If you have a motivated kid who loves their sport, how do you know if they are training too much? And what are the risks of overtraining?
When it comes to young athletes, parents and coaches alike wrestle with these questions. (Even adult athletes struggle to know when they’re overtraining.)
The most obvious problem is that training too much and/or too intensely can lead to injury. It can also lead to a less obvious problem that can be harder to diagnose: burnout.
UPMC Sports Medicine athletic trainer Tony Turchetta, MEd, LAT, ATC, studies this topic and weighs in on how to help prevent overtraining and burnout.
What Is Overtraining?
Overtraining happens when an athlete trains more than their body can adequately recover from. Because their body is tired and weakened, they don’t perform as well.
It’s often a vicious cycle. The athlete grows frustrated at their poor performance and assumes the answer must be to train more. This only makes the problem worse.
There are several reasons young athletes may get caught up in overtraining. Some of the more common risk factors include:
- Recent growth spurts: Because their body is suddenly taller or heavier, or their center of gravity has shifted, they suddenly have to work harder.
- Trying to recover from an injury
- Feeling of trying to “keep up” with other athletes
- Being overscheduled
- Not getting proper nutrition or hydration: They lack the energy to train effectively, but attribute it to not working hard enough.
- Specializing in one sport at too young an age
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What Are the Symptoms of Overtraining in Young Athletes?
Overtraining causes psychological, physiological, and hormonal changes. These changes come with mental, physical, and behavioral symptoms, including:
- Decreased performance
- Poor sleep
- Loss of appetite
- Increased heart rate and blood pressure, both during activity and at rest
- Irritability and restlessness
- Arriving late to practice and/or not seeming as engaged as usual
- Injuries, such as stress fractures or elbow injuries (especially for pitchers)
Ultimately, overtraining can lead to burnout. Burnout is the body’s response to chronic stress. Athletes who feel burned out often quit, despite the fact that they once loved the sport.
What Causes Young Athletes to Experience Burnout?
Athletes with a strong sense of perfectionism or a need to please others can be at high risk for burnout.
Not all burnout is personality-related, though. Environment plays a huge role, too. Some factors that researchers have found contribute to burnout include:
- Having a high training volume, with time demands greater than 16 hours per week
- Having frequent competition (multiple competitions a week)
- Dealing with inconsistent coaching practices (especially for athletes who play both club and school sports, with different coaches)
- Feeling like they don’t have control of their own sports decisions
- Feeling like the expectations have increased
- Getting negative performance evaluations that feel more critical than supportive
How Can We Help Young Athletes Avoid Burnout?
The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) and the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA) both have their eye on burnout in youth sports. These organizations offer several helpful tips for parents, educators, and coaches.
First, beware of overscheduling kids. Keep sports commitments to:
- Less than 8 months per year
- No more hours per week than an athlete’s age in years
- No more than 5 days per week (make sure they have two days rest per week and can spend time away from their sport)
Second, remember that sports should be fun! They help young athletes develop different skills and build strength in different parts of their body.
Finally, consider encouraging young athletes to only compete with one team at a time, instead of both club and school teams. It’s a great idea to try different sports, too, instead of specializing at a young age. Playing diverse sports when a student-athlete is younger ultimately leads to a longer, happier sports career.
Athletic Training at UPMC Sports Medicine
UPMC Sports Medicine has the expertise to help your child prevent and recover from injury, improve athletic performance, and find a healthy balance of sport participation. Our certified athletic trainers are on the sidelines of 100+ schools throughout Pennsylvania caring for student-athletes at practices, games, and events.
Tony Turchetta, MEd, LAT, ATC, joined UPMC Sports Medicine and Mt. Lebanon High School in 2020. He earned his bachelor’s degree in kinesiology-athletic training at Penn State and a master’s in physical education from Old Dominion University. Tony has spent time as an intern for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Hershey High School, and Great Bridge High School in Virginia. In his free time, he enjoys running, hiking, climbing, and staying active.
To learn more about overtraining and burnout or athletic training at UPMC Sports Medicine, please call 1-855-937-7678 or visit our website.
Jayanthi NA., Post EG., Laury TC., Fabricant PD. Health consequences of youth sport specialization. Journal of Athletic Training. 2019; 54(10): 1040-1049.
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