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Movement Experiences for Children
KIN 366
Instructor: Dr. Shannon S.D. Bredin
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Important Course Pages
Lecture Notes
Course Discussion



Burnout in child athletes is a growing problem. The rates of burnout are at much higher rates in today’s world than 20 years ago. This is due to a mentality of society, which is driven by early success, either in personal achievement or monetary value. The likelihood of burnout among youth athletes increases as more coaches, parents and youth programs adapt a professional sport model for training and competition.


Smith (1986) states that burnout involves psychological, emotional, and often physical withdrawal from an activity originally perceived as enjoyable. It has also been defined “to occur as a result of chronic stress that causes a young athlete to cease participation in a previously enjoyable activity” (Brenner et al., 2007). Additionally, Smith (1986) describes four stages of burnout, the first, is that the young athlete is placed in a situation that involves varying demands. Second, he demands are perceived as excessive. Thirdly, the young athlete experiences varying physiological response and finally, varying burnout consequences develop, such as, withdrawal.

Factors Leading to Burnout

Early Specialization

Feigley (1984) states, "While dedication to a sport is essential for high-level success, if one's focus is too narrow, too intense, or too prolonged at too early an age, the likelihood of burnout increases dramatically". Participating in a single sport throughout the whole year on multiple teams is becoming more common in today’s world. Parents believe that the more their child plays a sport at an earlier age, the better they will be later on; therefore, setting themselves up for more success later in life, such as, scholarships or professional leagues. As more young athletes are becoming professionals at a younger age, there is more pressure to grab a piece of the “professional pie,” to obtain a college scholarship, or to make the Olympic team (Brenneret al., 2007). What most young athletes and parents fail to realize is that only a select few athletes ever make it to the professional level.

A focus on single-sport specialization to eventually compete at the highest level may make youth athletes participate for long hours daily on one or more teams at a time. There has been evidence that suggests that athletes who participated in early specialization withdrew from their sport either due to injury or burnout; however, not all athletes that drop out do so because of burnout.


Internal or personal factors can contribute to an athlete burning out and most of them are in relation with the personality of the athlete. Some of those factors include:

  • Perfectionism
  • Need to please others
  • Non-assertiveness
  • Focusing only on one’s athletic involvement
  • Low self-esteem
  • High perception of stress (high anxiety)

Also, some young athletes drop out from their sport because they start to believe that it is not possible for them to meet the physical and psychological demands of that sport.


There are also some external factors that can contribute to a burned out athlete:

  • Extremely high training volumes
  • Extremely high time demands
  • Demanding performance expectations from parents and coaches
  • Frequent intense sport engagement with little to no recovery time
  • Inconsistent coaching practices
  • Little personal control in sport decision making
  • Negative performance evaluations
  • School demands

From that list, frequent intense sport engagement with little to no recovery time and demanding performance expectations appear to be the most an important factor in the burnout process.


There are certain factors that involve the social environment negatively affecting the psychological well being of the athlete. Some important psychosocial stressors are constantly having to perform well, the fear of not being accepted by peers, the fear of failure, balancing different social commitments, a lack of feedback from coaches, and interpersonal conflicts. There also is a more psychological component to burnout especially in young athletes.


All athletes experience physiological, psychological and social stress. Demanding life events such as school or work, financial problems, dysfunctional relationships and social conflict will affect an athlete’s training tolerance and thereby increase the risk of underperformance (Miller, Vaughn, & Miller, 1990). As these stressors accumulate and build up, they may become chronic and therefore, might lead to burnout. Chronic stress appears to be one of the most important preceding factors to burnout.


Gustafsson et al. (2011) describes entrapment and restraining factors as keeping the athlete in sport despite negative outcomes, such as, exhaustion and negative affect. Entrapment factors include high investments, low alternative attractiveness, performance-based self-esteem, social constraints and an inflexible organization.


Some symptoms of burnout include:

  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Loss of appetite
  • Depression
  • Irritability
  • Weight loss
  • Bradycardia or tachycardia
  • Agitation
  • Lack of mental concentration
  • Loss of motivation or interest
  • Decreased self-confidence
  • Heavy, sore, stiff muscles
  • Hypertension
  • Anxiety
  • Restlessness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Nausea
  • Frequent illness


An intervention at the situational level is the most effective because a variety of strategies can be used to try and prevent athlete burnout. For youth sport, parent and coach education is an essential component since their behaviors and attitudes are can be a major source of stress for young athletes. Therefore, one of the most effective ways to prevent young athlete’s burnout is to make sure that parents and coaches understand the basic principles of the psychology of youth sport and the influence that they, as authority figures, have over a child. For example, children participate in sports to have fun, and if this is kept in mind by parents and coaches whenever making a decision involving young athletes, the chances of children becoming burned out are largely diminished.

Coaches play an essential role in the prevention of burnout in their athletes. The most effective way to predict of prevent burnout is effective communication with them. They can also play a role through monitoring the athlete and watching for early signs of burnout. Coaches can do this by:

  • Watch for signs of staleness (for example, a lack of enthusiasm, a slump in performance, and irritability)
  • Include variety into practices
  • Make sure athletes are experiencing some fun and enjoyment
  • Make practices short, concise and efficient

There are multiple ways in which an athlete can prevent burnout. Two of the main ways are to for the athlete’s to trust their own intuition and body, and to supplement an athlete’s main sport with additional sports in moderation that are not placing too much emphasis on the same body part. Other ways to help prevent burnout include:

  • Taking days off from practice
  • When feeling the initial symptoms of staleness, get away from sport until excitement and looking forward to practice and competition returns
  • Change the practice environment and drills
  • Emphasize practicing with quality instead of the quantity of practice

Athletes can also be taught coping skills, which are meant for dealing with potentially stressful events. These are known as cognitive-behavioural techniques and have been shown to be effective stress-management tools. Examples of these techniques include relaxation training and self-talk.

For child athletes, a vital component from combating burnout is enjoyment. Children participate in sports primarily to have fun, and the chances of children becoming burned out is greatly diminished if parents and coaches keep this in mind for every decision that involves young athletes.

To reduce the incidence of burnout in youth sports, skill development should be stressed rather than competition and winning.


Henschen (1986) states three points in treating burnout. First, the athlete, coach, and parents should try to determine the causes of an athlete's burnout and make any necessary steps to correct it. Then, teach the athlete different psychological skills to assist in psychological healing or resetting. Finally, re-evaluate and reset goals for practice and competition.

For the treatment of an athlete who is already burned out, a temporary withdrawal from the sport may be necessary (Rotella & Bunker, 1987)

Overtraining Syndrome

Overtraining syndrome can be defined as a “series of psychological, physiologic, and hormonal changes that result in decreased sports performance.” and also has been defined as a “series of psychological, physiologic, and hormonal changes that result in decreased sports performance.” (Brenner et al., 2007)


Overtraining is a physiological and/or psychological state that may occur in response to insufficient recovery following overload (Rearick, Creasy & Buriak, 2011). The most commonly seen symptoms are declines in performance, such as, chronic fatigue. But some declines that are harder to observe include immunological function, psychological function like a depressed mood, and other relevant biochemical changes.

Many athletes train too hard erroneously believing that more training will always produce more improvement (Wilmore & Costill 1994). This is seen in many child athletes who may have a poor understanding of training principles.


The presence of one or more of the symptoms below will signal overtraining syndrome:

  • Weight loss and loss of appetite
  • Tiredness and disturbed sleep patterns
  • Susceptibility to illness, allergic reactions
  • General decline in physical performance during training and competition
  • Athletes have to work harder to achieve same performance in training
  • Decline in standard of schoolwork
  • Depression
  • Loss of confidence

(Griffin and Unnithan, 1999)

The most obvious sign of overtraining syndrome is a decrease in physical performance. This can be seen through poor performance continuously over consecutive training sessions or in weak performances in competition.

Prevention of Overtraining

To assist in the prevention of overtraining, there are a variety of ways in which the athlete, or even those around the athlete can partake in:

  • Include recovery training in weekly, monthly or yearly training plans. Ensure that after long periods of hard training athletes are given work, in the form of a reduction in training volume and intensity, which will allow them to recover.
  • Prescribe a high carbohydrate diet (55-65% of the total daily energy intake), specifically in the form of high-to-moderate glycemic foods, such as whole-meal bread and pasta.
  • Provide carbohydrate solutions during training and competition like Gatorade.
  • Reduce other sources of stress or reduce training when additional stress is anticipated. In the child athlete, this may involve reducing training during exam periods or when the athlete has other pressures in their life, for example, problems involving their home or family life.
  • Try to prevent athletes from competing too frequently.
  • Ensure that adequate rest is provided following competition. This can take the form of reducing volume and intensity of the training or even missing a training session following a weekend of competition.
  • Provide parental education where appropriate to minimize parental pressure.

(Griffin and Unnithan, 1999)

Treatment of Overtraining

Usually when overtraining is diagnosed, there has been significant damage already done to the athlete; therefore, training volume and intensity should immediately be reduced. For an athlete that has acute overtraining, three to seven days of recovery should be enough to alleviate the symptoms, however, for athletes with chronic overtraining, recovery time from a couple of weeks to a few months may be necessary. The specific time of recovery is dependent on the athlete.

Maglischo (1993) developed an eight-point plan to combat overtraining:

  • Reduce daily training.
  • Train only once per day.
  • Eighty per cent of training should be at basic endurance levels.
  • Get sufficient rest (adequate sleep) when not training.
  • Resolve any emotional conflicts that may be causing or compounding the problem. In children this could include resolving academic problems and pressures.
  • Increase carbohydrate consumption.
  • Check for vitamin-mineral and calorific deficiencies.
  • Primarily check for iron-related deficiencies, such as anemia.
  • If a decrement in performance is noted, serum ferritin and hemoglobin levels should be checked.
  • Take a one-week break from all training if the condition is severe.

Other Consequences of Overtraining

Burnout and Overtraining

Burnout and overtraining although similar are not the same. Overtraining is the result of too much workload and with not enough recovery time; while, burnout is the end consequence of overtraining. They have similar symptoms and prevention and treatment strategies, however, overtraining is just the component that may eventually lead to burnout.

Theories, Models and Hypotheses

Self-Determination Theory

Deci and Ryan (1985) developed the Self-Determination Theory describes three types of motivation for an athlete:

  • Amotivation, which is characterized by a lack of motivation, and a feeling of ‘going through the motions’.
  • Intrinsic motivation includes individual participation because of interest or enjoyment in the activity itself.
  • Extrinsic motivation exists when an individual participates to achieve certain outcomes.

Smith's Cognitive-Affective Stress Model of Athletic Burnout (1986)

Smith (1986) states that human behavior is directed by the desire to maximize positive experiences and minimize negative ones. When the costs start to outweigh the benefits and alternatives are feeling favorable, the athlete will withdraw from sport. He also states that burnout is hypothesized as developing via a four-stage process during which stress and burnout evolve in parallel (Smith, 1986). These stages are influenced by personality and motivation. At the first stage, demands act upon the athlete, such as, high expectations, parental pressure, and increasing training load. A cognitive appraisal of the situation is the second stage where all athletes will have different interpretations with the demands. Some will see themselves as having no control over the situation while others will perceive it as overwhelming. In the third stage, a physiological response, such as, arousal will show if the individual perceives the demand as overwhelming. Finally, the physiology response in the third stage will lead to negative coping responses, for example, avoidant behaviour, a decrease in performance and withdrawal from that sport.

Silva’s Training Stress Syndrome (1990)

In this theory, there is a strong focus physical and training factors, however, the importance of psychological aspects is also recognized. Silva (1990) stated that burnout is a product of excessive training and that the training load can have both positive and negative effects. A positive adaptation will lead to enhance performance; however, a negative adaptation will eventually lead to burnout and withdrawal from the sport.

Coakley’s Unidimensionalidentity Development and External Control Model (1992)

With this model, the fault of burnout is not placed upon the individual but it is rather the result of the social organization of sport. Coakley (1992) proposed that the amount of time that athletes commit to sport limits their ability to develop a multifaceted identity, as they have no time to spend with friends or for activities outside sport. Moreover, the social world of sport is organized in ways that inhibit athletes’ decision-making ability and their control over career and life in general. Eventually, at some point in a child or young individual’s life, he or she wants to have personal control over their life, which therefore, forces them to leave the sport.

Schmidt and Stein (1991) and Raedeke’s (1997) Commitment Model

Schmidt and Stein’s (1991) and Raedeke (1997) believed that there were three athlete profiles that varied in their characteristics and level of commitment:

  • Attraction-based commitment where athletes committed for attraction-related reasons are involved in sport because they want to be involved, and therefore, should experience high commitment and low burnout.
  • Entrapment-based commitment occurs when athletes’ attraction to sport is declining but they continue due to a feeling of guilt.
  • Low commitment is when athletes neither have a high desire to continue in their sport and feel like they have to prolong their engagement in sport, and therefore, should not experience high levels of burnout but will have a higher withdrawal rate not related to burnout.

Recommendations =

The consequences of burnout can be very severe, with some athletes dropping out of sport. Therefore, all individuals who hold an authority position above an athlete, such as, coaches and parents, should keep in mind all of the preventative measures for athlete burnout. As a parent and coach, becoming educated in the basic psychology of the child and how, as an authority figure, they have influence over their athlete. Additionally, not placing too much pressure on child or athlete will help the young athlete to enjoy him or herself, which is a vital element in combating burnout. On top of that, pushing a young athlete towards multiple sports will help alleviate symptoms of burnout and help ‘refresh’ an athlete.

For parents and coaches, keeping in mind all of the personality, early specialization, environmental, psychosocial, and stress factors, as well as, common symptoms of burnout and overtraining syndrome will help detect and prevent an athlete burning out. Early specialization is a topic that should be approached with caution as there is no need to force a child athlete to specialize in a certain sport. Instead, trying to create a well-rounded athlete through participation in multiple sports is a better solution.

For the athletes that are already burned out, the best case of treatment is a time of recovery, while, finding out the cause and resetting the athlete so they can start with a fresh slate in their training and sport.


Brenner, J. (2007). Overuse Injuries, Overtraining, and Burnout in Child and Adolescent Athletes. American Academy of Pediatrics, 119(6), 1242-1245.

DiFiori, J., Benjamin, H., Brenner, J., Gregory, A., Jayanthi, N., Landry, G., & Luke, A. (2014). Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 24(1), 3-20.

Griffin, A., & Viswanath, U. (1999). Overtraining in Child Athletes. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 3(2), 92-96.

Gustafsson, H., Kenttä, G., & Hassmén, P. (2011). Athlete burnout. International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 4(1), 3-24.

Lonsdale, C., Hodge, K., & Rose, E. (2009). Athlete Burnout in Elite Sport. Journal of Sports Sciences, 27(8), 785-795.

Rearick, M., Creasy, J., & Buriak, J. (2011). Avoid Overtraining in Young Athletes. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, 82(5), 25-36.

Rotella, R., Hanson, T., & Coop, R. (1991). Burnout in Youth Sport. The Elementary School Journal, 91(5), 421-428.