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Striking a Balance Can Help Keep Athletes on Even Keel

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A sudden lack of desire, an overwhelming fatigue, unreasonable concern about one’s performance . . . athletic burnout shows itself in many ways.

But there are solutions to this growing problem, sports psychologists say, especially on the high school level.

Here’s a list of questions that coaches, parents and even athletes can ask to help understand the problem.

--Does the athlete dread going to practice or competitions?

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“That’s different from being nervous,” said Jonathan Brower, a Westlake Village sports sociologist and psychotherapist. “If they’re saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this, but I have to.’ That’s clearly a sign they don’t want to be there.”

--Why is the athlete in this particular activity? Are they in it to please Mom or Dad? The coach? Anyone but themselves?

That is a common question asked by Richard Lister, a Costa Mesa sports psychologist.

“One of the first things I ask a kid is why are they playing?” Lister said. “It sounds like a simple question, but they can’t always give me an answer. . . .

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“As soon as the parent wants it more than the kid, they’re in big trouble.”

--Is the coach taking into consideration the athlete’s long-term goals?

An athlete who hopes to compete in college--especially in sports such as distance running or swimming--might be upended by a high school program that is far too vigorous, many coaches say. Youth and high school coaches should take an athlete’s future into consideration.

--Overall, how enjoyable is the activity for the athlete?

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“Some athletes hate the running or the swimming or whatever but like getting the medals,” Brower said. “That might be an indication that burnout might be on the way. Ideally you like the intrinsic activity. Maybe you don’t enjoy the pain of running 10 hard (laps on the track) but overall you should enjoy the activity for itself.”

--How does the athlete deal with winning and losing? Is he or she patient with reasonable progress?

“A lot of very good athletes don’t like losing but they deal with it quite well,” Brower said.

“Before the 1976 Olympics, Frank Shorter said it was real important to him to come to terms with the idea that he might lose as well as win. Those that can deal with losing will last a lot longer in the sport than those who have to win. People who are really uptight about failure--and unfortunately losing a race is defined as failure by some people--are going to have problems sooner or later.”

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--Is the athlete balancing his or her sport with other facets of their life?

This, coaches and psychologists say, is one of the most important questions. An athlete that keeps his sport in balance with the rest of his life--academics, friends, family, other hobbies--is far better off in the long run.

“The athlete has to be living a total life,” UC Irvine track Coach Vince O’Boyle said. “If the only words coming out of their mouth is how far they ran today, how fast they ran today, what kind of total person is being developed?”

And finally, while “doing whatever I can to be the best,” is a noble-sounding approach, it can have negative repercussions if the sport becomes an obsession.

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“The key is the attitude of the athlete,” Brower said. “If (the attitude) is to do my best, to want to do well, but to fit this in with the rest of my life, those people will not burnout.”


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