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External and internal pressure causes burnouts in youth sports


by Nelleke van der Heiden | 13 February 2020

Although really hard figures are not yet available the experts agree that burnout is a phenomenon among youth athletes to reckon with. At least the experts who met in Ghent in Flanders on 3 February at the sixth sports-wide meeting organized from the UGent Chair Frans Verheeke. The meeting’s central theme was 'Burnout in youth sports'.

Professor Pascal Delheye of the UGent Chair Frans Verheeke - The Future of Sport, explained: “People often underestimate the global pressure exerted from different angles on young competitive athletes to perform and to meet the possibly conflicting expectations of parents, friends, school, trainer, board members, etcetera. Young athletes sometimes fake injuries because they cannot handle the negative pressure, or the stress, because it takes the fun out of competing for them." According to Delheye, it leads to dropouts at associations or worse, to burnouts.

Jeugdsport-InezSwinnenInez Swinnen, former competitive swimmer and sports psychologist has made the same observation in her practice, Mind-Set. In her view it is a common phenomenon in today’s society that people have burnout complaints at a young age, and that sports has been affected just like any other area of life.

Too early, too much
What causes burnouts in young athletes? Swinnen: “It is a combination of training too much from an early age and specializing too early. An easy rule-of-thumb is to look at the age and the number of hours a child trains per week. An 8-year-old child should train no more than 8 hours a week. This does not include hitting a ball with your friends out in the street. But children who train too much soon get fed up."

Another point Swinnen raised, was specialising too early: “Anyone who too soon focuses entirely on one type of sport runs an increased risk not only of burnout, but also of injuries. It is not good either for developing motor or social skills.’ Swinnen is very clear about this: the disadvantages of specializing too early outweigh the advantages. "For some sports it is important to start at an early age, for instance in figure skating, but even then it is important to leave for other, recreational, activities."

"The best athletes in the world did not specialise until they were around 15 years old"

Better to specialise at later age
Research at the top and sub-top, says Swinnen, shows that children who specialize around the age of 12 still do well at European level, but do not reach the world top. "The real top athletes in the world did not specialise until they were around 15 years old."

Could this be a job for parents? "Both for parents and for trainers it is very important to keep in mind what the children want, and whether they still enjoy the sport. As soon as parents see that their child is tired often, does not feel like training, or gets irritated quickly, their natural impulse is to push their child to persist. But this could make things even worse. It is important that parents talk to their children to find out why they no longer have the energy to train. And then, together with their child, see if it is possible to take it down a notch or explore other options."
Unique experience
Swinnen, incidentally, has nothing against the Youth Olympic Games. “That is a unique experience. It is wonderful for children if they get to do that, seeing other countries, and meeting children from other cultures. It opens a whole new world." Of course it comes with the risk of high expectations. ‘This is where parents and trainers come in. They can put things into perspective and help children to see it as a learning experience and not as a must-perform platform."

Swinnen is noticeably less positive about youth contracts in football. “I am not in favour of already using contracts for 16-year old players. It raises expectations in youth players, while their chances of becoming professional players are slight. What is the percentage of youth contracts resulting in professional contracts? Very low, and that has a demotivating effect."

"It is important that children have an intrinsic motivation for the sport, that they feel they belong in training sessions, and feel that they can do it"

But could it be that the ones collapsing under pressure are perhaps simply not made out to be top athletes? Swinnen disagrees. "A burnout does not mean that you are not made out for performance sport." In her practice, the sports psychologist has found precisely that most young athletes with burnouts are perfectionists, with a great sense of responsibility.

Broader social development
Like Swinnen said, the pressure to perform in sport is in fact a broader social development. In other areas, too, the expectations of children’s and young people’s achievements have increased. Parents and trainers – precisely because they want the best for the child – build on that pressure even more. How to stem the tide? Swinnen says that the Flemisch Trainers School in Flanders organises special training courses and workshops for parents and trainers aimed at recognizing what is best for the child, and overseeing that process.

engarde“They want to be autonomous, need binding and competence. It is important, therefore, that they have an intrinsic motivation for the sport, that they feel they belong in training sessions and feel they can do it. Parents and trainers learn to meet the needs of the child. This is one of the focal points of the workshops in Flanders."

Huge pressure
During the sports-wide meeting in Ghent, the play 'En Garde' set a good example. A 14-year old fencer exceeds all expectations, reaching second place in the national championships. His club wants him to train more and he gets a new trainer, who takes a much harder approach. His father, too, can only talk about fencing, buying him the most expensive gear. Swinnen: “They all mean well, but it puts enormous pressure on him. ‘I must perform well because of all the money my parents spent.’ The boy no longer has time for school and his girlfriend. You see how over time his passion and motivation fade."

For more information: UGent Chair Frans Verheeke

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