One of our favorite topics to discuss here on the blog is overtraining: it’s so bad for athletes, and it’s so avoidable. And it’s especially bad in younger athletes. They just aren’t developed enough physically or psychologically to adequately respond to and recover from overtraining.
It’s estimated that as many as 30% of adolescent athletes overtrain or get burned out. It’s a rough estimate, and that number is pretty similar to the prevalence in adults. But the causes of overtraining in young athletes may be different.
Teenagers deal with a lot of different stressors, whether or not we adults think they’re legitimate. Between snap chatting, shopping for new clothes every few months, getting to school at 7 in the freaking morning, and existential discovery, it can get pretty overwhelming for our youngsters.
Is it possible that all those different psychological and social pressures can influence a teenager’s performance? Definitely. And I found a cool study that seconds that emotion. Its purpose was to assess the incidence and associated factors of overtraining in young athletes.
Out of 376 athletes, a total of 110 reported being overtrained at least once in their career. Most of the overtrained competed in individual sports, like cycling or gymnastics. The incidence of overtraining was greater in females (36%!), and in both sexes it increased with the level of competition, from club (21%) to international (45%) levels.
All the overtrained athletes reported the typical physical symptoms, like loss of appetite and injury, and they also completed a questionnaire about their feelings, both in general and specifically towards their sport. The researchers termed these “psychosocial symptoms and pressures,” and they were measured on the “agree” to “disagree” scale.
That’s where things got interesting. Since all athletes were doing a similar amount of training, training load (duration x intensity) was not a predictor of overtraining in this study. However, several psychosocial factors were significantly higher in the overtrained athletes. They included:
- feeling bad when they didn’t perform up to their parents’ expectations
- feeling bad when they didn’t perform up to their own expectations
- spending less than 5 hours per week on other hobbies
- not coping well with school
Other factors that were higher in overtrained athletes included feeling bad when not meeting coaches’ expectations, and their sport being the most important thing in their life.
Remember, these are teenagers, so they tend to change moods and feelings pretty often. But I’d like to think the survey was pretty valid, and if nothing else provides evidence of very reasonable trends. This study was also done in the UK, so extrapolating the results to American kids may be different due to social differences and the way we organize sports (there are no high school or college sports there). If anything, you could hypothesize that the pressures are greater here to get good grades and earn college scholarships.
Playing competitive sports, and training in general, is a constant balancing act. We know the importance of physical balance – muscular imbalances cause injuries, so does falling down.
But sometimes that “psychosocial” balance is overlooked. And this study shows some great data that it may actually be the main determinant of overtraining, at least in adolescents.
How can those pressures be avoided?
The solutions are simple, in principle. Instead of having expectations tied to success, have a learning goal. Play more than one sport, or at least get a hobby – your dogs really do love walks!
And plan and track training. It can be done in every sport. Prioritize rest and recovery, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally as well. It doesn’t matter how fit a young athlete is if he’s stressed about school, girlfriends, and engaging his loyal snapchat followers.