Monday, March 23, 2015
Last week, 24 year old rookie linebacker Chris Borland retired from the 49ers stating he had too many concerns about injuries, especially concussive episodes. He decided his health was more important to him than a big paycheck. Just a short time before his decision, seven-time Pro-Bowler Patrick Willis, just 30 years old also retired from the 49ers citing health and injury concerns. As he said, “I have no regrets . . . [I don’t want to] barely walk.” Over the past few months at least five players under 30 have quit the NFL for health concerns. However, they also complained of burnout, a condition that easily plagues those who play for years under a heavy scheduling burden and the constant risk of injury. Even as these players finally begin to have a monetary reward for their efforts, they are worn out both in body and in mind. As I mentioned last week, the English Premier League realized they needed to address these issues for their youth players if they expected to retain the best into the professional ranks. Consider that these professional athletes have already spent up to a quarter century playing their sport, often overshadowing all other aspects of their lives including schooling, social contacts, family life and hobbies. They have spent as much time playing before their third decade of life as many of us spend in our adult jobs before we retire. If they remain in their sport, they may make a big check, but they may also risk their quality of life for the next four or five decades.
We parents deal with our youth players exhibiting burnout as young as seven or eight. When kids have to give up a bike ride with friends, watching their favorite after-school TV show or down time in order to complete homework after a practice, they will grumble and/or show anxiety. This manifests itself in refusing to go to practices, breaking into tears easily at the slightest roadblock or slight, clinging and hanging back. Some of these behaviors could be shyness and feeling intimidated, but in general kids who begin a sport enthusiastically and then slide into reticence are experiencing a form of burnout. In these cases, burnout isn’t overdoing a sport in the classic sense, but feeling as if the sport is intruding on the rest of their lives. If a child has several activities on top of a sport, or plays several sports, then he or she may try to shed one or two of these to stop feeling overwhelmed. Astute parents need to recognize when this is happening and address it without adding even more pressure.
As children advance in their skills, they will also advance in time demands. Two one-hour practices a week with one match morph into three or four 90 minute practices a week with two matches. Additionally they may be expected to train extra outside of scheduled practices including weight training, running, backyard dribbling or studying instructional films. Parents, in an attempt to help their children compete, will hire private instructors or put them in intense physical training programs, adding to the stresses and stealing more precious time. The more that’s invested in the child and the sport, the more reluctant both parent and children are to walk away even if the tensions are tremendous. At the same time, parents may also begin to feel some burnout with the constant scheduling, carpooling, cheerfulness at game after game and the financial demands. It may be that we can unknowingly transfer our burnout to our kids, especially if they are a bit on the hesitant side and still discovering their passion.
Progressing through the youth ranks can propel a player to high school and college teams which bring both honor and another set of pressure. Now a player is expected to not only represent their institution on the field but in the classroom as well. They need to juggle excellence in play and excellence in studies. Players have to meet eligibility requirements for both grades and credits in order to keep playing, and in the case of college players, to maintain their scholarship. Those expectations now require hours and hours of devotion. Passion for the game is important, but often it can be that players don’t feel so much passion as they do obligation – they need to see the investment through even though they are no longer joyful. They may fear disappointing their parents, school mates and coaches if they express hesitancy. Parents will also feel the obligation for their child to continue both because of the monetary investment and their own ego investment in their child’s achievements. Therefore, kids can be burned out, but not willing to give out.
How do we handle burnout at the various levels of participation? For the youngest players, it may just be recognizing what is causing the reluctance and letting the child exercise the right to choose a break. While I do preach commitment because I believe it’s important for kids to work through the occasional valleys of emotion, with very young players there needs to be an opportunity to try activities on, walk around in them and see if they fit. It’s not one size fits all, and if a kid is uncomfortable, then burnout can be nearly instantaneous. Sometimes just letting a kid choose a different option during one practice can give him the sense that he isn’t on a speeding, out of control train. It may be that you give your child the chance to exchange one practice for something different each month. It’s important to listen to concerns and acknowledge them while encouraging our players to not give up too easily. Finding a valve to let off the pressure can really help slow down burnout and help them stick to a course during rough spots. If hesitant to participate in practices, it may just be an issue of feeling like they’re drudgery. So spice them up by putting some rousing music on while driving to the fields or let your child bring a treat to share. If they worry about not measuring up, find a skill where you’ve seen improvement or a behavior that indicates leadership or kindness and point them out. Don’t begin the trip home with any kind of criticism or suggestions, because they’ll begin to dread the trip home before they even leave for practice. That makes the entire experience distasteful leading to early burnout.
As the players get older, parents can’t get by with gentle changes and simple fixes. Players now have a commitment to their team which has to be honored. Nevertheless, we parents can reduce the feeling of being trapped by setting down options before the season even begins. For example, give the player the guarantee that special events like school dances or a concert will be reasonable excuses for not attending a practice. Work with your club to remember important events and holidays when setting up the practice and game calendar. This is much easier when teammates come from the same school district or districts with similar schedules. Still coaches may be totally clueless about the significant rites of passage kids on the team look forward to. So parents should make those dates clear during the first meeting after tryouts. When kids are discouraged about their progress, they can feel burned out. So if your player suddenly moves from being a starter to being a bench player, be aware that she may want to give up in order to erase the pain. That’s when you can meet with the coach, not to ask for special treatment, but to find out what he or she sees for your child’s future development. Have your child initiate the conversation and help him or her understand what is being relayed. Ask positive questions such as “what do I need to do to earn back my starting spot?” and “can I work with you on my skills?” Don’t demand things like more playing time.
Kids ma be overscheduled leading to burnout in an activity they love but see as the most viable option to quit. Overscheduling can also be a reason for a player’s skills to decrease – he’s just too exhausted to give 100%. So we need to discuss and really listen to how our kids are feeling about what they are doing. In our house every year for three or four years we had the internal battle of football vs. soccer. The boys had to choose for themselves and my only input was that they had to do one or the other. Ultimately, each year they chose soccer, but I wasn’t opposed to revisiting that decision once a new season was beginning. I think knowing they had the option to switch helped take some pressure off while owning their decision.
Landon Donovan famously quit soccer for four months from December 2012 to March 2013. During the break he traveled, relaxed and didn’t think about soccer. As he put it he was tired and lacked motivation. His mother had always told him to quit soccer if it was no longer fun. His time off angered U.S. National Team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who removed Donovan from the 2014 World Cup roster. Within 18 months Donovan had permanently retired. He admitted to being burnt out; that facing daily training was weighing him down. He acknowledged that many players feel like they want to pack it in, but “…they’re scared to say it because it shows perceived weakness. It shows your coach that you’re not completely committed like all coaches want. It shows that you’re human…” Donovan was 33 when he retired and had spent 28 years playing soccer, most of that time at the highest levels possible requiring intense physical, mental and time commitments. Sustaining that degree of intensity can be wearying. So it’s not surprising that many players gladly give up what is making them feel exhausted despite accolades and monetary rewards. If players burn out in those situations, imagine how young players feel with little come back and lots of input on their part.
Robbie spent five hours a day in the car, five days a week, as we commuted to Chicago for his soccer training. I’d pick him up as soon as school let out and we’d get home around 10 p.m. He had to do his homework in the car, eat his dinner in the car and maintain whatever social like he could with his cell phone in the car. Even after he got his driver’s license, I continued to chauffeur him because he needed the commute time to get his homework done. There were certainly times when he had had enough. Even I suffered from burnout, since I was working at the time, so I went from job to driving, to bed, to job. Our discussions centered on what he would do if he quit and what would he miss if he quit. Ultimately his love of the game, the quality of the training and competition and his strong ties to his teammates won out, and he stuck with it. But I certainly wouldn’t have blamed him if he wanted to just hang up his cleats. We did make it clear to the team that he would not come down when there was a big event at school or a special occasion with a friend. We did what we could to carve some normality out of the chaos and pressure. Even now that he has completed college and decided not to turn pro, he expresses some desire to get back into the game. But he has moved on to his preparation for medical school and plays for fun, which is how it should be.
Therefore, parents need to determine if the burnout our kids express is temporary or chronic. Except for the youngest players, all kids should meet their commitment before quitting. But if they really want to end their participation, we can’t allow our dreams and opinions to make that decision impossible for them. Considering that less than 10% of youth players go on to play in college and less than 1.7% of college players go on to play pro, it’s inevitable that most kids will have to quit simply due to exigent conditions. Therefore, the timeline of when they leave the sport should be less important than what will make them happy, secure, confident kids. Sticking with an activity that they consider agony doesn’t contribute to those qualities. However, we need to make sure they don’t just quit and then cocoon. We need to help them make plans. Find out why they want to quit, what they want to do with that free time, how they’ll feel leaving their teammates, what the plan will be if they regret their decision and what the process will be for quitting. Our input should be free of judgment. We can lay out the alternatives, be sure that they aren’t having a knee-jerk reaction to a temporary setback like a coach’s sharp criticism or kids making fun of them and help them see all the permutations of their decision. Then we need to leave it up to them and make it clear that it is their decision to take responsibility for. We should be a sounding board, a mirror in which they can see the outcomes, and a resource for choices, but not the decision maker. When Robbie quit baseball, I was very sad. He was great at it, but he was impatient with all the inactive time that came with the sport. Compared to soccer it was like slogging through molasses. We discussed what the decision meant, and even though he was only 11, he has never expressed regret for leaving. Childhood is so short; it shouldn’t be filled with anxiety unless the child is prepared to deal with it and accepts it as the proper balance for the joys and passion of an activity. When that isn’t the case, it’s our job to listen and let kids take the pressure off.