Where Burnout Ends and “Fun” Begins in Sports Participation

Over the last 10 to 15 years, there has been a great deal of interest and publicity over the number of young athletes dropping out of sports or activities. Commonly referred to as burnout, opinions abound over the reasons why this phenomenon has been increasing.

Many point to the growing trend toward sports specialization as an important factor, while others reference the popularity of filling youngsters’ plates with every activity imaginable – no downtime. Obviously, the huge increase in numbers of youth sports participants in recent times, over 40 million according to a National Council of Youth Sports (NCYS) study, would automatically mean more would drop out due to attrition.

As a 34-year veteran in education (17 of those years in coaching), former athlete, and parent of two college athletes, one thing I find most troubling is the statement I hear from parents of high school and/or college age athletes that sports has become like a job for these competitors.

I am sure there are many reasons one could give that have strong relevance to why kids quit sports or start to view their participation as “work,” not the least of which might be that they have just found other interests as they grow up. However, I would like to take a slightly different tact and focus more on what it is that makes sports “fun” for kids and young adults.

Maybe in doing this we can develop a better understanding of how to keep athletes of all ages more interested and engaged in sports participation, increasing its value to their lives.

From my viewpoint, there are four main areas that help create and maintain one’s interest and involvement in sports, with each having varying degrees of importance based on the athlete’s age.

I.  Play:

As human beings we have an innate interest in just “playing” games and/or actively participating in something physical. It is part of who we are. Contrary to how sedentary many of us become in adult life, our bodies were born to move. Just go to any elementary school playground during outdoor activity time to see exactly what I mean.

Whether the kids are running, jumping rope, playing on playground equipment, and/or actively participating in a competitive game, the movement and participation in and of itself seems to be fun for them.

This basic component of “play” is something that coaches need to keep in mind as they develop activities (drills) and game situations to help improve the skill level of athletes under their direction. The more practice can be made to be more like play, along with developing higher levels of skill and performance, the more advantageous it will be to all those involved, especially at the younger ages.

Parents too should keep this important component in mind as they filter through the variety of programs available today. Choosing an athletic program that keeps the “play” part of sports participation in mind will be essential for developing higher levels of interest in an athletic child.

II.  Socialization:

At first, I was reluctant to place this particular term in with this group. For some coaches, it is contradictory to number III Competition below. Many see the concept of socializing as a less competitive form of participation, and to some extent I would agree. However, you cannot deny the idea of a team as a social group, a place where friends are made and relationships develop. And, yes, it is an important aspect to sports participation, even competitive sports participation. Simply, it is part and parcel of what makes playing sports a fun thing to do.

Even at the older, more competitive ages this can be a huge advantage. Good coaches know that if they can get their team to believe as one and work together for the common good of all, their chances of being successful are much greater. This is why team-building type activities are part of the development of many athletic teams, especially at the collegiate level (both in and out of season).

The hope, and this is true whether in an individual sport or team sport, is that a close-knit group is formed, where the concept of “we are all in this together” becomes a means for inspiration and more motivation. Competing for yourself is one thing, however, competing for yourself and your teammates, school, and/or your country, well, that is quite another. And yes, it is all part of the fun in sports.

III.  Competition:

Athletes, just by their sheer nature, love to compete. There is just something about putting oneself in a competitive situation and seeing what can be accomplished.

Many tie the idea of competition simply to winning a game; however, there is a much more global aspect to competing. Running to get to a loose ball before your opponent during a soccer game, performing a new skill in gymnastics for the first time to see if you can better your score, or just being able to score in basketball against a tough defensive opponent (or score at all if you are a beginner), all represent a deeper form of competition to the athlete.

It is the idea that you can, whether as an individual or as a group, accomplish something through adverse conditions – someone or something trying to stop you from doing so or standing in your way. In its most basic form, that is the nature of competition. And competing, for many, is not only challenging but a fun thing for them to do.

IV.  Mastery:

This is something you don’t hear often but is something I firmly believe in when it comes to the “fun” in sports participation, especially at older, more competitive ages. Mastery, or the desire to reach it, is the idea of working toward performance of skills, plays, and/or activities to a level where they become natural and accomplishable without much thought.

When an athlete is able to perform their skill set (a combination of athletic abilities for a sport), or parts of their skill set, to the point where it is easy for them, they know the outcome before it happens (just by how the skill performed “feels”), and their movements become almost instinctive, then they have reached this level of mastery.

I can tell you from experience that this is where the real “fun” is in sports participation, especially for young adult athletes. There is nothing like being able to perform something, whether in an individual sport or a team sport, to the point where it is so effortless and smooth, it is almost as if you could perform that skill in your sleep. It is at this point that you realize all the hard work and efforts you have put in have been more than worth it. It transcends sports participation itself, creating an understanding of what true success is really all about.

Talk about fun, well, now that is what I call fun, and it is a primary component to keeping athletes grounded in feelings toward trying to work at repeating this type of performance again and again. It is a primary factor, along with the components mentioned above, in keeping the idea of “burnout” at bay.

When looking at all four areas above as a group, you should notice something special about each one of them. The one thing that runs true through all is their intense focus on the intrinsic (internal) value they have. They are things that center their attention on what is on the inside of a person rather than what comes to them from the outside. Even socialization, which some may argue is extrinsic (external), has internal value for athletes when you look at it from the perspective I have described.

Sitting on the sideline of youth sports events, listening to conversations between sports parents, talking to other coaches at all levels, and listening to, or reading, the many stories in the media about athletes, you get the distinct feeling that the reason behind much of today’s sports participation has little to do with what I have detailed above. It seems that there is a distinct percentage of young athletes who are playing because of outside pressure; that some, maybe many, are primarily looking to get that elusive scholarship and even some just like the popularity that comes with being an athlete, all of which have their major focus on things outside oneself (extrinsic).

I am not saying that external reasons for playing sports are all bad. It would be hypocritical for me to do so since I myself sought athletic scholarship, as well did both of my daughters. However, and this is huge, to me it was, and always will be, looked at as an outcome of the efforts one puts in, not as the primary reason for playing. Usually, when that is the case, trouble follows – and this trouble could very well be a part of the reason for the increase in burnout discussed at the beginning of this piece.

I am sure many of you have heard athletes at the pinnacle of their sport when asked why they play have a response that usually centers on something relative to the statement “for the love of the game.” Well, to me, a big part of the development of that love of the game is an outcome of a more concentrated focus on the four areas detailed above, and that is as it should be.

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