At the beginning of this year, we pulled the plug on Tae Kwon Do for our kids. We first started it for my son, who was four at the time, because it was recommended to us by our Occupational Therapist as a way to gain body awareness and develop some core strength. I was game, and my son loved it. What Ninjago-loving four year-old wouldn’t love the prospect of using nunchucks and yelling “kiya!” as they kick or punch into a padded mitt?
My daughter, who watched her big brother for two years before she was old enough to participate, quickly followed suit. We signed her up as soon as she turned three.
But, despite our joy in watching our kids and their joy in living out their real-life ninja fantasies, the Master had given us this early warning: “if this is their thing now, it will always be their thing. If this is not their thing now, you will know when to move on.”
(Okay, say it again in your best Mr. Miyagi or Sensei Wu voice).
It’s not like my kids didn’t like Tae Kwon Do anymore, or, as parents, we stopped enjoying the benefits or the instructor or whatever, whatever. It’s that my children started developing other interests and had opinions about what we signed them up for. They began saying things like, “I don’t want to go to Tae Kwon Do today” or “I don’t really like sparring” and, I agreed with this one, “this bag is too big.” For a while (like more than a year), we encouraged them to stick with it, told them they were learning so much and that these were good skills for them to have for other sports. But, eventually, it was time to bow out.
Were my kids burned out? Had I pushed them too hard? Were they on the verge of quitting sports all together?
“If children are encouraged and reinforced for their initiative, they begin to feel industrious and feel confident in their ability to achieve goals,” quoted in an article written by Saul McLeod, simplepsychology.org, 2015.
As a student of psychology in both undergraduate and graduate programs, I love the childhood development theories of Erickson, Piaget and Vygotsky, to name a few. Like any theory, these aren’t an end-all, be-all in childhood learning and development but they have helped me develop a framework to see my children (and those I coach) outside the scope of the athlete. Our children aren’t just football players or cheerleaders or scholars or black belts or musicians or chess champions or ballerinas, they are human beings first. Human beings that develop differently, if not, along a fairly predictable path toward adulthood, like those discussed in Erickson’s Psychosocial Stages of Development.
Though my children aren’t at the age we typically see burnout, they are at the age where they are learning whether or not their voice and opinions matter. They are in what Erickson calls Industry vs. Inferiority, the stage preparing them up to take initiative and resolve conflict and crisis in the years to come.
“If this initiative is not encouraged, if it is restricted by parents or teacher, then the child begins to feel inferior, doubting his own abilities and, therefore, may not reach his or her potential,” quoted in an article written by Saul McLeod, simplepsychology.org, 2017.
And who doesn’t want their kid to reach their potential? How many parents are afraid if they don’t start their kid early enough they will “miss their opportunity?” How many parents push their kids while simultaneously try to mitigate burnout?
How many coaching sites or private coaching groups post articles about burn out and/or parental pressure? How many articles have you seen titled: “Five Ways to Prevent Burnout?” “Why Your Child Should Play Multiple Sports to Prevent Burnout?” “How to Talk to Your Child In The Car Ride Home to Prevent Burnout?” “Five Foods and Television Shows to Prevent Burnout?” Just kidding, I made that last one up, but still.
American sports culture wants to grow the sport, prevent burnout, create multi-sport athletes who contribute to their communities and then scratches their head while high school sophomores and junior’s are leaving sports in droves. Perhaps what we are seeing isn’t really burnout at all. Perhaps it’s a combination of a bunch of things or something else all together.
HINT: (it is).
“The adolescent mind is essentially a mind or moratorium, a psychosocial stage between childhood and adulthood, and between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult” from Erickson’s 5th stage of development, Identity vs. Role Confusion.
To go back to Erickson’s stages of development, children between the ages of 12-18 (the “burnout” years) are navigating some really dicey waters. Not only do they have school pressures mounting, puberty knocking at their door, peer interactions becoming more and more important to them, their minds are also developing scripts they will use for the rest of their lives. They search for their sense of self and their personal identity. They decide which values, ethics and beliefs they will take from us as parents and reproduce back into their communities and among their peers. They learn not only from their home environments, but from peers, teachers, coaches, mentors and their friends parents (see supplemental reading link for Vygotsky’s Social Development Theory).
Kids in the burnout years aren’t only dealing with what sport they want to play, they are trying to figure out who they are. Sometimes that means their interests change. Sometimes it looks like burnout.
“In response to role confusion or identity crisis, an adolescent may begin to experiment with different lifestyles (e.g., work, education or political activities). Also pressuring someone into an identity can result in rebellion in the form of establishing a negative identity, and in addition to this feeling of unhappiness,” quoted in an article written by Saul McLeod,www.simplepsychology.org, 2017.
Which brings me back to my kids and Tae Kwon Do. My kids aren’t burned out. My kids weren’t being pushed too hard. If my kids loved Tae Kwon Do, nothing would have kept them from it and if they ever want to go back, they will. Looks like the early warning from our Tae Kwon Do Master was dead on: “If this is their thing now, it will always be their thing. If this is not their thing now, you will know when to move on.”
Priscilla Tallman is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She has an undergraduate degree in Psychology and graduate degree in Clinical Psychology. She has written for FloVolleyball, Volleyball Magazine, The Art of Coaching Volleyball, Sweat RX, Gorgo Fitness Magazine, CrossFit Fury, The CrossFit Games and OPEX Fitness. She is married with two children and in a former life played collegiate and professional volleyball; she can honestly say she never felt burned out by playing. She also currently coaches girls high school beach and indoor volleyball and strives to learn from and teach the next generation of amazing athletes.
Supplemental reading on psychosocial child development: