Is my child burned out on volleyball? Three tell-tale signs to look for

by Jeff Smith

My first season as a club volleyball coach was with an 18U team at a club in Aurora. Being new to the 18U level, I expected the girls on our roster would be the most driven players I'd ever worked with. I figured that anyone who still played club as a high school senior must be highly motivated and deeply love the sport.

I couldn't have been more wrong.

The team's top player sometimes looked like she wanted to be anywhere but on a volleyball court. She was a senior who had signed to play volleyball at a local college but who frequently seemed disinterested in anything volleyball related.

After a few frustrating practices dealing with her on and off attitude, one day at practice our team was talking during a water break about another of the club's teams whose starting middle hitter missed practice because she had a conflicting track meet. "I wish I could play a second sport," Mary revealed to us. "Track, softball, even bowling. It'd be fun to try something new."

I later found out that Mary had followed her father's wishes and devoted herself to only playing volleyball since eighth grade. For some kids that isn't an issue at all. For Mary, though, it was a source of frustration. Playing the same sport year round for school, club and beach volleyball for five straight years had taken its toll.

Even though she was just months away from realizing a dream of playing in college, Mary was tired of volleyball. She still loved the sport but had grown weary of the grind of playing 11 months a year. As a senior, she now struggled just to maintain her focus for a full practice.

In short, Mary was suffering a classic case of burnout.

Mary isn't alone. Burnout is a growing problem in our sport due to the increasing demands on players, mostly at the national (travel) team level.

If you're an older player like Mary, or even a younger player who only recently began playing the sport for longer stretches, burnout is an issue that you need to be aware of. If you're a parent of a club player, it's important for you to recognize the tell-tale signs of burnout in your kids.

Burnout can show up in numerous ways. Here are three classic symptoms.

Chronic injuries

One of the biggest sources of burnout is the injury bug. An occasional or one-time injury is to be expected in any sport. But when an athlete begins suffering an injury or series of injuries that they can't seem to shake for months or that lingers and festers for years, such a spate of aches and pains can take its toll on the player's love for the game.

In Mary's case, she had a sore shoulder and a reconstructed knee that had undergone an ACL tear and resulting surgery the previous year. Her body had yet to fully recover from either injury.

Dr. Griffin Gibson, owner of Olympia Physical Therapy and Chiropractic in Bartlett, told me recently that year-round one-sport athletes are one of Olympia's most frequent clients. It's no surprise when you consider that overuse injuries are so common for athletes who play the same sport for nine to 11 months a year for years on end. The wear and tear of volleyball hitting or serving or blocking tens of thousands of times between August and April or May can lead to problems with your knees, ankles, feet, shoulders, elbows, hands or other parts of the body.

Dr. Griffin said chronic overuse injuries don't go away easily. In fact, he said the only way they are ultimately resolved is by taking months off from that sport. Otherwise the injuries and the pain and discomfort associated with them can have a debilitating effect on a player's enjoyment of the sport. A game they once loved can become drudgery as they struggle to deal with daily ailments and the medication, extra stretching and additional precautions required to prepare their body to perform.

Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Don't wait until your body is in pain to do something about it. Pain is the last resort, your body's way of grabbing your attention after other attempts were unsuccessful. Take good care of your body and give it the proper rest and exercise it needs to stay healthy.

Distracted mind

Concentration was a struggle for my former player Mary. As a national team, we practiced three times a week from November to June. Mary displayed a lack of focus that made it difficult for our team to have productive practices some days. She was the best player on the team, but sometimes 30-45 minutes into practice she seemed distracted and couldn't execute plays. She would be her old self for two or three drills and then mentally check out for the next two drills. It was annoying to her teammates and to us as coaches.

Sports is more mental than anything. In Mary's case, the cumulative impact of hundreds or even thousands of intense practices over 11 months a year for five years had worn her down. Whereas some athletes remain focused and intent into and throughout college, Mary's heart wasn't into the sport anymore, and her mind followed. She needed a break from the sport in order to regain her passion and focus.

Lack of motivation to practice, play or win

To help Mary find her inner drive for volleyball again, I tried making practices more game- and competition-based, setting up as much of our practices as possible to be competitive to make training more fun and game-like. This approach made little difference in Mary's attitude. Even scrimmages with other teams in our club barely registered a blip of excitement for Mary.

When I discussed Mary's struggles with our club director, the director said Mary used to be the most competitive-minded volleyball player she had ever encountered. "She was the kind of player who would dive for every ball, track down every errant pass and sacrifice her body for a point in a heartbeat," the director revealed. "She doesn't have that same drive anymore."

A few consecutive years of non-stop tournaments and matches in club, school and sand volleyball had sapped Mary of her love for competition. She had played in so many matches over the years that tournament day had lost its luster, as had the opportunity to compete in practice. You could see it in her eyes. While the 16U team couldn't wait to take the court against our 18U team whenever the two teams scrimmaged in practice, Mary didn't care. It was a case of been there, done that, and so she largely went through the motions. She was skilled and experienced enough that she could still more than hold her own even when sliding by giving maybe 80 percent effort. But she no longer left her fingerprints all over a game or match.

When I became girls club director at Serve City, I decided to apply two lessons from my experience with Mary when creating policies and procedures for our club that would help guard athletes against burnout.

1. Insert intentional down time in the club calendar.

This meant starting the club season the week after Thanksgiving so that our high school players have 4-6 weeks off to recuperate between school and club season and our middle school players have 6-7 weeks away from the game. I also implemented a nearly three-week-long Christmas break as well as a seven-day spring break away from the court. These rest periods provide the recovery time needed to keep our athletes healthy and fresh throughout the season.

2. Avoid over-scheduling.

My previous club's 18U team played a taxing schedule of 4-5 tournaments a month from January to June. A couple of months we played at least one tournament a week for the entire four-week period. Besides playing in a Power League, our team competed in 1-3 one-day tournaments each month. Some months we would play Saturday and Sunday, then the following Sunday, then the next Saturday and then the next Saturday and Sunday, not getting a weekend off for five weeks.

Most of the girls thoroughly enjoyed the competition, but by May and June it had become too much. Players were now dealing with overuse injuries; for one late-season tournament we were down to six healthy players and had to promote a freshman from the 15U team to fill out the roster.

At Serve City, our philosophy is to schedule no more than 3-4 one-day tournaments each month and sometimes only two tournament dates. Any more than three and the schedule dominates too much of the lives of the athletes and their families and crosses the line from fun and exciting to feeling like a job instead of a passion. It means our teams don't compete as often as most other clubs, but it promotes a healthy life balance and prevents the kind of burnout that can rear its ugly head if you're not intentional and careful.

Jeff Smith is Serve City's girls club director.