This year’s NCAA tournament, won on Monday night by the Duke Blue Devils, received its highest ratings in 22 years. The annual spectacle is home to one of the most compelling storylines in sports: the underdog. There’s also an unadulterated passion and intensity displayed by the young athletes that rivals, and in some cases eclipses, that of the pro ranks. The opening days are a maddening churn of victories and losses, the players either bounding in celebration or pulling their jerseys up over tear-stained faces. It’s an emotional thing, after all, to play under that much scrutiny—but so is the journey of the athlete.
Young athletes, in particular, are subject to constant evaluations and comparisons to their peers, endless pressures to win and train and perform, and the entrapment and disempowerment of investing thousands of hours into a single venture, relying on a wavering hope that it all, eventually, leads to the next level.
For three weeks the NCAA athletes play in this tournament, one of the most popular sporting events in the world, and for many, when it ends, so do their competitive basketball lives.This is likely not the case for Kentucky’s 7’1” Willie Cauley-Stein however, whose tournament run came to a close on Saturday night when his Wildcats were upset by the Wisconsin Badgers. Cauley-Stein is widely anticipated to be a first round selection in this summer’s NBA draft and, like the rest of his cohort, he’s expected to be dedicated to the game around the clock. Last week, in an interview with the Washington Post, Cauley-Stein, who has also expressed a desire to work in fashion, questioned this trope.
“You got to be interested in other things,” he said. “If you focus on one thing, you’re going to eventually like—you’re going to get bored with it or you’re going to get burned out on it. My grandparents have taught me that since I was younger, just to be involved in a whole bunch of different things so you don’t get burnt out and you know what you like to do and what you don’t like to do.”
Cauley-Stein’s future as a basketball player seems promising, if not assured. He has both natural and refined gifts of size and grace, timing and toughness. A former football player, his ability to corral loose rebounds, catch tricky passes, and smash down opponents shots makes him exciting to watch and, as fans, we owe his grandparents a thank you. Without their advice we might have never seen him play.
It wasn’t until the mid-1980s that the concept of burnout in sport began to attract academic attention, according to sociologist Jay Coakley. Since then we’ve learned that the most critical time for youth exiting sport is during the onset of adolescence. By that point they have gained perception of their own competence in the field, and have determined if any joy remains. That, according to Ronald Smith, a professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is the number one reason youth athletes leave sport: it simply stops being fun. The next five reasons all have to do with coaches’ and parents’ behaviors.
The mantra of "whatever it takes to win" disregards what’s lost along the way.
Smith says that most athletes don’t begin paying attention to wins and losses until about age 13 and putting them in competitive situations before that, and placing excessive importance on results, not only stifles sport enjoyment but also puts future participation at risk. In many of those cases it is the parent or coach, not the athlete, who demands a certain level of performance, and just as a positive sporting experience can foster confidence and social skills in a child, a negative experience can have the opposite effect.
Burnout is a symptom of chronic stress, and the factors that lead to that point vary: performance anxiety, year-round training, focusing on a single sport, and over-emphasis on winning are just a few examples. Athletes can also begin to see sport as a dead end. That realization can leave the athlete feeling as though they have little control over their own lives, according to Coakley.
To combat this, he suggests fostering a sense of autonomy in young athletes, of working to remove the dependency they often feel toward coaches and parents and instead empowering them to make their own decisions and follow their own desires for their own sporting lives—not just the hopes and demands of someone else.
In a 2005 issue of Parade, in a feature titled "Who’s Killing Kids’ Sports?" J. Duke Albanese, the state of Maine’s former commissioner of education, answered the question with one word—“adults.”
“There is a terrible imbalance between the needs kids have and the needs of the adults running their sports programs,” explained Dr. Bruce Svare, director of the National Institute for Sports Reform, in that same article. “Above all, kids need to have fun. Instead, adults are providing unrealistic expectations and crushing pressure.”
Seventy percent of American children abandon organized sports by the age of 13, according to Svare. The only way to reverse this crisis, as he called it, is to “fundamentally rethink the way America’s kids play organized sports.”
Not an easy task. The prevalent model of sport as we know it in the West is one of “power and performance”—a hierarchical approach to sport with elements of militarization, political control, and a concentrated focus on economics. In this model, success is earned through domination. This results in a sporting meritocracy, where individuals are ranked by power and status; this model also explains how we view and celebrate some of sports most iconic figures.
Take, for instance, Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant, two athletes renowned and applauded for their compulsive dedication to their craft and their perfectionistic tendencies. Those traits paid dividends in the form of personal accolades and championships but their struggles away from basketball, be they gambling or infidelity or terse relationships with their peers, are well documented. The mantra of “whatever it takes to win” disregards what’s lost along the way.
Coakley suggests that burnout is not a personal failure or a matter of individual character but rather a social problem. In a series of interviews with 15 adolescent athletes he found the reasons for burnout to be rooted in identity and control issues, that sport can both enable and constrain an athlete’s conception of self. Young athletes can also lose a sense of control in their lives, the power relationships in sport restricting their autonomy.
In Coakley’s words: “For them, sport involvement became analogous to being on a tightrope: it was exciting, they were good, they were the center of attention, but they knew they couldn't shift their focus to anything else without losing their balance. And if they lost their balance, they knew there would be no net to catch them.”
To combat this, Coakley recommends changes to the social organization of sport, the methods in which sport is integrated into the lives of young athletes and the dynamics of relationships between athletes and their significant others.
He’s not alone in seeking these types of reforms. In an effort to establish a new model of sport for youth athletes across the country, Albanese headed up a project called Sport Done Right, a collective of educators and student athletes who, in 2005, published a 45-page project detailing the negative behaviors surrounding school sports and the consequences of modeling junior high and high school programs after elite college and professional teams. Some of the most concerning problems they found, were undue stress and eating disorders among the young athletes, and confrontations among parents and coaches.
The report’s recommendations for parents include offering constant encouragement to athletes, regardless of their skill level, stressing the importance of respect for coaches and teamwork, and ensuring a balance through participation in multiple sports and activities.
"We felt if we did not intervene, and did not think differently about sports, then we would continue down a road that would look like some of the problems that are happening all over the country," Albanese told NPR.
In the aftermath of Kentucky’s loss, the only blemish in a season that fell two wins short of perfection, Cauley-Stein left little doubt about his next decision. “It’s time to take another step,” he said indicating—but not yet officially declaring—that he’ll be leaving Kentucky for the NBA. It’s hard decision to argue against. His play on the court shows he has the potential to excel there, and his thoughtfulness away from the game indicates he’ll be fine, even if he doesn’t.
The Sports Lens is a running series exploring the intersection of sports and culture.