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Could you spot an over-trained athlete?

Would you recognize the signs of over-training in a competitive athlete?  Chances are you wouldn’t, but you are certainly not alone.  Most athletes and parents don’t realize its happening and then feel devastated and guilty when their child is injured as a result.  The scary thing is that it happens much faster than you realize and can significantly shorten the career of an athlete, regardless of age or skill level.

Burn Out Defined

photo courtesy of

photo courtesy of

What is over-training?  Simply put, it is a physical and psychological state for an athlete in which they are simply burned out from too much practice, conditioning, and preparation for competition.  We all know what burn out looks like—the point where we have had enough and don’t want to do something anymore.  That’s the psychological aspect of over-training.  Athletes lose interest in practice, training, competing, and all other activities associated with the sport.  Over time the athlete and those closely associated with the athlete will notice a change in attitude and personality that can include:

  • Loss of interest in the sport
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Difficulty concentrating during training
  • Fear of competition
  • Lowered self-esteem
  • Inability to sleep
  • Depression

The physical manifestations of over-training/burnout are a major source of concern and include some of the following:

  • Decreased performance, even though the athlete is training hard
  • Inability to recover from training
  • Frequent injury to muscles, bones, joints, and ligaments
  • Inability to sleep
  • Excessive fatigue/exhaustion

The combined physical and mental effects of burnout are devastating to the performance of the athlete and could very well end their career.  Frequently their loss of interest is so great that they give up and never return to sports.  Even worse yet, their weakened/exhausted bodies sustain an injury that doesn’t allow them to return even though they still want to compete.

The causes of over-training are many, but some of the major causes we see time and time again are:

  • Too rigorous of a practice/competition schedule
  • Over-participation in training and conditioning for competition
  • Parents and coaches placing unreasonable expectations on the athlete to perform
  • Unreasonable expectations by the athlete to perform at a high level
  • The stress of competition

Communication and Observation is Key

Parents and coaches need to be vigilant in watching for these signs and symptoms—more often than not, the young athlete won’t voice their feelings but will keep it to themselves in hopes of not appearing “weak.”  If you suspect that your athlete may be over-training, or is at risk for over-training, then it should be addressed immediately.  In most cases, if you recognize it early simply allowing the athlete to take a week or two off will help.  Everyone needs a vacation from time to time and taking a break from the sport will typically help the athlete gain perspective and take time to enjoy other important “quality of life” things like friends and family.  This may allow them to take a step back and return mentally and physically refreshed and ready to compete with a renewed sense of self-satisfaction.

However, if they are truly in an over-trained state, the athlete at the very least should take several months off from competing and training.  You should expect this process to go slowly and not rush them back.  Let the athlete return to the sport when they are ready to do so.  Ultimately, it is the athlete’s decision whether or not to participate.  The parent/coach should not decide when it is time to return.  The point here is that there should be an open relationship between the athlete and parent/coaches as to how the athlete is feeling and how they are progressing on a regular basis to avoid overt-training.  This may actually help the athlete to excel in their sport and prevent future problems.

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