As he grows older, however, that excitement begins to cool. Weeknights, weekends, and summers are crammed with seemingly endless training, practices and games. The better he plays, the more his parents and coaches expect of him. He soon realizes spending time hanging out with friends or playing video games sounds a lot more appealing than baseball. He is completely burned out.
Brian Cain, creator of Brian Cain Peak Performance, believes one of the early signs of burnout occurs when a sport becomes more like a job than a fun activity.
“When kids are having fun playing baseball, burnout is not a problem,” said Cain, who works with athletes at all levels on mental conditioning and training. “You don’t get burned out doing what you love. You get burned out doing something when you lose the love. Often, when young people lose the love of baseball, it’s because they feel like they’re letting down coaches and parents.”
Youth baseball, like many other sports, has seen a shift of control in how a player’s skills are developed. The days of kids getting together for impromptu pickup games have been virtually replaced by travel ball, showcases and other organized forms of play. While such a shift has benefited the sport in some ways, a 2015 NCAA study revealed nearly half of kids surveyed in baseball, football, basketball, and soccer believe they play in too many games in their specific sport before entering college.
Peter Caliendo, former USA Baseball national team coach and host of a weekly baseball podcast, agrees.
“If you play only games and do not practice during the season, this leads to injuries and failure, because you begin to fundamentally do things wrong,” he explained.
The pressure to focus more on outcome and results than individual player development can alienate players as they enter more competitive levels.
“Process in development leads to motivation,” Cain said. “Outcome leads to frustration, especially in (baseball), because you never get the outcome you want, and you can never control it.”
Does playing one sport year-round cause players to quit early? Caliendo, who has traveled around the world the past 30 years educating players, coaches, and volunteers on the game, believes it does.
“Playing and practicing baseball all year is a serious issue,” he said. “Single-sport athletes tend to put more stress on joints, and have a higher ability to get hurt. I encourage athletes 12 and under to play more sports and develop athleticism so they can be better players. Stop playing baseball for three months, and concentrate on fundamental skills, strength and flexibility. Give the body and mind a break from baseball.”
It’s important players realize the warning signs of burnout before it overtakes them. Many kids believe if they train harder, they’ll get better, and everyone will be happy. However, Cain says overtraining can actually intensify the problem.
“Athletes at all levels have a difficult time recovering,” he said. “I think an emphasis in education on the importance of sleep, nutrition, and recovery needs to happen to help athletes be their best.”
Another solution, Caliendo says, is to organize practices so every player participates most of the time and doesn’t become bored. Unlike other sports, baseball has many stoppages in play, which can result in a lot of standing around. Spice things up with drills that concentrate on individual skills and athletic development.
“I like to have kids try and do drills the opposite way, for fun and to develop both sides,” Caliendo explained. “(For example), if they’re right-handed, try throwing left-handed. The same goes for hitting.”