When I was competing as a student-athlete (Division III), Christmas Break was pretty much the commitment period. We would have a mandatory week off over the holidays being able to go back home to see our families and friends. This was a time to retain that brief sense of zero responsibility and limitless leisure that we later naively envied from everyone else. Upon returning from break entering the locker room, we would always recognize a few that decided not to come back, particularly the freshman class tended to get thinner. At this point in the season, we are only a couple months into it, and just finishing up #SeasonPartOne largely consisting of outer-conference opponents. Yet each year without fail someone would call it a career prior to finishing the season. Some would quit due to #PlayerBurnout, but others seem to hang it up from lack of immediate opportunity for playing time. And I think this is the more interesting topic of conversation for coaches especially considering the emerging era of immediacy.

When we talk about player burnout, let’s consider some of the elements that can lead to it:

  • Physical – body exertion, overuse, and injuries
  • Mental – stress, pressure to produce, and role on the team
  • Emotional – commitment level and competitive drive
  • Social – fit in locker room, lack of time with friends/family or significant others
  • Academic – balancing student-athlete responsibilities

Coaches have to consider all of these variables with the potential of impacting a student athlete’s day-to-day determination. Of course, when planning practices there is a consideration for class schedules, workload, and impact on the body (games, lifts, individuals, etc.). However, often overlooked can be the social/emotional issues. Athletes usually have a decent poker face beyond playing time or missing shots. That seems to be the easiest opportunity to recognize when someone is upset, but when homework is piling up or relationship issues present themselves behind the scenes you may never know without conversation or rumor.

A few ways to get out in front of possible burnout:

  • Stretch, yoga, or additional days off for fresh legs
  • Identify changes in body language or verbal cues indicating mood swings
  • Rely upon captains to provide a pulse of personnel
  • Stay consistent with academic reports encouraging study halls, counselor visits, or academic support
  • Meet with players 1-on-1 understanding interests outside of sport(s)
  • Evaluate yourself as the coach

Seasons that feel the longest often are not overwhelmingly successful. And during those tough stretches are when coaches start to wear thin. And when coaches become sleep deprived, or burnt-out we have a tendency to – directly or indirectly – take it out on the players magnifying mistakes or disproportionately punishing. Strong relationships with the staff come in handy having the assistants more involved consistently for practices, lifts, or film. Even replacing practices with team-activities, or an off day can provide the separation necessary to refuel. It can help being organized enough to provide transparency for the players to see the off-days coming in advance. If they can see on a calendar that they’ve got an extra day off coming up; it might provide extra motivation to push through some apathy knowing that a break is coming soon.

Implications of Immediacy

On the other side, attrition due to instant gratification is a real possibility. There was just a tweet from Coach Musselman (U. of Arkansas Men’s Basketball) pertaining to roster size to mitigate frustration with playing time and role opportunity.

The ‘transfer epidemic’ isn’t due to player burnout, despite some being burnt out from their situation. It is likely due to lack of meeting initial expectations for possible playing time, relationship with coaches/players/student body, or campus fit. And with an increasing population of young student-athletes accustomed to options, accessibility, or accommodations there is the proclivity to move elsewhere, instead of forge ahead. This is a luxury of today’s era. And one that has to be taken into account from coaches.

If you are in a position to be able to recruit your players I would definitely say to get to know the family and their history of sports in the past. Communicate with previous coaches, teachers, and parents to fully attempt to understand player disposition. Odds are there are some red flags that may exist that reveal tendency during fight or flight:

  • Easy class schedules
  • Numerous AAU teams in short amount of time
  • Disciplinary action team, school, or otherwise
  • Punctuality often reveals priorities
  • First or last to leave practices
  • Parent involvement creating any dependency
  • Competitive variance – big fish, small pond environment?

If you’re not in a position that you can “recruit” your players then I would say just get to know them on a deeper level. Understand what makes each of them tick. Why do they get up in the morning? What is their “why?” Find those gym rat kids that aren’t just the leisure ones. No, don’t get the kid that plays pick-up all the time in jeans and throws up wild shots and just goofs off. Get the kid that is actually working on skills most of the time when they’re in the gym. The kids playing pick-up that aren’t afraid of some contact, trash talk or questionable officiating.

So I will ask the question, is it player burnout that is impacting our youth or is it an implication of immediacy?



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