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NFCA Coaching Tip Of The Week

For those parents who have spent countless hours and invested thousands of dollars in lessons, traveling teams and camps, there is often complete denial of the fact that a certain percentage of athletes will burn out. No one wants to hear the dreaded words, "I quit."

As I began to write an article on preventing burnout, I recognized that not all burnout can or should be "cured." Especially for our female athletes, burnout is a reality which must be accepted and therefore it is important to recognize signs of burnout, know its causes, know the difference between appropriate and inappropriate reasons and assist our girls in dealing with it.

Burnout for female athletes is different than for males. While society has some competing interests for males other than athletics, most can be achieved and are consistent with the pursuit of sports. Girls, on the other hand, are pulled into a number of competing interests as they enter adolescence. The pre-adolescent and early adolescent girl who loved to get dirty, loved the competition, accepted the long training hours and discipline, and enjoyed the nurturing and attention of her coaches and parents, suddenly begins to develop new interests in high school -- socializing, appearance, jobs, boys -- as alternatives to hours on the practice field.

Burnout is, as the term implies, the state the athlete reaches when she has had enough of the sport, and can't or won't go on. It can develop suddenly or gradually; it can be clearly conscious or apparent through unconscious actions such as gaining weight, under-performing, fatigue, boredom, etc. It occurs more often in sports which are year-round vs. those which are seasonal, and in those sports which are tremendously demanding of time, such as ice skating, swimming and tennis.

As Yogi Berra might say, for starters, we need to go to the beginning: Why do children participate in sports? Research has shown that they do so to have fun, to improve their skills and learn new ones, to be with friends and make new friends, and to succeed and win. Yet, an alarmingly high percentage burn out and quit. Research has shown that young athletes drop out of sports because they don't get to play enough, have abusive and undesirable coaching, encounter an over-emphasis on winning that creates stress and reduces fun, are bored due to over-organization, excessive repetition and regimentation, and become depressed, frustrated and fearful of failure.

If your daughter/player is burned out and considering quitting, you have the responsibility as a parent and as a coach to help her determine if the cause is a lack of interest or other appropriate response, or if it is based on other considerations, such as fear, stress or being over-burdened. The latter reasons allow room for change and improved communication, and may lead to the athlete seeing things from a different perception. Mostly, we need to recognize that while we may be enjoying ourselves as parents and coaches, our daughter/player may not be enjoying herself, and her decision to leave a sport needs to be respected and supported, after it is thoroughly discussed and a decision is arrived at.

As stated, one of the main causes of burnout is a naturally evolving, naturally developing change of interests. On the other hand, perhaps the most preventable causes of burnout are those that have taken the fun out of the game, such as:

1. Intrinsic rewards have been replaced with extrinsic rewards. As athletes focus on scholarships, trophies, qualifiers and championships, they begin to lose sight of the reasons they began playing in the first place.

2. Overtraining and increased time demands. With daily team practices, private coaching, games, conditioning in the gym, etc., the athlete has little time left to enjoy her "teenage years."

3. Sacrifices. Our female athletes are busy almost every weekend, have to be in bed early for early morning games, and have to find time to study and do schoolwork. They miss a great deal of the important socializing of their high school years.

4. Negative reinforcement and feedback. High pressure coaching, criticism, tying self-worth into performance and achievement all lead to low self-esteem, depression and a desire to leave that environment and seek out one which is rewarding.

To help prevent burnout, I suggest the following:

1. Take time off. Make sure there is a break in the action. Even the most highly skilled professional athletes have an off-season.

2. Take a real family vacation. Spend time with your athlete and family in a non-sport related vacation. There was a time when you probably did things as a family, and your daughter/athlete misses those.

3. Balance and moderation. This is one of the cures for most of life's ailments. You can have too much of a good thing. Assist your athlete in becoming well-rounded and having balance in her interests. Softball can be her major interest, but should not be the only interest in her life.

4. Keep fun in the game. Emphasize the "payoffs" of playing -- friendships, travel, conditioning, sportsmanship -- rather than focusing on the end results. Above all, avoid attacks on her self-worth.

5. Have a vision. Continually assist the athlete in defining and refining her vision of participation and her goals, rather than playing out someone else's agenda.

A very small percentage of girls will just naturally lose interest in the game. The majority of cases of burnout are avoidable. Let's all do our part to keep the game fun.