Burned Out

Opinion: The prominence of athlete burnout at Hockaday raises the question: when is it time to call it quits?

I have always been a soccer player. A three sport athlete. I’ve played four sports at Hockaday, plus club soccer. I gave countless hours to hone my skills in lacrosse, field hockey, and basketball, and though I had to choose to give basketball up in high school so I could play soccer, I am still very committed to lacrosse and field hockey.

Okay, who cares?

I tell you this because I am only playing two sports. I quit soccer, meaning I have gone from highly competitive travel soccer to high school soccer to none at all. It might seem like all the time I gave to the sport has gone to waste. It might be hard to comprehend that I wouldn’t just “tough it out” for one or two more years, get my 12 letters, and then be done. But, simply put, I am just burned out.

If you are unfamiliar with the term “athlete burnout,” I am discussing the growing phenomena of Middle and Upper School students who play at highly competitive levels of a sport and suddenly, or over a short period of time, completely quit the sport to which they have given so much.

While there may be many contributing factors to burnout in each individual case, it is helpful to be familiar with a few of the most common.

Sports psychologists now agree that specializing in one sport can contribute to burnout. I’ll make an analogy with candles.

If we represent an athlete’s commitment to a sport by the length of the wick of a candle, then that candle starts burning down every time they think about, talk about, prepare for or play that sport.

Now let’s say the athlete plays two or three sports. Sometimes, when they are preparing for and/or playing sports, they have a different candle lit. They still can learn techniques, both physical and mental, that will help them in their primary sport, but they won’t be burning down the wick of their primary sport.

This can’t have contributed to my case, because I do play three sports, but I’ve seen it in my friends before.

According to “Sport Psychology: Concepts and Applications” by R.H. Cox, another contributor to athlete burnout is the feeling of entrapment.

An athlete who pumps time and energy into a sport but ceases to enjoy or experience any rewards from it is like an ironsmith working the bellows on a fire, augmenting the intensity of the flames and thereby diminishing the time until burnt out.

To return to the lessons of our younger years, we might look at Cinderella for guidance. Cinderella works hard but earns only chastising remarks from her stepmother, just as an infamous soccer coach from my Middle School years could be heard screaming at his sixth-graders even when they gave it their best. Cinderella feels dejected because not only does her step-mother’s berating hurt her feelings, but also she has no position to rise to, not even a husband to dream of. That is, until her Fairy Godmother help guide her to a better life by taking her to the ball.

Another major cause of burnout is the constant pressure and stress of competitive organized youth sports. Somehow I’m not surprised that athlete burnout occurs at Hockaday, then, since Hockadaisies seem rather magnetically drawn to stressors and competition.

To combat this and other problems, it’s important that you feel in control of your schedule and commitment levels. Returning to our candles once again, we all need to be able to rest, blow out the candle and let off some steam—or smoke—before our wicks burn out.

Given this fact, I have heard a few too many horror stories of Tiger Mom Hocka-moms signing their children up for two tennis teams, private tennis lessons, singing lessons, guitar and piano privates, tutors for every class and both debate and AP Studio Art—in addition to suggesting that their daughter earn a community service award and be an active member of a religious youth group.

Whether that is a major cause or not for Hockaday students or even for me, psychologists have worked out several other measures to combat the burnout that results from all of these issues.

A great way to cope is simply to take a break. If you specialize in one sport, take up another as cross training. Also, be sure to give yourself a few days off. It’s good for the body and the mind.

According to educatedsportsparent.com, an excellent way to stop an athlete from burning out is to “look at their interactions with their teammates.”

Consider that when we sit on the bus for one, two or five hours, we do so with our teammates. That when we stretch in a circle and share our goals, we do so with our teammates. That when we win or lose, cheer or stifle tears, we do so with our teammates.

I would think we should look to our teammates to help us through our disenchantment with the sport we previously loved.

On the other hand, sometimes it’s okay to say you’ve just had enough. When there comes a point that it doesn’t matter what you say, you know its really time to give up the sport you used to love. Recognizing that is the most important thing you can do, and everyone else’s opinions come second. My decision was not made in a day, a week or even a month. But so far, it has been the right one.