Losing grip: A deep dive into sports burnout

Losing+grip%3A+A+deep+dive+into+sports+burnout

By Jui Bhatia, Katherine Lee and Shreya Vaidhyanathan, Beats Editor, Co-Editor-in-Chief and Co-Webmaster

Editor’s note: as a privacy measure, one student wishes to remain anonymous. Their alias is indicated with an asterisk (*).

When the bell rings at the end of eighth period, sophomore Luc Beauparlant switches off school mode and focuses on his passion: sports. Playing both hockey and baseball since elementary school, the dual-sport athlete learned the ins and outs of managing time and establishing a routine. For one half of the year, Beauparlant prioritizes ice hockey; the other half, he prioritizes baseball. 

From staying on-task with homework during his free periods to giving his all during practices, Beauparlant concentrates on maintaining his grades and improving his athletic performance. He does everything he can to prevent falling prey to one of an athlete’s greatest hurdles: sports burnout.

According to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, the continued demands of a sport without rest or recovery can cause chronic stress and sports burnout. Consequently, athletes can experience an overwhelming sense of exhaustion, resentment toward their sport and lower levels of achievement due to poor performance. Loss of motivation is a common effect when student-athletes feel forced into their sport, either by social pressures or their parents. Robert Brill, a member of Moravian University’s Department of Psychology, acknowledges the complex nature of how sports burnout manifests in high schoolers.

“The main symptom is withdrawal, and that withdrawal can manifest physically, emotionally, socially or a combination of those three,” Brill said. “Students don’t feel like they have the ownership of being in the sport, (and) it eventually wears them down.”

Senior and runner Karis Blagden feels that sports burnout can be caused by athletes overworking themselves to a point of physical and mental exhaustion. Blagden has seen teammates lose motivation because they lack a goal or achievement in mind, leading them to lose sight of why they play their sport. 

“It (sports burnout) happens when you don’t realize when you need to cut back, and, over time, that can lead to not wanting to continue (playing),” Blagden said. “I’ve definitely seen people go through it. Sometimes, after they reach a certain goal they had, they just stop and they don’t feel like they want to push themselves anymore.”

Sports burnout affects student-athletes in high schools all over the country, and Conestoga is no exception. Many athletes, like senior and runner Vicente Peña, feel that burnout impacts their performance and causes self-doubt.

“It’s very common with people who find themselves trying everything they can every day to (improve), and then feeling that they don’t get that result,” Peña said. “You get tired of the whole entire process, (and) you’re just like, ‘Why am I doing this? Why do I feel like this is getting me nowhere?’”

The added pressures of time management, social demands and academic constraints exacerbate the issue of burnout in high school athletes. Immaculata University Health Nutrition and Exercise Science Chair Kelly Stalker finds that burnout at the high school level is caused by a variety of factors affecting students’ relationship with their sport and how they manage time.

“It (sports burnout) happens in that high school age, when (athletes) are realizing, ‘Okay, I can’t be a three-sport athlete anymore and still keep my grades up. And with all these clubs and activities that I want to participate (in) in high school as well, how am I going to do all of that?’” Stalker said. “That’s when they start having to make those decisions and realizing they can’t balance everything.”

Senior and swimmer Jordan Smith* attests to having experienced and witnessed burnout at Conestoga. From what they have seen, it comes from the college recruiting process, overtraining at a young age and not achieving personal goals after hours of taxing training. 

“If you work for an entire three months and (perform) like crap, that’s totally demoralizing because you feel like you put in three months of work for nothing,” Smith said.

Class of ’20 alumna Lucy Wydeven, a sophomore and swimmer at the University of Pittsburgh, remembers sports playing a much bigger part in her life during her time at Conestoga. While this stress led Wydeven to lose sight of her passion for her sport, her college’s club team has given her the chance to rekindle her love for swimming by having a more flexible training schedule. 

“I think burnout for me specifically was being run-down (in high school) and not enjoying the sport as much as I did when I was younger. (At college) I’ve been able to see why I loved swimming so much when I was little and get back into it,” Wydeven said.

How academic stressors cause sports burnout 

One of the main causes of sports burnout lies not on the playing field, but in the building. According to Brill, academic stressors, such as an intense workload, can exacerbate exhaustion due to the role they play in increasing mental and physical stress levels.

“We only have one body,”  Brill said. “We may have two roles, student and athlete, but we only have one body that’s absorbing all the stress. A lot of times, a student may only have so much energy and bandwidth to dedicate to their responsibilities.”

Having to manage time commitments to both sports and academics, student athletes are often caught in a delicate balancing act. Sophomore and squash player Rhea Malik notices how the combination of schoolwork, including Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and sports practices can be overwhelming at times.

“I’m taking a lot of AP classes, and a lot of times, teachers, without even knowing it, schedule a lot of tests on the same day. And so, you’re supposed to go to squash and then also try to prepare for all the tests and finish all your other classes’ homework, so it’s just a lot,” Malik said. 

The contribution of sports-related injuries

When athletes play their sport from a very young age, they are likely to always categorize and “identify themselves as athletes,” as Stalker pointed out. One of the first things a student-athlete says when asked to introduce themselves is the sport they play. However, if that identifying factor is taken away from them by an injury, athletes may be left feeling aimless.

“That injury takes their livelihood away if that’s the only way they have identified themselves. They don’t know who they are or what to do with themselves,” Stalker said. 

Stalker noted that during rehabilitation, student athletes may resent their sport. Sophomore and runner Lukas Metz-Topodas tore his ACL in May of 2021, taking him out of soccer and track for the rest of the year. Although Metz-Topodas is rehabilitating and was recently cleared to start running again, his return to the sport still triggers a fear of re-injury. 

“Once I found out about (my injury), I viewed soccer as almost a negative thing,” Metz-Topodas said. “For anyone, if you have the right support and the right people around you, (whether) you get back to your sport is almost up to you.”

Sports specialization and the impact of parents 

Athletes who specialize in one sport from an early age are more likely to experience burnout, says the Journal of Athletic Training. Participating in one sport for more than eight months is the technical definition for sports specialization, which goes along with a high time commitment and expectations from parents and coaches. Stalker finds that because students are often expected to specialize in one sport, they are then forced to make time for that sport by 

sacrificing other activities. 

“The main consensus (about) sports specialization is that you’re participating in one sport at the expense of other sports,” Stalker said. “It (sports burnout) can come from having to give up other activities that people are participating in to become elite in that one particular area.” 

Additionally, the role that parents may have in influencing the relationship between student athletes and their sport is a contributing factor to sports burnout. 

“It (sports burnout) might not have anything to do with the training, it might not have anything to do with their academics, and it might have everything to do with when (students) go home and have a conversation with their parents and that just kind of brings them down,” said Mark Carberry, the head coach of the boys and girls indoor and outdoor track and field teams. “They’re not meeting their parents’ expectations.” 

Although their parents do put pressure on them to do well in their sport, Smith knows that their own goals and drive are what keep them the most focused. Smith realizes a good amount of pressure comes from Conestoga and the swim program, and that some kids on the team are continuing to swim “just because they have to.”

“My parents definitely put a lot of pressure on me, but most of the pressure just comes from the swimmers themselves,” Smith said. “As a competitor, you always want to be better than the people around you.”

How burnout affects performance 

According to the Women’s Sports Foundation, symptoms of sports burnout include constant fatigue, an inability to focus and decreased energy levels, which can increase chances of injury and contribute to a lack of enthusiasm and enjoyment of one’s sport. All of these factors accumulate into a noticeable decrease in motivation, performance and, in some cases, the desire to quit. Stalker emphasizes that while these are general symptoms experienced by many athletes, sports burnout can still manifest very differently based on the individual. 

“Sometimes you start seeing decreases in their performance (or) that physically they’re just not doing what they used to be doing. You start seeing overuse injuries from their bodies just starting to give out on them,” Stalker said. “You start to see that they might not be as social with their teammates, they might start kind of isolating themselves (and) they might be a little bit more short-tempered.” 

Similarly, Beauparlant describes how when high school athletes experience burnout, they begin to skip practices, show up late to games and no longer hold the same level of dedication towards their sport. 

“When you have to be (at the game) an hour before, they’re showing up 30 minutes before. In hockey, (someone) could be playing at the highest level but they end up playing lower because they didn’t want to travel for it or didn’t like it enough anymore,” Beauparlant said. “It’s something very difficult to catch on to as it’s (happening), but when they come out saying they stopped loving it, everything adds up.”

As athletes start putting less effort into their sport, they simultaneously lose motivation for other areas of their life as well. 

“When I think about people sometimes taking on too much on their plate of responsibilities, it’s a little bit like you’re constantly juggling balls in the air,” Carberry said. “Academics is a big one, athletics is a big one, social life is also a big one (and) looking for colleges could be one. So you’re constantly juggling, and the moment that one thing gets a little out of whack, everything else falls to the ground.”

Some students do not feel the effects of burnout

According to Stalker, a student’s age and grade level can factor into whether they are more prone to experiencing burnout.

“You might be gung-ho freshman year, you’re so excited (to play sports in high school), but now it’s two, three years down the line, you’re hitting senior year,” Stalker said. “You’re thinking college now, and with the pressures that come with that, you could get to that level that it really turns into burnout.” 

For freshman Rebecca Schmidt, sports burnout has yet to pose a problem. Despite being involved in three sports (cross country, basketball, and track and field), Schmidt has found a way to maintain a healthy balance between her sports and academics. In fact, playing sports encourages her to work hard at school. 

“I think it’s been pretty easy to handle both (sports and academics). I don’t procrastinate, so I get things done right when I have to,” Schmidt said. “Sports kind of motivate me to do well because I have to keep my grades up in order to do them.”

For other athletes, such as Blagden, their love for their sport enables them to stay motivated even when it becomes more difficult to stay engaged.

“I’ve loved playing sports (at Conestoga). It’s been great. I joined running my freshman year, and it’s only gone uphill from there. I didn’t know what to expect at first, but then it really grew into a big passion for me, and now it’s a huge part of my life,” Blagden said.

Future outlook and possible solutions

Avoiding sports burnout is an effort that involves not just the athlete, but everyone who impacts their life. To reduce sports burnout in the future, freshman Camden Kramer believes that understanding how one’s body is feeling is the most important thing an athlete can do. 

“We just need to be more aware of ourselves and our feelings and really listen; if we just keep trying to go and push through everything, that’s when we hit a wall or breaking point,” Kramer said. “If we acknowledge how we’re truly feeling (and) take action to change it, that would be a good preventative.”

Brill emphasizes athlete-coach relationships to keep a tab on stress levels and general motivation, and he notes that although reducing sports burnout may feel like a daunting task, taking small steps is key.

“The idea is to put proactive things in place. Have conversations with the student-athlete about how they’re feeling about things in an honest context. Even physical exams: we do physicals on the front end of the season, but we don’t do these checks periodically,” Brill said. “Sometimes, what’s showing up physiologically, the student might mask verbally. These (checks) need to happen, like checkpoints along the way; if something’s happened, we should be checking in.” 

On the athlete’s part, adjusting one’s mindset and habits can help avoid sports burnout. By setting healthy boundaries and making conscious efforts to relax between strenuous practices, student-athletes can better manage the overtraining and exhaustion that often lead to burnout. Wydeven urges high school athletes to look beyond their sport, and to take on other hobbies as a method to prevent burnout.

“I encourage student athletes to really explore things outside of their sport. Especially in high school, you get labeled: you’re a lacrosse player, you’re on the swim team, you (play) basketball,” Wydeven said. “Make sure that you have a way to balance academics and other interests so you get exposed to everything.”


Jui can be reached at [email protected]

Katherine can be reached at [email protected]

Shreya can be reached at [email protected]