Fun Games, Obesity, and Burnout

by on December 2, 2013
in Fun

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, September 2013.

Every day, my twitter feed is littered with articles about childhood obesity, and the need for children to eat better and exercise more. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. In 2011, only 29% percent of high school students had participated in the recommended 60 minutes per day of physical activity on each of the 7 days before the survey (CDC, 2011). Meanwhile, I am bombarded with articles about burnout and the need for recovery. Are the two related? How can we – at the same time – have a nation plagued by obesity from a lack of physical activity and a nation plagued by burnout and overtraining in youth athletes?

At the Seattle Sounders Sports Science Mentorship weekend, Mark McLaughlin, a strength coach from Portland, Oregon, recounted his initial transition into strength and conditioning because of the frequency with which he read articles in the local newspaper depicting serious injuries for youth athletes. Consequently, when he trains athletes, he takes complete control of their training and uses Omegawave to monitor the readiness or preparedness of the athletes for training; if an athlete is in the red, he or she will not train. The National Federation of High Schools is similarly concerned about the “epidemic of burned out kids in youth sports.” Dr. Jim Loehr, a leading sports psychologist, described burnout as a “consequence of excessive stress, either physical or emotional” (Coffin, K. NFHS).

The precautions and the concern about burnout are a far cry from my best summer memories of going to basketball camp and playing outside in the 100-degree heat outside Sacramento from 6:30A.M. to 9:00 P.M. with only an hour for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. I can’t imagine what my Omegawave reading would have been on Saturday morning after a week of little sleep, poor nutrition, and continuous physical exertion, but overtraining and burnout was never a concern. I don’t mean to underestimate the importance of preparedness, rest, and recovery, especially in terms of optimal performance. I also do not want to demean overtraining and burnout, which are issues in today’s sports environment, especially with some parents and coaches who treat their child like a minor leaguer. However, in many cases, I believe a child’s burnout is boredom, not excessive physical or emotional stress.

Recently, a Reebok commercial featuring Sidney Crosby circulated the Internet and appeared on numerous sports- and coaching-related blogs. The commercial, titled “Sid vs Max vs Dryer”  shows Crosby returning to his home in Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia to the basement where he spent his youth shooting pucks into his now beat-up dryer.

The commercial has been celebrated as “a time machine to a lost age of childhood” by Dan Coyle, and spurred a week’s worth of discussion about fun games that children play in my Introduction to Coaching class. Whereas most people see the simple message about lost childhood and fun games, many miss the deeper message. These games are not just about fun; they are very much about skill development. More to the point, Crosby hitting pucks into a dryer exemplifies high-order skill development that surpasses almost anything that occurs in a real practice.

Coyle cited the importance of these types of games for three reasons: (1) more engagement; (2) more focused repetitions; and (3) improved creativity. When a mother signs up her son for goalkeeper lessons or pitching lessons or shooting lessons with a skill coach or personal trainer, she expects the lessons to lead to increased performance or more playing time or a scholarship down the road. Those are the tangible goals or the visible rewards for the cost, effort, and time. However, these external rewards are outside of one’s control. In reality, the mother wants to provide her son the best opportunity for success and seeks out a trainer to provide these three things: more engagement, focused repetitions, and improved creativity. The problem with individual lessons or training is that they tend to be good at only one of the three: focused repetitions. Also, seeking out this type of individualized training before the child is psychologically prepared to commit to sports training may initiate the slippery slope to overtraining and burnout, especially if the training is parent-initiated and not something that the child wants.

Therefore, how can we increase physical activity in an effort to fight childhood obesity and prevent burnout from excessive stress? Play. When a child engages in an activity like hitting pucks into a dryer, he or she often reaches a state of flow. One consequence of flow is a loss of the sense of time. When I was young, I would play at the park until dark or at a local gym until it closed. I lost all sense of time; the only thing that mattered was winning so that I could stay on the court and not have to sit out. When this play is child-initiated, there is little chance of excessive emotional stress, as the child can choose to stop at any time. When I tired out, I walked home or called my dad for a ride; there was nobody forcing me to stay longer. Therefore, I went back day after day and week after week because it was fun. This fun enabled me to develop more skill proficiency and stay in shape.

Initially, play should be aimed at developing foundational movement skills like running, jumping, skipping, crawling, and more. These skills can be developed through sports participation, but they can also be developed by encouraging children to play tag, hopscotch, and other childhood games. If developed at a young age through an exposure to a wide range of activities, as recommended by the FTEM sports development framework, these skills can be refined and improved if and when a child chooses to participate in organized sports. The benefits of higher proficiency levels of foundation movement skills include higher rates of fitness, physical activity, and perceived sports competence, with lower proficiency levels creating a negative spiral of engagement increasing the risk of obesity, impaired coordination and social exclusion (Gulbin et al., 2013).

Shooting a puck at a dryer does not seem like the answer to childhood obesity and burnout, and that might be overstating its value as these are complex problems without simple solutions, but it is a start. These type of fun, child-initiated games develop real skills and increase motivation, and these can lead to increased play and better physical fitness. Without an opportunity to participate in these types of skill-building activities, children are often scared away from sports participation because of a lower perception of competence. Whether shooting a puck at a dryer, throwing a baseball through a tire, or playing tag, these types of activities at young ages create a foundation for children’s sports participation and are an early intervention against childhood obesity and burnout from excessive stress.

By Brian McCormick, M.S.S., PES
Coach/Clinician, Brian McCormick Basketball
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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