Running On Empty – How To Keep Your Youth Football Team In Shape (Without Exhausting Them)

By Brad Wayland on Aug 15, 2018

By Guest Contributor Brad Wayland, Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton.

As a youth football coach, it’s your goal to push your athletes to new heights. To help them achieve feats they didn’t even think themselves capable of. But you need to be careful while doing so. Push too hard, and you could cause them to careen into burnout territory. Here’s how to avoid that.


There’s a pretty toxic idea that’s managed to nestle itself into the core of modern society – the concept that more is better. More hours worked means you’re more successful and more productive. More money means you’re happier, no matter what you had to sacrifice to make that money.

More time at the gym or in the field means an athlete is in better shape.

We’re here to talk about that last one, which is especially toxic for today’s youth. Too often, we see coaches pushing a young football team well past their limits. And too often, those youth will follow your directives to the point of exhaustion.

Don’t get us wrong – self improvement is hard, and requires a lot of work.

You help your players build stamina and agility through drills like intervals, gut busters, or 50/40s. You help them improve their strength through weight training and isometric exercise. You help them enhance their skills through drills like sandbag drops, wave drills, or pipe catches.

These drills aren’t the most important part of your job, though. The most important part is learning to recognize each athlete’s limits. The point at which pushing them any further will result in an injury.

The point at which you’re no longer helping your kids improve, but burning them out entirely.

What Exactly is Burnout?

Simply put, burnout in the context of athletics refers to when an athlete withdraws from their sport due to exhaustion. Maybe they don’t feel as accomplished and successful as they used to. Maybe they’re so tired they can hardly focus, or their energy has gotten so low their bodies simply stop responding.

“Although not many studies [on burnout] have been conducted, theories have been developed to explain how the burnout process unfurls,” reads a blog post on New Wave LAX. “One theory pins burnout as a ‘training stress syndrome,’ where stress produces staleness, then overtraining, then burn out.”

When they get burnt out, they won’t just be exhausted. They’ll likely stop caring as much about the team. After all, if they’re not having fun and they don’t feel accomplished after a practice, what’s the point of them still being there?

Factors That Influence Burnout in Youth Athletes

It isn’t just physical exertion that can cause your athletes to burn out. The people on your team are going through a confusing time in their lives – a time where they’re still sorting out how they want to approach the world and who they want to be. As such, they’re way more susceptible to negative social factors than adults would be.

And there are more factors that cause stress for them, too:

  • Unreasonable pressure from parents to achieve a certain outcome – i.e. making varsity, winning games, gaining a sports scholarship.
  • Negative behaviors on your own part, such as being overly controlling or placing the same expectations on youth athletes you’d place on a professional team.
  • Trouble at school, such as stress over grades or bullying from peers.

The three factors above have one thing in common. They’re all about control – or rather, each one represents a way that a youth athlete might feel they’ve lost control of their life.  We’ll talk more about how you can address this kind of thing in a moment.

First, let’s examine how you can recognize the warning signs that one of your kids is on the verge of burnout.

How Can I Tell My Athletes Are on The Verge of Giving Up?

As a youth football coach, you need to develop a good sense for people’s moods. You need to pay close attention to each athlete on your team – how they conduct themselves, their regular personality, and their general level of performance. By doing so, you’ll be able to recognize the red flags that an athlete is starting to fall apart.

The first, clearest sign of burnout is a pronounced change in energy and mood. The athlete may start feeling too tired or lethargic to do anything outside of their sport. Their performance on the field will start to suffer, and they won’t be able to push through their drills as effectively as they used to.

From there, it’s all downhill. An athlete who’s ordinarily driven, motivated, and positive may grow apathetic and hostile. A team member who’s usually happy and collaborative may grow irritable and withdrawn. An athlete who’s coordinated and quick may start to slow down, making obvious mistakes they ordinarily would never make.

The key here is consistency. Everyone has off days once in a while. Every athlete, on occasion, will have a training session or exhibition match that doesn’t quite ‘click’ for them. It’s when you see a continuous, downward drive in motivation and performance that you should start to feel concerned.

What Can I Do About It?

We’d advise sitting down with the athlete first. Talk to them and find out what’s going on in their life that might be causing them stress. Approach them as a mentor first and foremost and make it clear that you want to help – not just for the sake of the team, but for their own sake.

You’ll notice we didn’t advise going straight to the parents. There’s a good reason for that. A lot of youths don’t really talk much to their parents – they might have it in their head that they can deal with their problems on their own terms, and going to their parents could actually make matters worse.

They might feel betrayed that you aired their problems without their consent.

Plus, in some cases, the parents might even be the problem. All youth coaches have dealt with that sort before. The helicopter mom or overbearing dad who prizes athletic achievement above all else – who seems to care more about their kid’s performance than their well-being.

That’s why it’s so important to tread carefully and cultivate trust with your team. Why it’s important to talk to a player who’s getting burnt – and listen intently to what they have to say. Some potential topics for this conversation include:

  • What’s stressing them out.
  • Coping strategies and lifestyle skills, including reframing their perspective on athletics and competition, and more achievable personal goals.
  • How they might make healthier choices. Are they sleeping enough? Are they eating well? Do they have a good balance between work and play?
  • How they can get past their burnout – what strategies they might use to rest and recover.
  • Guidance for finding new hobbies or interests – something to take their mind off sports could be just what they need.
  • Adjustments you might make to their regimen so they’re not quite so exhausted.

Mind you, if your sit-down doesn’t work, your next step may be to contact a guidance counsellor (if you work at a school) or speak to their parents. In most cases, if you go the latter route, they’ll be willing to work with you to help their kid do better (and be better). That said, it’s important to use your best judgement here.

As a youth coach, you’re responsible for guiding the future of the athletes on your team. That’s an immense – but incredibly rewarding – responsibility. You need to make sure you’re ready to rise to it.

A big part of that involves knowing when to push your athletes to greater heights, and knowing when to back off and let them recover. Do your job right, and you may imbue in them a passion for football that lasts into adulthood. Do it poorly, and they may abandon the sport, never to return.

Brad Wayland is the Chief Strategy Officer at BlueCotton, a site with high-quality, easy-to-design custom t-shirts.

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