Cooling Burnout

Times Staff Writer

The teenage mind is attentive, but even it has a saturation point.

The teenage body is forgiving, but it too has a breaking point.

With these principles in mind, Stacy Schwartz intentionally sculpted her season's schedule to include a 16-day gap without games -- from Dec. 21 to Jan. 6 -- at a time when most Southland coaches were testing their teams in holiday tournaments or slipping in extra nonleague games.

Schwartz, the girls' soccer coach at North Hollywood Harvard-Westlake, empathizes with her players' hectic soccer routines. They train heartily during the fall to gear up for nonleague play, which prepares them for league play, which is a preface to the playoffs, which could be the climax of their season -- except club soccer often starts a week later.

All of Schwartz's players have club team commitments, which adds a spring, summer and early fall's worth of soccer to their already loaded winter schedule. So Schwartz gave them a much-appreciated holiday gift.

Last season, the Wolverines played only 17 regular-season games (19 are scheduled this season), about 4 1/2 games fewer than the average Southern Section Division I team.

"Players are overworked," Schwartz said. "For some of them, four or five days off is the most they have all season. I'm trying to prevent burnout. When you play so many games, it's hard to make one stand out."

Still, one does: the team's Mission League opener. For the last three seasons, Schwartz has given her team a substantial holiday break. And for the last three seasons, the Wolverines have responded by defeating rival West Hills Chaminade in their first game back.

This season, Harvard-Westlake (8-4) cruised to a 4-0 victory on Jan. 7 behind three goals from Jamie Artsis, a senior midfielder who has 13 goals on the season and seven in her last three games.

Artsis, who has committed to Michigan, also plays on the West Valley Samba club team, which picks up when high school ends in March and goes through November, after the high school workouts have begun.

"In November, I'll have double practice," said Artsis, who estimates she plays between 50 and 60 games a season. "High school goes from 2:30 to 4, then I'd have to rush to club from 5 to 7.... I've felt burned out at times."

Artsis plays soccer year-round without significant rest, which has become the norm in the Southland, where the combination of a warm climate, a vibrant club soccer scene and a competitive high school season makes playing continually commonplace for serious players.

Coaches load up on games and tournaments to give their players exposure. Parents want their kids on the field as much as possible so they will have the best shot at a college scholarship. Players train during down time in order to keep up with their peers.

Chico State Coach Kim Sutton said all of these motivations are understandable, adding that once players get to college, they actually play less soccer because of time regulations imposed on collegiate athletes.

"I hear [high school] players complain about burnout," she said. "It's definitely an issue. For the top players, it's not as much of a concern."

San Clemente junior midfielder McCall Zerboni is one of those exceptions -- a player who has handled the rigors of Southland soccer with aplomb. "I try to play my best year-round," she said. "I'm competitive."

For some of the top athletes, a short break can be therapeutic.

Dr. Tom Raedeke, an assistant professor at East Carolina University's department of exercise and sport science, has helped develop a 15-item inventory that measures athletic burnout.

He says he looks for three main signs: exhaustion, devaluation or resentment of the sport and reduced sense of accomplishment.

"A lot of times people think burnout only occurs when an athlete drops out of a sport," Raedeke said. "It's important to watch athletes if their behavior starts to change, if they are no longer jovial or begin to withdraw."

Kelly Little, a senior stopper for Long Beach Wilson and a first-team Times' All-Star selection last season, sat out the Santa Ana Foothill Excalibur tournament in late December and indicated to her coach that she might not come back at all.

Just over a week later, Little, who will play at UC Irvine next season, changed her mind and returned. She scored a goal in her first minute back on the field.

"It was a blessing in disguise for her," Coach Dalton Kaufman said. "She needed the break."

Many choose not to sit out, so the burden often falls on coaches to keep their players fresh.

Coach Stacey Finnerty of top-ranked San Clemente annually rewards her team with overnight trips throughout California.

"When I was a club coach, I got burned out," she said. "If you don't make high school fun, girls won't stay with you."

Huntington Beach Edison Coach Kerry Crooks puts her fun in practice, running a series of competitive but light-hearted drills such as soccer golf, where the team attempts to shoot at stationary targets.

Crooks took her team to the Excalibur tournament in late December but chose not to add another nonleague game last week, a move that senior forward Brianne Wahrenbrock called "smart."

The Chargers came back strong in their next game more than a week later, defeating Sunset League rival Los Alamitos, 1-0, on Thursday.

Wahrenbrock, the team's leading scorer with 17 goals, had the lone goal of that game and is having a breakout senior season.

"High school is about fun," she said. "It's my time to spend with my friends, and they are like family to me."

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