlete is under mental and physical stress

What Athletes & Coaches Are Saying

“As a professional athlete, I’ve known firsthand the importance of training the mind and body to push the limits of performance. Rewire’s latest platform makes mental strength training more accessible to athletes everywhere with easy-to-use tools to help them reach their goals.”

Kyle Korver NBA All-Star & Director of Player Affairs and Development for the Atlanta Hawks

“I have been using the app for a few months. It has helped me set the proper mindset before workouts, disconnect before bedtime, and gauge my mental readiness on a daily basis. I have also been enjoying working on the Neuro-Training component during some of my indoor rides.”

Matt Hanson Professional Triathlete and Coach

“With the app it’s giving you a controlled environment and structure so that you can choose when you want to to add mental training to your workouts and you can do it as often as you’d like.“

Laura Kline Elite Ultra Runner & Endurance Athlete

“Mental health and strength is so super powerful, but despite that, athletes rarely train it. With Rewire Fitness there is a new platform where it’s accessible and easy to train.”

Marc Anthony Klok Professional Footballer | Liga 1 club Persib Bandung and the Indonesia national team

Neuro-Training Sports Examples

These examples are to give some idea of how one may fit neuro-training into fairly standard weekly plans and periodisation models for the given example scenario. These are not exhaustive but aim to put some paradigm and context to the above information. 


Endurance Athlete

  • More neuro-training in base building, off-season and pre-season phases and less in-season.
  • Try to avoid neuro-training before key workouts and races. 
  • Good times for neuro-training: during or around easy volume (60-90mins Zone 2 of a 5-zone model for instance). 

Team Sport Athlete

  • More neuro-training in base building, off-season and pre-season phases and less in-season.
  • Try to avoid neuro-training before skill training and game days.  
  • Good times for neuro-training: Conditioning days, easy lifting days, rest days. 

Strength Sport Athlete

  • More neuro-training in base building, off-season and pre-season phases and less in-season.
  • Try to avoid neuro-training before technically challenging days, key sessions and competition days.  
  • Good times for neuro-training: Conditioning days, easy lifting days, rest days.

Ready to Change the Way You Train?

Level-up your mental and physical performance by ordering Rewire’s Neuro Performance System today (available while supplies last).