Avoid the Fast Track to Youth Sports’ Burnout

by on November 23, 2009
in Motivation

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, March/April 2009.

This week, I looked at the roster for a Division I women’s program to check on a player that I had watched in high school. She was no longer on the roster. I emailed a high school coach and asked about the girl, and he said that she had “lost the love” and quit.

Last fall, the media made a big deal about Elena Delle Donne dropping out of the University of Connecticut where she was supposed to join the roster of former McDonald’s All-Americans and National Player of the Years to compete for an NCAA National Championship.

Delle Donne has been a star for nearly half of her life: in a Slam article published during her sophomore year of high school titled “Is Elena Delle Donne ready to take women’s basketball to the next level? The better question might be whether the women’s game is ready for her,” her coach, Veronica Algeo said, “Bottom line, she’s as close to a celebrity as this state has. She’s the face of Delaware in the sports world…and she probably will be for two decades to come.”

When she quit basketball, and school, to enroll at the University of Delaware, it was national news. With an ESPN Outside the Lines feature, it is arguably the biggest news story of the year in women’s college basketball.

Her story is so big because people do not understand why a girl with so much talent could quit playing basketball (she plays volleyball at Delaware). However, her decision is not that unusual; unfortunately, I know several players who quit before or during college, forfeiting college scholarships in the process. Delle Donne is noteworthy because of her fame; however, many players make the same choice every year because they burnout.

The January issue of Men’s Health explains that internal motivation is an anecdote to burnout.

“A 2008 study found that athletes are less likely to experience burnout if their motivation stems from competition with themselves, as opposed to competition with others” (Carolyn Kylstra).

Intuitively, this makes sense. As a literature major at UCLA, I almost never completed a book. I did not enjoy reading; I was reading to pass a test or to learn enough to answer a question in class. I was not reading for myself, for my own learning or for my enjoyment.

When I graduated, I consumed books. In the spring after my college graduation, I worked about three hours per day and spent the rest of the time reading. My bedroom had a mattress on the floor and stacks of books. I loved reading. It was the same activity, and the books were of similar subjects, but I read at my pace on my terms, not to please a professor or finish an assignment.

Unfortunately, we worry so much about our kids’ self-esteem that we start the external rewards at an early age. Every child gets a trophy at the end of the season because we feel that kids need rewards to stay motivated. Rather than develop a love for playing the game, we substitute external rewards.

In the January issue of Inc, columnist Joel Spoelsky writes:

“According to psychologists, extrinsic motivation has a way of replacing internal motivation. The very act of rewarding workers for a job well done tends to make them think they are doing it solely for the reward; if the reward stops, the good work stops…They will forget their innate, intrinsic desire to do good work.”

These days, it seems the sole reason for youth sports is to earn a college scholarship. Players specialize early and dedicate their time and energy to one pursuit. Parents pay for personal trainers, and players jump from team to team and high school to high school to find the right coach or more playing time or enough exposure to college scouts.

The external reward of a college scholarship replaces the original intrinsic motivation that helped the player achieve a certain measure of success in the first place.

However, what happens when the player accomplishes her goal and signs her college scholarship? For some (many?), that is the end-goal. It seems players dream more about the scholarship than playing college basketball. But, a college scholarship is a beginning, not an end.

The player’s approach often determines her enjoyment at the college level. After spending three to four years pursuing an external reward, how does the player recapture the intrinsic motivation?

Without internal motivation, playing college basketball resembles a job, much like reading literature for a class rather than for enjoyment. Basketball is no longer a game to be played, but a chore to finish before moving on to something that they want to do.

Few people on the outside understand this, however, because people equate playing basketball with their personal recreational activities, not with their job. Most people do their job because of external rewards – typically their paycheck, but possibly a raise, promotion, etc. By adulthood, we are conditioned to chase external rewards, which is why people want a bigger house or a more expensive car. We forget to embrace our intrinsic motivation.

However, those who pursue recreational activities consistently follow their internal motivation. Nobody forces you to get out of bed at 6:00AM to run a 10k or to spend your Saturday morning on a 50-mile bike ride. You choose these activities because you find enjoyment.

A player on a college scholarship does not play basketball in the same way that the gym rats in the campus recreation center play basketball. The gym rats play when they want. They start when they want and finish when they want. They play for fun.

A scholarship athlete, however, is told where to be and when to be there. The coach scripts the practice and the player follows directions. The coach concentrates on winning, as he needs to keep his job so his kids can eat.

If the player is unable to shift her motivation to find something that she enjoys in the playing, she is likely to burn out and quit (unless she cannot afford to quit; then she might keep playing even though she is unhappy, just so she can complete her degree).

Similarly, every January, people make resolutions to lose weight. They force themselves to do things that they think they dislike or that they associate with negative experiences. These people fail to keep their resolutions.

Those who manage to follow-through for more than a couple weeks do so because they find internal motivation. They choose an activity that they enjoy or they make it a social activity with friends. They do it because they want to do it, and they enjoy the exercise or the experience, not because they feel compelled to do it.

It is unfortunate that we have created a youth sports system so engulfed by an external reward. It hurts the scholarship athletes who lose their motivation once they sign the scholarship and achieve their reward, but it is even worse for the less competitive athletes stuck in an overly competitive system even though they just want to play and have fun.

Sports like skateboarding are on the rise because many kids are driven away from more structured sports at early ages because the external motivations lead to burnout. They choose less competitive, more collaborative sports because they create an intrinsic motivation.

Nobody forces a kid to skateboard or surf; he chooses to skateboard or surf because it is fun and he likes the feeling or the challenge or the learning. Team sports used to provide the same type of experience; sadly, in the increasingly competitive arena of youth sports, situations like Delle Donne’s are growing more frequent because the sports move away from the things which draw kids to sports originally.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development Leagues

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