Low on fuel: In face of mounting pressures, student athletes burn out

January 24, 2020 — by Esther Luan and Kaitlyn Tsai

At only 2 years old, Ashleigh Abe, now a senior, toddled on a balance beam at a preschool class at California Sports Center while her older brother Kyle Abe, now a sophomore at UC Berkeley, trained in gymnastics with his competitive team. In six years, she would begin participating in various regional and state competitions and championships. Seven years after that, at the age of 15, she quit — a victim of early athletic burnout. 

The National Athletic Trainer’s Association defines athletic burnout as “a response to chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery.” While the exact percentage of teenagers who struggle with athletic burnout is unknown, children who specialize in one sport as opposed to multiple often quit their sport first, said Dr. Charles A. Popkin, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Columbia University Medical Center, in a New York Times interview. 

Intense specialization leads to increased burnout rates largely because extrinsic pressures from parents or coaches frequently frustrate young athletes, creating a “pressure-cooker scenario” that leads to burnout, Popkin said. 

When Abe first began competing, her coaches constantly compared her to her older brother, now a gymnast competing for UC Berkeley, remarking how she wasn’t as skilled as he was.

Abe aimed to prove them wrong. By the time she reached middle school, she trained for approximately 25 hours a week at Twisters Sports, a training facility in Sunnyvale. Before she quit gymnastics in her sophomore year, she had reached level 9 — the second-highest level of Junior Olympics, which frequently leads gymnasts into collegiate gymnastics.

Despite reaching this level and frequently placing in competitions, Abe still faced mounting pressure to push herself to her limits, even at the expense of her well-being. 

“Skipping practices for sickness or school events was looked down upon, and you were often shamed if you skipped for a school dance or something like that, so I didn’t really go to any of those,” Abe said. “I was so scared of missing practices that I would still go even if I was sick.”

Until high school, she still enjoyed gymnastics despite the pressures. But her love for the sport began to diminish as school stresses increased along with the demands of her competitive team. 

“Most days, I went to sleep at 2 or 3 a.m., and going to practice right after school and doing a lot of dangerous skills while sleep-deprived was really hard and started to take a toll,” Abe said. “I was constantly tired, I crying all the time and I wasn’t getting any sleep. When I showed up to practice, it felt like a chore rather than something I wanted to do.”

Various studies, such as a 2015 study by the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, have revealed similar symptoms of stress in competitive student athletes. According to the report, many report higher rates of sleep and mood disturbances, loss of appetite, short tempers, decreased interest in training and competition, decreased self-confidence and inability to concentrate compared to non student athletes; these signs are a result of excessively focusing on training and not leaving enough time for rest.

Despite experiencing these effects, Abe said she felt torn over whether to quit since she had dedicated countless hours to the sport over the years. Still, she knew she had to preserve her physical and mental health. 

“A lot of people were shocked when I told them because I seemed so dedicated to gymnastics,” Abe said. “But at the same time, they thought that quitting was a good choice. I know my parents really approved of my decision.”

Senior Cameron Chow had a similar experience, in his case with badminton. Chow began his sport because his older brother excelled in it and then faced constant pressure to live up to his brother’s reputation.

“The coaches all knew my brother,” Chow said. “My brother’s nickname was Chowder, so they’re like, ‘Chowder Junior, you’re trash!’ And every single time I went to a tournament, all the parents would be like, ‘Oh, you’re gonna be as good as your brother, right?’”

This perpetual comparison of Chow to his all-star sibling wore him down over time. 

“I was annoyed about the comparisons, but also just sad,” Chow said. “I wanted to prove them all wrong, but eventually, I had to accept that I wasn’t as good as him.”

Chow said he began experiencing burnout when he was competing in the Junior National Championships in sixth grade, four years after he started formally training. While his peers continued improving, Chow said he felt that he had stalled and wasn’t able to pass 10th place. 

At that time, Chow had also switched to training with a stricter coach at Bintang Badminton Academy in Campbell. This coach pushed him to reach his brother’s skill level. Practices alternated between matches and “punishment,” which consisted of intense drills. 

For example, while drilling with a set of 80 shuttlecocks Chow would have to do six laps of duck walk around the gym for every shuttlecock he dropped. Sometimes, his coach would even have Chow wear a weight vest and carry 10-pound weights while duck walking. 

Shortly after Junior Nationals, sixth grader Chow switched to California Badminton Academy in Fremont, where he trained until he quit badminton in his junior year. In addition, he played for one year on the school team as a sophomore. Going to practices after school, sitting through the long commutes and having to start homework at 9 p.m. every weekday took a toll on him.

While Chow lost interest in badminton mostly because of his lack of progress and the pressures he faced from coaches and parents, he added that dedication to the sport can also become emotionally draining. This was also true for junior Ryan Hsiao, who quit the sport to give himself a new start after life circumstances had an adverse effect on his emotional well-being.

“My mental health declined a lot throughout middle and high school, and badminton was a really big reason,” Hsiao said. “It’s a difficult sport, and playing every day started to get exhausting for both my body and my mind.”

Hsiao, who began training at Z Badminton Training Center in Union City in 2014, experienced burnout when his father passed away in late 2017. He quit the sport in the fall of 2018.

“I released a lot of bottled up emotions when my father passed away, and everything I did started to feel useless,” Hsiao said. “Badminton just happened to be the thing that I was doing the most at the time. When I quit, I was arguably at the lowest point in my life, and I decided that I just wanted a drastic change.”

Since he dropped the sport, Hsiao has found more time to focus on himself and his mental health.

“Living feels like less of a chore,” he said.

All three athletes said they have found quitting their sports liberating. With more time on her hands, Abe joined the school’s dance team. Chow turned to volleyball in the spring of 2019, which he played recreationally on the school team.

While Hsiao does not regret his choice to stop playing badminton, he advises others to consider how much they love their sport before quitting. 

“Try to muscle through it,” Hsiao said. “If you started something because you genuinely enjoyed it and stopped because you lost that enjoyment, instead of dumping it and giving up, try to find the love you once had for it. Finding something that you can devote hours and hours of time to is extremely rare, and if that already exists in your life, don’t drop it.”

Abe said that quitting gymnastics allowed her to devote more time to trying new activities and focusing on her own happiness. She advises athletes to prioritize their physical and mental health over being at the top of their sport.

“If you value a sport way more than your health, then that shows that there’s something wrong with your mindset,” Abe said. “For any activity, your well-being should come first.”

 

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