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For children, pressure vs. fun in sports is balancing act

by Thomas Owen
Feb 02, 2012


Photo courtesy of Dr. Cynthia R. LaBella

Overtraining tends to happen in adolescence.


Thomas Owen/MEDILL

Swimming is a sport that often requires year-round training. Athletes must be careful not to put the same type of stress on their bodies for months at a time.

Young athletes striving for greatness face a lingering issue: “burnout.” Chicago-area athletic departments and trainers recognize the problem and work with coaches, parents and children to prevent injuries and mental stress from overtraining.

These days, trainers ask two questions, said Dr. Cynthia LaBella, medical director at Children’s Memorial Hospital’s Institute for Sports Medicine. “‘Is the child having fun?’ and ‘Does the child have time for other things, like sleep?’”

“There really aren’t any large-scale studies to evaluate” overtraining syndrome, LaBella said. The concerns generally come on an individual basis when a young athlete suffers recurring injuries or loses  interest in sports as a result of overworking his or her body.

The problem, LaBella said, is that overtraining can fly under the radar. “A lot of kids don’t really know what’s going on,” she said. “They can feel burned out, but they don’t think it’s an option to train less."

Libertyville High School Athletic Director Briant Kelly said that his department uses flexibility to fight against overtraining.

“It’s always something our coaches are balancing,” Kelly said. “They try to incorporate some days off throughout the season, or switch up workouts.” He said that Libertyville athletic teams incorporate activities separate from training that “help the team really enjoy the season.” Activities such as “fundraising outside of the school,” he said, “to keep it all in perspective for them.”

Overtraining syndrome and burnout in young athletes is a result of pressure from within as well as from outside sources. LaBella said that this pressure “first comes from society as a whole,” where many hold sports heroes in such a flattering light. With that comes “an aspiration that kids naturally develop for sports participation,” she said.

More tangible causes are playing the same sport year-round or doing multiple sports in one season, said Jeff Dooley, athletic trainer at Lake Forest High School. Participating in the same sport all year means putting the same stress on the body year-round, he said.

Dooley also recognizes the aspiration to succeed. “The parents and kids are thinking, ‘scholarship,’” he said. “But let’s face it, a very small percentage of these kids are going to get these athletic scholarships anyway."

Added pressure comes from coaches, not just from high school coaches but also college coaches who set up clinics for high school athletes, he said.

“These athletes are afraid they won’t get a scholarship” unless they participate in the clinics, Dooley said.

Dooley said on a personal level, he witnessed athlete burnout growing up, when his brother stopped playing baseball as a result before even entering high school. As a parent, he told his kids that while they were in high school it was up to them what sports they participated in, but that they should stay involved for the entire season, and then decide whether they want to continue.

Parents often notice burnout before the athletes, because the kids are so involved and preoccupied, Dooley said. On the other hand, parents can be the source of the pressure that leads to overtraining, either directly or indirectly, LaBella said. 

The parents may be thinking about themselves, and they’re very proud when their child excels, she said. “That drives the parent to drive the child.” And if a child has a parent who was or is a gifted athlete, that can lead to indirect pressure for the child.

Other parents, LaBella said, who are less interested in sports or not athletes themselves, look at what their children are doing and say, “‘Is this too much?’


The goals should be the child’s alone, and no one else’s, she said.

Students at Libertyville “know that athletics are a big-time commitment,” Kelly said. When it comes to how much they participate and how much they train, “Ultimately the kid has to be the one that makes the decision.”

The athletic department works with coaches to remind them that the children are “‘student-athletes’ and that they’re students first,” Kelly said.

And when it comes to sports in school, “We try to keep a good balance and make it rewarding for them,” he said.