Combatting Overwhelm in Teen Athletes

Our teens athletes have more on their plate than just about any previous generation. Youth are specializing in sports at younger and younger ages, which means not only an increase in the number of chronic use injuries and recurring pain, but also in the amount of pressure our teens are under to perform well in their chosen sport.

Gone are the days of multisport participation in school and the three-season athlete. More and more, our teens are competing for spots on both their school and club teams, with pressure from all directions to be great.

In addition to the demands of their sports training, our teens are also having to prove themselves academically. There is a rise for being a well-rounded student-athlete, with high performance being asked for in both the classroom and on the field. Enrolling in AP class beginning their Freshman year is the norm. Applying for Ivy League and Division I programs, with the hope of recruitment to a sports team, as well as acceptance to the college is the goal.

Our teens are rising at dawn for pre-school training, transitioning from after-school practice to club practice, grabbing a bite on the run, and burning the midnight oil to get their schoolwork done. Add to this other extracurricular activity, such as Youth Group and volunteering, and it's a wonder many of our teens are still upright!

It isn't surprising that increasingly teens are struggling with burnout and overwhelm these days. We are asking a lot, and if we think about it, we're asking our teens to take on much more than many adults would be willing to. As parents, we do our best to support them, but in reality, we're struggling with our own bouts of overwhelm and may not fully understand what our teens are going through in our own attempts to keep it together.

So, what's to be done? As parents, our number one focus needs to be monitoring how our teen athletes are handling the loads that they are juggling. Are we seeing any signs of burnout or distress? If we do, are we helping them learn how to manage their time and priorities, and advocating for their health by connecting them to counselors, or running interference with overbearing coaches? We have great goals for our kids and will do anything to support their dreams, but just as we would throw ourselves in front of a bus to save them, we have to help them protect their physical and mental health as well.

Burnout affects the athlete in various stages:

  • The athlete is placed in a situation that involves new or varying demands on their physical ability and time management
  • The athlete at some point – usually early on as a young athlete, or later if a more experienced athlete – views the demands as excessive or non-productive
  • The athlete feels as if their performance is being hampered by the demands of participation and the inability to rest and recover
  • The athlete starts experiencing subtle signs and symptoms of physical and mental burnout
  • Burnout takes place and the physical and mental toll on the athlete impacts their lives and performance on and off the field, perhaps even discontinuing sports participation

Signs and symptoms of burnout include:

  • Leveling off or diminished performance or conditioning, including strength and stamina losses, chronic fatigue, and recurring pain & injury.
  • Physiological signs such as having a higher resting heart rate and blood pressure
  • Cognitive issues such as difficulty in concentration or diminished work in school, forgetfulness
  • Illnesses as a result of the suppressed immune system
  • Emotional issues such as disinterest, moodiness, irritability
  • Low self-esteem, increased anxiety, and depression as a result of falling short of sport demands

As parents, it’s important that we’re aware of the signs and symptoms of burnout in our kids. When we notice some of the signs above, we must be their advocates to take action. This means gathering the team around - the coaches, athletic trainer, teachers, counselors, and of course the athlete themselves. This is the time to start assessing the situation and make sure that her training aligns with her future goals. 

This may mean taking yourself out of the dreaming stage and truly listening to what your teen wants. What are their goals? What do they feel like they can handle right now? There's a good chance that they want to make you and their coaches happy, and they need to be assured that their wants are being heard and the team is working in their best interests now - even if the long-term plan has changed.

If you don’t have a mental health professional or teen coach who works with athletes as a part of your team, this is the time to bring one in. Often our teens just need an outside adult to help them craft a plan and work on shifting their mindset a bit. 

Letting go is a key for many teens who have that athletic-mindset. Many teen athletes feel a need to be perfect and set the bar much higher than what can be achieved in the current situation. Teen coaches and therapists can help teens start letting go of the unrealistic goals that others have put on them, and begin to adopt new habits and mindset shifts that are manageable and aligned to their goals. 

Similarly, teens also need to learn to work through and let go of negative emotions that come up when feeling stressed. Once they tap into the root of those emotions, teens can learn to step back and look at them with a neutral eye and better address the underlying triggers. Often, the act of simply letting go of the idea that you are not enough or have to do more can greatly reduce overwhelm and allow for a clearer focus on the things that matter.

The demands on our teens aren’t going away anytime soon, but if we, as parents, begin to notice the signs of overwhelm and burnout when they begin to creep up, those demands become more manageable. There may be tears, there may be hurt feelings (for us), but part of our roles as parents is to protect our teens' health - physical and mental. Recognizing the signs of burnout is one of the best forms of protection we can give.

Want more?

Download the free "Burnout in Athletes" Guide to help you navigate this tricky territory with your teen, and get her the help she needs to find the love of her sport and play again.

Categories: : mental wellness, mindet, performance

Do you want to talk more about something in this post, or have questions about how to help your daughter improve her athletic wellness & performance? 

Let's find a time to connect! Click the link below to schedule a FREE 30-Minute call to discuss your goals and needs for yourself and your teen.