Do you need an off-season? Reflecting on athlete, coach and parent burn out

Posted: March 6, 2012 in Better Health and Fitness, Sport Speed Development, Training Tips
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Responsible Sports

This month, many of us who are involved with youth sports are taking a deep breath… another season completed or coming to an end!  If you’re a hockey parent, your team might have finished up last month, and the NHL hockey playoffs signal the end of winter and the beginning of spring/summer for you and your family.  If you’re a softball parent, you’re almost to the end and are dreaming of the last weeks in the drive to the Championship.  If you’re a soccer mom or dad, this spring season is almost done and summer vacation and summer camps are on your mind.  Somehow, come Memorial Day, many of us heave a big sigh of relief as school sports seasons and club sports seasons come to an end.

For a bit.  Because just when we think we have a break, we’re all on to the next sport, or the next season, or the next camp, or the next team!  What happened to the days of an off-season?  For some youth sports parents and athletes, there just isn’t one.  But the team here at Responsible Sports got to thinking: should there be?  Should we as Responsible Sport Parents and Responsible Coaches insist on an off-season?

There are good arguments on both sides of this valuable debate.  On the side of advocating for an off-season are those parents and coaches who point to examples of young athletes suffering burnout, or worse, injury, as a result of too much activity.

There is the story of Elena Delle Donne, the number one basketball prospect in the country who walked away from a full scholarship to women’s basketball powerhouse UConn because she felt burnt out.  In trying to explain her very personal decision to not only Coach Auriemma as well as the national media, Donne could only keep repeating “I just need some time off.”

There is the story of Matt Harrington, the young man who owns a record in Major League Baseball, not in the regular on-the-field statistics, but for being the only player to be drafted five times without ever signing and for turning down several multi-million dollar deals opting instead for a job paying $11.50 an hour.  Harrington’s story is one where everyone looks for someone to blame: an overbearing sport parent, a greedy agent, an unfocused young man.  But Matt’s comments themselves might be the most telling.  “I want to be home. I want to be doing the things as a family more than I want to be on the road all the time playing baseball.”

Our friends at USA Softball recently shared the story with us of a young woman who was a highly-accomplished collegiate player and a prospect for a spot on the U.S. National team.  But after the final game of her senior season, as the field cleared, she took her cleats, glove, helmet, jersey and gloves and laid them down on home plate and literally walked away from softball saying, “I’m ready for something else in my life now.”

Would the lives of these three young athletes, and the countless others that leave the game due to burnout, have been different if they had been given an off-season or given time away from the game during their youth sports season?  It’s purely speculation.

On the other side, the argument about avoiding specialization at an early age leads many of us to enroll our kids in many sports as they seek to “sample” what’s out there.  And how can you sample and experience new sports, different teams with different teammates and coaches, if you don’t embrace the idea of playing in multiple sports seasons?  Add to that, the arguments and very real data that supports everything from better health to better grades to better esteem when kids play sports.  If we embrace all of these wonderful outcomes from a youth sports experience, shouldn’t we give our kids the maximum exposure to all of this “goodness”?

The team at Positive Coaching Alliance grapples with these issues everyday in working with coaches, athletes and parents.  And their advice to Responsible Sport Parents and Responsible Coaches seems very sound to us: listen to your kids.

  • Sit down and talk about your goals as opposed to their goals for their youth sports experience.  Pay attention as much to what they say as to what they don’t say and the unwritten message in body language.
  • Talk about how your child can focus on effort and learning rather than on winning as a way to ensure their self-betterment and enjoyment are at the focal point of your child’s youth sports experience.
  • Talk before the season starts, before a game, after a game, and at the end of the season.  Bottom line: talk.  Keep the dialog open, truthful, and ongoing.

“Goodness” for each of us in youth sports is personal and comes from the dialog more than the outcome.  And thanks to Positive Coaching Alliance, we’re proud to serve up some tools and ideas for how to foster this kind of dialog.

Download: Responsible Sport Parenting Empowering Conversations
Introducing the ELM Tree of Mastery to Your Child
Introducing Honoring the Game to Your Children
Download: Responsible Sport Parenting Game Day Tips

And in the spirit of dialog, we’d love to hear what you think about youth sports off-seasons and the topic of burnout.  (And by the way, if you’re like us, you know that there is just as much sport parenting burnout and coaching burnout as there is athlete burnout.)  We’d love to hear your thoughts!  Write us at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s