MANAGING THE RISK OF ATHLETE BURNOUT WITH OR WITHOUT EARLY SPECIALIZATION

Author: Dr. Heather Larson is a post-doctoral fellow in the Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation at the University of Alberta. 

April 25, 2019

Parents who dream of their children becoming professional athletes, and coaches who believe that single-minded dedication is the only way to reach the top of their sport, have contributed to an increase in early sport specialization. However, there are many researchers, coaches, and athletes who have been pushing back on this trend, citing a range of negative repercussions relating to skill development and the risk of physical and psychological harm.

WHAT IS EARLY SPECIALIZATION?

Experts in sport psychology, talent development, and sport medicine have recently reached consensus on a definition for early specialization (LaPrade et al., 2016). This definition includes three criteria:

  1. Involvement of prepubertal children

  2. Participation in one sport, to the exclusion of others

  3. Participation in intensive training and/or competition in organized sport for more than 8 months per year

WHAT ARE PEOPLE SAYING ABOUT EARLY SPECIALIZATION AND BURNOUT?

The same experts who defined early specialization also stated, “…there is no evidence that young children will benefit from early sport specialization in the majority of sports. They are subject to overuse injury and burnout from concentrated activity” (Laprade et al., 2016, p. 1).

The most widely accepted definition of athlete burnout describes it as a psychological syndrome characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment in sport, and sport devaluation—not valuing or caring as much about sport as they used to (Raedeke, 1997).

There are several reasons why we might see a relationship between early specialization and burnout:

  • Heavy training volumes and inadequate recovery time can lead to overtraining and staleness, which may contribute to physical exhaustion and other aspects of burnout.

  • High levels of deliberate practice and little time for play can lead to decreased enjoyment, which is negatively associated with burnout.

  • Highly structured, intensive training may leave young athletes feeling that they have very little control or input into their participation in sport.

However, a careful review of the literature reveals that many of the warnings about the association between early specialization and burnout are based more on theory than on actual evidence. Most research on early specialization comes from a talent development or injury prevention perspective. Less is known about the relationship between early specialization and psychosocial or behavioural outcomes, like burnout and dropout from sport.

We set out to conduct a study that would add empirical evidence to the literature on early specialization and burnout (Larson, Young, McHugh, & Rodgers, 2019).

Matthew Achtymichuk