Player Development

Athlete Advice for Preventing Sports Burnout

College athletes share advice on avoiding burnout, staying motivated, and more.

by Mimi Currah

Are you a young athlete that plays intense competitive sports and feels a sense of overwhelming exhaustion or a loss of interest in playing? If so, you could be experiencing burnout. Burnout is a term often associated with feeling excessive stress, decreased motivation, and a diminished passion for the game. Unfortunately, burnout is becoming increasingly common for young athletes who spend most of their time training and competing at high levels.

When you’ve been playing a sport at a highly competitive level for a long time, you are bound to feel the effects of burnout at some point in time. It can look like a lack of motivation, lower confidence levels, exhaustion, and even frustration with your fellow players or coach.  While bouts of burnout can be rough, there are many ways to push through it. Here are three tips to help you overcome burnout, including advice from collegiate athletes who have dealt with and overcame it to find success in their sports journeys.

Do things you like outside of your sport

The most crucial thing you can do to maintain the balance of athletics and everything else in your life is to recognize that you are a human before anything else. Finding happiness from several sources in your life is vital. If you base your entire identity and your entire schedule around your sport, you could be setting yourself up for stress and burnout when your athletic circumstances become difficult. Diversifying your interests could help you overcome hardships when engaging with other interests and passions.

UCLA Women’s Soccer commit and USYNT GK Neeku Purcell, the #1 ranked GK in the country for the class of 2022, is considered the best of the best. When I asked Neeku how she deals with burnout, she stated:

“I simply go do other things that I love. I hike, write, spend time with friends, or do ceramics. In my experience, if I take care of myself as the complete human I am, with all the things I love and care about, then I am preparing myself to find the joy in my sport—I am prepared to enjoy the fun parts of it and approach it in that way. At the end of the day, I play soccer because it is the most fun thing in the world for me. Sometimes it takes a step back to remember that when I am overwhelmed with what it demands.”

Realize your worth is not determined by wins and losses

It’s so natural for high-level athletes to base their sense of self-worth on their performance in practice and competition. While there is nothing wrong with celebrating your successes, athletes must also remember that they are human at the end of the day. 

Layne St. George is a Clemson University’s Women’s Soccer team sophomore. After playing several years of GA, ECNL, and being named WA State Gatorade Player of the Year in 2021, she has endured burnout several times since her early teens. When asked for one piece of advice she would give her younger self about dealing with burnout, she said:

“I wish I could tell myself that in the grand scheme of life, my emotions about soccer are so small. That I am a person first and feeling burnt out doesn’t make me a failure. When you put so much time into something, it is easy to get down on yourself when it’s not going well, but I wish I could tell younger me that she is so much more than a soccer player.”

Take breaks, and don’t feel guilty about it

Youth sports athletes playing in competitive leagues are familiar with the phrase, “Sorry, I have practice.” For many of us, it is a terrific excuse for getting out of almost anything. However, after many years of giving everything up for training and games, choosing another interest over your sport can feel shameful. Even taking a day off can feel like you’re not caring enough about your athletic future. This is not true. There is a vast difference between lack of commitment and balancing other aspects of your life. 

Westmont Women’s soccer player Olivia Gabelien grew up constantly playing sports. As a multi-sport athlete who juggled social and soccer life in high school, she offers excellent advice on not sweating the small stuff.

“Once you’re done with club soccer and have started playing in college, none of those decisions about going to practice or going to something fun with friends matter. Whether or not I started in a game doesn’t matter. If you have the determination to play further, it will happen.”

Most athletes will experience burnout at some point during their athletic journey. If you lose passion for the game and are stressed out due to sports, don’t ignore those feelings. Instead, during waves of burnout, choose yourself over the sport and prioritize your mental health. 

Find meaningful ways to recharge and devote some time to other things you like. Give yourself credit for the fantastic person you are outside of your sport, and take a break without being hard on yourself. Your sport will be waiting for you, and hopefully, you’ll rediscover the joy of playing for the love of the game when you return with renewed passion and purpose.

Thanks to my former youth club teammates, Neeku, Layne, and Olivia, for sharing their experiences and advice.

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