The term, "Overtraining" frequently gets thrown around by parents, athletes, and coaches. Some individuals have a general understanding of what constitutes overtraining syndrome or what it may even look like, but few understand how to prevent it, particularly in youth athletes. It is commonly noted by long performance decrements, lasting longer than two months. Some instances can be seen through severe physiological, psychological, endocrinological, and immunologic issues. These can include fatigue, depression, loss of motivation, insomnia, irritability, restlessness, anorexia, anxiety, and lack of mental concentration. Professional athletes have strength coaches, registered dieticians, sports medicine experts, doctors, and sports scientists all working in concert to ensure that they do not overtrain, yet somehow it still occurs.
In comparison, youth athletes typically have their parents, a sports coach, and a trainer to guide their training process. Despite this stark difference in resources, some parents and coaches turn a blind eye to their youth athlete's rest and recovery process, opting instead to load the schedule up with more practices, more training sessions, and more skills camps than there are daylight hours. In most cases, this overdose of structured activity is done with good-willed intentions by parents and coaches who fall prey to the "get ahead" trap or "more is always better" mantra. So, the question is, how does one prevent a youth athlete from overtraining? Plus, what leads to overtraining?
How Overtraining Occurs
I've said it many times before in my discussions with parents and coaches who want more of everything for their child/athlete, and I'll repeat it. Kids are not just small adults. Let that sink in for a second. Kids are astonishingly resilient and can do more than most of us can ever imagine, but that doesn't mean we should push them to their limits. They are developing beings who need a well-rounded approach to the developmental process. Unlike the adult athlete who may be paid or making a career out of their selected sport, kids do not fall in the same boat. They must balance school, social life, relationships, this weird thing called puberty, and loads of social media stress tossed at them daily that most of us never grew up with. Every practice, every game, every camp, and every training session that is stacked on top of what a child considers enjoyable is like a piece of the Jenga tower being pulled away and stacked on top. It may not cause the whole thing to collapse today, maybe not tomorrow, next week, or even this year, but eventually, it will come crashing down if continued stress is applied.
As previously mentioned, parents typically have their child's best interest at heart and may not know what overtraining looks like. It's not as concrete as one may think and will significantly depend on the child's unique training capacity, training age, and recoverability.
Three-steps On Dealing With Stress
1) Functional Overreaching
Often known as, "short-term overreaching", increased training loads lead to a temporary decrease in performance but improved performance after rest. This decrease in performance should only last a few days to around a week with a positive outcome. Good training and recovery typically fall under this category.
2) Nonfunctional Overreaching
Often known as, "long-term overreaching", intense training leads to more prolonged performance decreases (weeks to months) but full recovery after adequate rest. This is where things start to get dangerous. There are no positive outcomes in performance from nonfunctional overreaching, and continuing down this path can ultimately lead to full-blown overtraining syndrome.
3) Overtraining Syndrome
As previously noted, this is seen by long performance decrements as well as possibly severe physiological, psychological, endocrinologic, and immunologic issues. This can often be a career-killer in terms of an athlete's physical, psychosocial framework.
How does one know where a youth athlete falls under this spectrum, you may ask? Well, it's rather difficult to say as the lines tend to get fuzzy quite quickly. If an athlete sees performance decrease, no longer has the motivation to train or is having sleep, eating, stress, or issues, there may be a problem. I am admittedly not qualified to directly diagnose somebody with overtraining syndrome, nor are most individuals in my line of work. Professionals can do bloodwork and hormonal tests to help determine what is going on with an individual and is highly encouraged if it is believed that one is truly overtrained. Without diving into what the research and data say, I'll point you towards a presentation I made a few years back that can give you further information if you so desire, found here. That being said, it is best to prevent this from ever being in question and doing the right things in the first place, leading into our last section.
Tips To Prevent Overtraining
The best way to prevent overtraining is to recover like a king! Here are some great ways to keep youth athletes recovering properly and avoiding overtraining for the entirety of their careers.
Sleep is perhaps the most under-appreciated, underrated recovery tool of all. Athletes will inquire about endless supplements, exercises, and training methods without first checking the most important box of all, their sleep. Aiming for 8-9 hours of restful sleep a night is ideal. To do so, this may mean setting an earlier bedtime, putting the screens (phone, tablets, TVs, etc.) away 1-2 hours before bed, and practicing meditation, journaling, or some other calming practice before bed to fall asleep on time.
You can't build a house without adequate materials. Similarly, you can't repair and recover from intense training without the proper fuel. Athletes often get preoccupied with the daily grind of their busy schedules and settle for suboptimal food choices or don't eat adequate amounts of nutritious foods altogether. Prioritize the consumption of protein, nutrient-dense carbohydrates (fruits and vegetables), and drink enough water! If nutrition is a sticking point, consider hiring a coach to write out meal plans and save the headaches of poor eating habits.
3) Massage, Mobility, Sauna, and More
There are endless recovery methods out there today. Generally speaking, one should prioritize working on movement restrictions, dysfunctional movement patterns, and nagging injuries to ensure they can keep training. Think of these remedial methods as taking your car to the shop to get a tune-up and detail. You will have to do a little research and perhaps get some consultation on what is needed most, but taking full advantage of these types of things can make a world of difference.
This phenomenon seems to be crazy talk these days and unfortunately alludes to many youth athletes. I've met some youth athletes that have never had a day off of sports practice, training, or some other type of event for their entire high school career, including holidays. Allow kids to have unstructured, free play time, and watch how much more refreshed and energized they come back to their respective sport. Taking time off is as much mental as it is physical. It's ok not to be playing an organized sport every season of the year. Similarly, it is equally ok to play multiple sports.
Overtraining is somewhat rare in individuals who are training for a specific goal. Most people simply burn out and quit before ever reaching that stage. To avoid ever reaching either of the stages, consider taking an honest look at how the youth athletes your train or are your children are doing with their current workload. Employ some of these tips mentioned above to avoid overtraining, but above all else, communicate effectively and know when it may be time to dial things back.
Remember, although competitive sports may only be a small part of a daily routine, health and enjoyment from recreational sporting activities should remain for life as long as overtraining and burnout do not ruin them for good.