"We're actually preventing kids from getting better."

Clarence Fields was an all-district baseball player and all-state basketball player in Louisiana. He played Division I basketball. He played professional football.

And growing up, he played less than half the number of games that today’s average youth athlete plays on travel teams.

“Today’s travel team athletes can expect to play over 500 games between grade school and high school graduation,” he says. “It should be no surprise that burnout is on the rise.”

Summer, when school is out and tournament travel fills the calendar, is when burnout peaks. With escalating time demands, travel, and non-stop competition, it’s easy for a game to feel more like a job, and for young athletes to experience a loss of motivation or basic joy for the games they play.

The fact that burnout escalates during the summer is no surprise, but it’s not simply playing a lot of games that creates burnout. Kids like playing games. Instead, it’s worth a taking a deeper look at the situation and understanding why kids actually start loose motivation and interest.

“The basic problem is that ratio of practice and free play to officiated games is getting reversed,” says Fields. “Would you send your child to a school where she spent more time taking tests than actually learning the material?”

It’s true that high level competition is important, but the primary place athletes develop, from grade school to the pros, is still the practice field.

“So we put kids on stage and ask them to perform without having spent enough time developing their skills. Worse, when they make mistakes, there isn’t enough time in between tournaments to practice, so kids stop improving and keep making the same mistakes. That’s not fun.”

Fields estimates that, growing up, he spent 50 total hours (of actual playing time) in games, compared to 6,000 hours of practice, half of which were unsupervised.

“When you play with your friends, you’re learning how to push yourself, how to compete for its own sake, and also how to be a leader and a teammate,” Fields adds. “You’re also having fun, trying new things and perfecting your individual craft away from the structure of practice.”

Fields’ story is not unique. It’s near impossible to hear a professional athlete reminisce about his  youth without stories of all-night pick up games or obsessive practice in the driveway. Few of these stories involve parents and summer tournaments.

In a sense, when our young athletes are showing signs of burnout from the summer schedule, what they’re actually telling us about is what we’re taking away from them.

Learning

It can be easy to forget with all of the emphasis on making the cut for the best travel teams, but kids like learning. Young people are naturally drawn to games where they can develop mastery of complex skills. The beauty of sports is that they are games with fun-to-develop skills and minimal stakes for imperfection. When we ask kids to spend all of their time taking the test, as Fields puts it, all of the fun of developing mastery is replaced with the fear of making a mistake in the game (and without having practiced enough to get better).   

Autonomy

One of the great benefits of sports is that our kids get to choose the games they love, and how deeply to invest in them. The experience of investing in a pursuit for their own rewards is about as valuable a growth experience as can be conjured for young people. When the adults commit kids in advance to a non-stop schedule of traveling and games, that sense of autonomy can quickly become a distant memory.

Play and socializing

At the same time we’re traveling with kids for days on end, managing their schedules, their diets, and their wardrobes, they are entering an important life phase where they [ should be ] learning to be self-motivated and experimental learners. They’re learning how to engage deeply and creatively with their own interests, and to how to collaborate with friends and solve conflicts around those interests. If you’re hoping that, at some point down the line, they’re able to do things like choose a major in school or develop a career path on their own, these are the exact experiences where that self is supposed to be emerging. When we take the games they love, and turn them into activities entirely managed, mandated, and curated by adults, we’re handicapping them, and they’re responding by losing interest.

Rest and Recovery

Even highly engaged and successful young athletes still experience stress and pressure. As such, family should be respite from stress. But with the increased time commitment and financial pressure applied by travel teams, parents are experiencing as much or even more stress than kids, which makes it harder for everyone in the family to recover and get a break from the stress of sports.

Moving Forward

“By letting the ratio of formal competition to development get out of hand, we are actually preventing kids from getting better, and making it more stressful and expensive for everyone,” Fields says. “It’s crazy.”

And the solution is to start correcting the ratio, and putting less overall stress on families to keep up. How to do that?

“That’s another story altogether,” says Fields.

We’ll examine that story in Part Two of this post, coming soon.