When more is too much: How to avoid burnout

When more is too much: How to avoid burnout

NCSA Recruiting

When more is too much: How to avoid burnout


USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.

High school athletes who want to be recruited often feel intense pressure to consistently perform at extremely high levels. In order to progress to those levels, they may over train and prioritize athletics over their mental and physical well-being. However, focusing too much on doing more and going harder without spending the proper amount of time on self-care and recovery can be detrimental. Many student-athletes end up burning out before they even make it to college.

What is burnout, and why does it occur?

In an article on the NCAA’s website, burnout is described as “the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.” It is commonly understood as the endpoint of a breaking-down process that begins when there’s too much stress without enough recovery.

There’s not one definitive reason why student-athletes burn out, but there are three central theories:

  1. The student-athlete has been placed under extreme stress and pressure related to training and winning, which leads to mental and physical exhaustion.
  2. The student-athlete feels they have invested too much time into a sport they no longer enjoy, which leads to feelings of entrapment.
  3. The student-athlete feels they are losing their identify because of the dominance of athletics in their life.

Remember, your student-athlete likely began playing sports because it was fun. Their motivation to play was for the love of the game. Once that motivation moves more toward external factors—like winning a trophy, getting a scholarship, pleasing their families and coaches, becoming famous—that love can dwindle and performance can suffer.

READ MORE: Getting a college offer at 10: the effects of early recruiting on youth 

How to identify burnout

Burnout isn’t turned on like a switch; you don’t just wake up and are suddenly burned out. It follows a fairly predictable path:

  1. The student-athlete is in a position where there are new physical and time demands.
  2. The student-athlete finds those demands to be too much or pointless.
  3. The student-athlete feels a dip in performance but doesn’t believe they should rest.
  4. The student-athlete begins to show signs of physical and mental burnout.
  5. Burnout occurs and the student-athlete’s life—both in athletics and as a whole—suffers.

Because of the similarities in symptoms, burnout can often be misdiagnosed as clinical depression. Although they are not the same, depression can often be a sign of burnout. Here are some other signs to look for to determine if your student-athlete is burned out:

  • Changes in emotion, such as irritability or disinterest
  • Difficulties focusing and forgetfulness
  • Decreases in performance, including strength and coordination
  • Lowered self-esteem and increased anxiety
  • Increased susceptibility to illness
  • Higher resting heart rate and blood pressure
  • The fun is gone 

How to prevent burnout

The method of treatment and prevention of burnout is the same: your student-athlete must rest. This might seem dissatisfying and stressful at the outset—“What if they fall behind?”—but not resting will lead to an outcome you’re dreading faster than resting will. So, what does it mean to rest? It is both a physical and mental act that can include the following:

  • Getting enough sleep. To be on top of your game, it’s recommended that student-athletes—and everyone else, too—sleep seven to eight hours per night. Student-athletes often need to wake up early for practice or conditioning; they will not be fully effective without a good night’s rest and can end up throwing them into a cycle of fatigue that’s hard to crawl out of.
  • Spending time away from their sport. Even if it’s just for a short period of time a couple times a year, getting away from their sport can be a helpful way to reset and focus on other aspects of life, such as schoolwork, friendships and other hobbies. Having other outlets makes for a more well-rounded student-athlete. Try a mini-vacation that doesn’t include travel to a tournament or showcase.
  • Setting short-term goals. Fixating too hard on the long-term outcome your athlete wants—getting a scholarship, going pro, etc.—can put unnecessary pressure on them and lead to burnout. Don’t push your long-term goals aside, but having short-term goals can boost your motivation. They are easier to complete and give you a feeling of progress as you accomplish small steps along the way to your bigger dreams.
  • Adding fun activities to workouts/training. Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is what some people call insanity. Consider that true for training, as well. If you see your athlete getting stuck in a routine rut, help them mix it up with other types of conditioning and fun activities.
  • Practicing stress management techniques. A student-athlete’s mind is as, if not more important, than their body. Learning how to deal with stress is so important to keep from burning out. Some athletes swear by techniques like meditation and visualization to re-center themselves.

On top of these methods, it’s crucial for student-athletes’ families to take a step back and think about what pressures you might unknowingly be placing on then. Have you created an environment where your student-athlete feels winning is the only option? Does your student-athlete feel a sense of ownership over their athletics participation, or are you leading the charge/forcing them to play? It’s possible they may only be continuing to play to appease you.

The best thing a sports parent can do is communicate often and honestly with their student-athlete and watch for the signs listed above.


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