Helping Your Young Athlete Avoid Burnout

The Story of Elena Delle Donne

In 2007, Elena Delle Donne was the top-rated girl’s high school basketball player in the nation. The 6 foot 4 inches tall player from Ursuline Academy in Delaware was so good that not only was she being recruited by the top collegiate programs in the nation (UConn, Tennessee, etc.) she was essentially a shoe-in to participate on the U19 U.S. team later that year in the World Championships.

Seemingly on top of the basketball world, in July 2007, Delle Donne made a curious decision: she walked away from basketball.

Delle Donne had gotten fed up with the enormous amount of pressure the high stakes world of college recruiting was placing on her. She was at a point where everything she did revolved around basketball. In a small town where little girls dreaming to be like her would ask for autographs and where her phone would receive dozens of text messages a day from college coaches alone, Delle Donne had had enough. She decided to take a two month break from basketball. That meant anything basketball related: no film watching, no practices, and no pick-up games. Nothing.

Later on as she would go off to college at UConn, one of the top women’s basketball programs in the nation. She would leave there before ever playing a game, citing once again burnout from a sport she had grown up loving.  Delle Donne decided instead of playing basketball, she would attend the University of Delaware and join the volleyball team as a walk-on.

Elena Delle Donne decided after her year of volleyball to join the Delaware Blue Hen’s basketball team, where she became an elite player, eventually being drafted by the Chicago Sky of the WNBA. Looking at Delle Donne’s journey, there are some great lessons that can be applied to today’s young athletes. Most importantly, can her story teach us how to help young athletes avoid burnout?

 Warning Signs

There are several things you as a parent can look for when you’re concerned your child may be getting “burned out”. Burnout is defined to “occur as a result of chronic stress that causes a young athlete to cease participation in a previously enjoyable activity.” Just in the same way you may get “burned out” from your job, young athletes feel this occasionally in relation to their sport. The physical symptoms include constant fatigue and frequent illness or injury. Mentally, a young athlete may have problems focusing. There may be behavioral problems as well. One of the biggest indicators of burnout, however, is this one simple but tragic fact: your child is no longer having fun.

 Taking the Initiative

Make it your goal to do what you can to prevent burnout in your son/daughter by doing the following:

1) Make sure they get rest. It’s obviously important that young people get enough sleep. In a world where there is always another distraction, help your son/daughter unwind by promoting turning off cell phones by a certain time at night. Help them make good sleep into a habit.

2) Mandate recovery. We have constant strains on ourselves to perform and work no matter how we may feel physically. If your child is injured or sick, make sure they’re taken care of and given plenty of time to recuperate. They’ll be much better off in the long run if they do so.

3) Encourage them to play multiple sports. There are numerous benefits to playing multiple sports instead of focusing on just one. The Michigan State Institute for the Study of Youth Sports gives this example: “Another reason we want children to sample a variety of sports is the fact that to pursue a sport further takes considerable internal or intrinsic motivation, so they must find the sport that is right for them.”

4) Make sure their sport does not feel like a job. Have open and honest conversations with your son/daughter about whether or not they truly enjoy what they’re doing. Allow their time at home to be time “away” from the sport, both mentally and physically. While they may be playing their sport year-round, make sure there are plenty of breaks for vacations, time away from the sport, and time to explore other interests and hobbies. Remember, we’re talking about young people here. They’re in no way, shape, or form done with discovering new ventures and ideas. Don’t force them into an “athletic” box.

5) Value your child for who they are, not what they do. Never be upset or disappointed with your son/daughter in their athletic endeavors. Have conversations with them if you feel they’re not putting forth their best effort on the court. Let them know you love them and are proud of them, no matter what their final stat line looked like. Show your interest in their academic life, social life, and other hobbies they have just as you show interest in their athletic life.

6) Help them prioritize. Because of the amount of pressure young athletes receive, they often are jaded into thinking their sport is the most important thing in their lives, even above their education or family. Make sure they remember that their sport is not as crucial as trying to make good grades in school or spending time with family. Most importantly, they have to prioritize themselves so that they get what they need (proper rest, nutrition, etc.)