In case you haven’t heard the statistic, 70% of kids in the US drop out of youth sports by the age of 13. The primary reason for this is that they “burn out.” In other words, they don’t find it fun anymore.
What causes burn out? Many people would say it is playing too much of one sport, or playing too much of organized sports altogether. Basically, kids don’t spend enough time “just being kids.” The blame gets cast on year-round sports or too many practices on a weekly basis.
But most people are missing the point. Burn out is not caused by too much playing. It is caused by too much unwanted playing.
It’s when children are forced by their parents to play, or when they feel pressured to keep playing when they secretly do not want to. Here’s a quick story:
I once knew a young girl who began playing soccer at the early age of 5. At first, she was too shy and cried when on the field. This was followed by time spent on the field picking weeds and grass out of the ground rather than playing. But by the time she was 6, she engaged and fell in love with the sport. She had a knack for it and quickly became a standout player among her peers. As she entered her early teenage years, she found herself occasionally not feeling like going to practice, but she did it anyway. After all, she made a commitment, and she was going to uphold it. She had been playing in the competitive club/travel world for multiple years at this point and would continue to do so. She felt an obligation to keep doing it, despite a decreased interest in it. She still loved soccer and wanted to keep playing. But 5-6 times a week, long road trips every other weekend, the pressure to perform? All that was too much. But what could she do? Quit? There’s no way she could quit. It was part of who she was. She was good at it. She’s always played competitive soccer. Her brother played. Her dad was a coach. How could she quit?
The experience became increasingly disengaging. Pile on top of it all that her team got a new coach when she was 15. This coach was in every way a bully. The other five-letter “B” word was also often used by her players to describe her. When it came time to pursue college, our young player had the caliber to play division one, no doubt. But she didn’t really want to. Yet she found herself sending e-mails to a bunch of coaches. More pressure to pursue something she didn’t want. Between the overload of playing, pressure to pursue the higher level, and the toxic environment created by her new coach, this young girl eventually quit altogether before her final, U18 year.
This player burned out long before she actually quit, but that doesn’t make it a success story. It’s actually worse than the kids who quit when they begin to hate it. She only built up more resentment and a greater distaste for the game. She was forced (by the pressure she felt) to continue with unwanted playing. Her parents likely would have supported her playing less or not at all, but it wasn’t apparent enough, and all she felt was the pressure to keep doing it.
There are two primary reasons kids burn out: the environment is unhealthy, and/or they simply don’t want to participate. In the case of the girl mentioned above, she experienced both of these.
The Unhealthy Environment
This is created by adults. Most have good intentions, but they inadvertently create a toxic environment. This is can be caused by parents putting pressure on kids or being overbearing on the sidelines. It is caused by coaches who bully their players or create environments that simply aren’t fun – like long lines or lectures during practice. By simply creating an environment that is disengaging or not fun for kids, adults cause children to lose their desire to play.
For some kids, it only takes one season of this to never play again. For others, they might try it a couple years before quitting. But ultimately, the unhealthy environment turned playing into un-fun, or unwanted playing, which ends children’s desire to play forever.
No Desire to Play
I believe that almost all kids will love soccer if they are playing it in a heathy, appropriate way. However, this does not mean that they automatically have a passion to play it all the time. Sometimes that passion develops later on (even as late high school for some kids). In the meantime, however, kids might not want to play all the time. Maybe a child only wants to play in the fall, but his parents make him play throughout the winter and/or spring as well. By being forced to play, the child develops a resentment toward the sport. Because he is playing more than he wants, he eventually burns out and quits forever.
But if this child would have only played as much as he wanted, he would have played the sport much longer. For the first couple years, maybe he only plays in the fall. But as he continues to love it and develops a passion for it, he may very well develop the itch to play in all and spring, maybe even throughout the winter. But if we rush him into it, he will never develop that desire – only resentment and burn out.
When “Too Much” is Just Right
Some kids simply love the game. They can’t spend enough time on the field. If they could play all day, every day, they would. For these kids, there’s no such thing as too much playing. They could play year-round and never burn out. They are often hungry to keep challenging themselves to get better and always jump at the opportunity to sign up for a more challenging program or team.
It is because of these kids that the thought of “too much” playing or playing too much of one sport causing burn out is wrong. There is no such thing for these players. They want to play non-stop.
But can they burn out? Of course. If this desire is no longer there, the non-stop playing could become too much. But more likely, these kids might find themselves in an unhealthy environment that either kills the drive for them or over-works them and causes injury. But I’ll repeat, simply playing all the time is not necessarily what burns them out – only when it becomes unwanted or unhealthy will it burn them out.
Preventing Burn Out
How do we prevent this from happening? Simple: ask our kids what they want. How many parents or coaches have actually asked their kids why they play? How many parents ask their children if they want to play and for how much of the year? How many ask them whether or not they are still enjoying it after signing up?
As adults, we have to let our kids drive the experience, and we help navigate them to get where they want to be. If a child has a self-driven passion to play all the time, let him! If a child only wants to play one season a year, let her. If a child is in an unhealthy, no-fun environment, put her in a new one! Remember: there’s no such thing as too much as long as the child is the one driving the experience and the environment is healthy and appropriate.