Youngsters suffer burnout in quest for perfection, study says
Research shows the risk is higher for players under pressure to attain perfection
School-age footballers are at risk of burnout because of the overwhelming demands of coaches, parents and teammates, according to a report published by British academics.
Researchers from the University of Leeds found that some youngsters were showing signs of chronic stress, exhaustion and disillusion with the sport given the demands for perfection from those overseeing them.
The researchers studied 167 junior male players in eight academies and centres of excellence attached to English professional clubs and found that a quarter reported symptoms of burnout.
The players most at risk from burnout were those who said they felt under pressure from others not to make mistakes.
Conversely, players who did not strive for perfection or whose desire to maintain high standards was self-generated were found to be less vulnerable.
"What we see among the athletes showing symptoms of burnout is emotional and physical exhaustion, a sense that they are not achieving and a sense of devaluation of the sport," said Dr Andrew Hill, a lecturer at the School of Biomedical Sciences.
"Even though they might originally enjoy their sport and be emotionally invested in it, they eventually become disaffected. Participation can be very stressful," he added.
The report also criticised professional clubs for routinely releasing unwanted players at a young age.
A player recruited by a club at the age of eight would have to survive six such "culls" in order to qualify for a professional contract at the age of 16.
Players are cut annually between the ages of eight and 12 before signing two-year registrations up to the age of 16.
"It can be harsh. At its worst, we are talking about an environment that can develop, foster and maintain a mindset where athletes are wholly invested into the idea of being the next David Beckham," said Hill.
"In fact, of the estimated 10,000 athletes involved in youth football at any one time, less than one per cent is thought to make it as a professional soccer player."
Hill said the key to making sport enjoyable for youngsters was to focus on creating a healthy sporting environment for them, rather than encouraging them to strive for perfection.
"Sport can be used as a vehicle to develop life skills, a sense of self-esteem and quality relationships with others, but we know it can lead to disaffection, poor moral decision-making and make people feel miserable about themselves," he said.
"There is nothing necessarily positive about sport.
"It is about the environment that is created."