Monday, 18 July 2016

Burnout in young athletes: Are we doing everything we can?

As a teenager and young adult the end of season break from athletics was always an important part of my training year. Two weeks of complete rest normally coincided with the first few weeks of settling back into school or university, and was followed by a further two weeks of mild and varied exercise. I always looked forward to this phase of the year, but, after a week or two I was keen to get back into training. By the end of the four weeks I was ready, both physically and mentally, to get stuck into the hard winter miles again.

Even now I take a break at the end of the season, though various enforced breaks mean that the end of season isn't always a predictable period in September, sometimes falling much earlier, and some years a lot less needed than others. However, whether I feel like I need an off-season or not, this break in training is necessary, if just to mark the start of the next 12 month cycle, reflect on what went well or not so well in the previous 12, and set new goals for the season ahead. A finishing point for one season gives you a starting point for the next.

I have no doubt in my mind but that the annual break helped me remain mainly injury free over the years, and has allowed me to have a 'career' that has spanned 24 years, and counting. The value of the off-season is well supported by scientific and anecdotal evidence and is a fundamental component of any sound training programme.

It is therefor disappointing when I hear of 12 and 13 year old athletes who take no annual break from sport, or even have a day a week free from some form of physical activity. Yes, that's prepubescent boys and girls partaking in sport seven days a week, 52 weeks of the year, for as many years as their bodies (and minds) will put up with it. That, in my book, is child abuse.

Don't get me wrong, it's great to hear of young people participating in sport, trying multiple different sports, and not being afraid to partake in competition. But that shouldn't be at the expense of the fundamental principles of training. If an elite Kenyan athlete - who doesn't have school or university, or even making a living to worry about - can spend 4-6 weeks away from sport each year, then surely growing boys and girls can.

The great thing about athletics is that there are always things to train for. But that is also its downfall. I remember as a child how packed the annual calendar was, particularly since I competed in multi-events and cross country in addition to a range of events on the track and field programme both indoors and out. There was a competition on the programme almost every weekend, and even more once I became eligible to compete in junior competitions as well. When I was finally good enough to reach the national Community Games finals, the season end was extended to early September, with county cross country championships - races that I had to do to be eligible to compete in regional and national competitions - usually being held just 4 or 5 weeks later. The season was almost endless. Thankfully my coach was wise enough to know that the break was essential, no matter what the calendar said, and my ego was robust enough to take a sever beating when racing county championships more or less straight off a break.

Other sports are similar. Seasons have been extended to prevent athletes wandering off to other sports and not coming back. That's not to say that athletes don't do multiple sports - they just try to do 3 or 4 sports with overlapping seasons on top of each other, and with no consideration for the overall loading that their body is taking. But the physical components of sport, particularly in young individuals, are transferable. Training can, absolutely, be altered to take into account what an individual is doing in training elsewhere. If they are developing speed and endurance in another sport, then they just need to concentrate on the skills and technical aspects of that sport. This fear of loosing athletes to other sports or not having complete control over their participation in your sport is having undesired effects. Not only are they not coming back, not making the transition from talented juvenile to junior and senior competition, not being the next star athlete, they are being lost from sport altogether. The 'must-find-and-keep-the-next-superstar' attitude has to change because too many young athletes, each with the potential to be a useful sportsperson, are being resigned to the scrapheap long before they have the opportunity to fulfil their potential.

And that is not fair play.

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