Burnout and dropout are not the same thing

Dropout is a phenomenon in youth sports. Burnout is a psychosomatic condition that can occur later in an athlete's career.

The terms dropout and burnout are often used as if they mean the same thing. Burnout is a condition affecting psychological and physical aspects of an athlete's sport participation. Dropout is a phenomenon where athletes end their sport participation either in a single sport or completely depending on how the dropout activity is tracked.

Burnout

Burnout is a psychosomatic state characterized by fatigue, a high level of perceived stress, and a reduction in motivation. It typically occurs in athletes who have participated in a sport for an extended period and who have experienced some level of perceived success or satisfaction. 

Burnout has a lot of contributing factors; there is no single cause. It is a long term process resulting from many different things depending on the athlete and usually happens — if it happens at all — later in an athlete's sport career. Burnout is rare; only 1 to 9% of athletes eventually suffer from it. The amount of time parents and coaches spend talking about it though gives the impression that it is far more common and that it occurs at younger ages than it does.

As shown in Table 1, the physical warning signs of burnout could simply indicate overtraining, a much less serious situation. When physical factors are coupled with behavioral and emotional factors though burnout becomes a more likely culprit.

From a youth sport perspective, potential burnout can be addressed early by creating a good environment for both practices and competitions, discouraging early specialization, and focusing on the process of becoming an athlete rather than focusing on competitive outcomes. 

The primary goal at the beginning stages of development is to prepare youngsters for what will come years later in their sport experience. One of the mistakes that youth sport coaches make is using the same training patterns, frequencies, and methods for young athletes as they would with their older counterparts. This is often referred to as the same but less philosophy but soon leads to a too much too soon scenario. By the time athletes leave developmental programs that operate like this the gamut of training stimuli has been exhausted and there is not much left in the tank, so to speak, for a college coach to work with.

I've witnessed this in my own sport of swimming. As young athletes move through the club development system they are offered more training sessions per week, usually doubling practice sessions (mornings and afternoons) on several, if not all, days of the week. During the high school years extra fitness and resistance training is added. In some clubs nutrition and psychological support is offered and competitive schedules are maximized so that the highest levels of performance can be achieved before college.

By the time an athlete in a program like this gets to college there is little that a college coach can offer that will challenge the athlete. It's just more of the same training elements that the athlete experienced prior to college. Training sessions may be longer or harder but nothing is new. Because of the early all-in training regimen chances are good that the athlete's performance curve is flattening out if it hasn't already. As a consequence of training patterns, competitive schedules, and constant pressure to perform — all set in motion years earlier — conditions are now ripe for burnout. 

This is one of the best arguments against early sport specialization. Variety is a key training stimulus; adding or changing modalities or intensities can enhance training effect. But if all training elements become part of an athlete's program soon after their introduction to the sport then changing stimuli by adding strength training, psychological sessions, or simply increasing intensities eventually becomes impossible. There's nothing new left to add, it's just more of the same.

Burnout is rare and is not a significant factor in athletes dropping out of developmental programs because of the length of time needed to reach a state where the conditions for it might occur. However the seeds of later burnout are planted early in a youngster's sport experience. Overdoing it in youth sport programs should be avoided. Leave something to be challenged later in the athlete's career.

Sport Dropout

The reason many people confuse burnout and dropout in sport is probably because they both lead to the same result. Burnout is often a reason athletes give for dropping out of their sport. Sport dropout, as it relates to young athletes leaving sport, is a large topic which I hope to write about in another newsletter. Though it is simple to describe — young athletes quit a sport — the mechanisms behind it are complex. It helps if coaches, clubs, and NGBs understand the dropout phenomenon and how it affects their sport. 

Youth sports are seen as a universal good, so when youngsters leave sport programs in ways that might be considered premature we naturally want to know why. Coaches and clubs are familiar with the new athlete churn that occurs each registration season: New athletes join, some soon dropout while others stay. This is probably the most common form of dropout we see in sport and is almost always related to the athlete simply not enjoying the sport or not being with friends. Sport is a social experience for new athletes rather than an athletic one. As I wrote in an earlier newsletter, retention metrics are the way an NGB keeps track of this within its athlete pool.

There are other forms of dropout that are more puzzling and which present greater challenges to sport practitioners. When athletes who have been involved for a number of years simply quit, clubs and NGBs lose experience from the athlete pool. In this scenario the dropout phenomenon becomes a more serious concern. NGBs lose invested athletes, clubs lose revenue, and because of the overall benefit that participation in youth sports is believed to provide, sociologists become interested in why invested athletes might just walk away. 

If you've ever read any of the studies on sport dropout then you know that researchers have developed clever ways to study it aside from the obvious, though not very helpful, way of asking athletes why they quit. I will be writing about sport dropout in more detail in a later newsletter.