Footballers Burning Out 'Before They Leave School'

Young elite footballers are burning out before they leave school as they buckle under pressure and try to meet impossible goals, researchers claim.

Some show signs of chronic stress, exhaustion and disillusionment with the sport on which they had built their dreams, say psychologists.

The scientists studied 167 junior players in eight academies and centres of excellence attached to English professional clubs.

They found that up to a quarter of the boys were occasionally affected by burnout while 1% suffered certain symptoms frequently.

Players most at risk were those who felt themselves to be under pressure from others, were in fear of making mistakes or experiencing other kinds of stress.

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Lead researcher Dr Andrew Hill, from the University of Leeds' School of Biomedical Science, said: "What we see among the athletes showing symptoms of burnout is emotional and physical exhaustion, a sense that they are not achieving and a sense of devaluation of the sport.

"Even though they might originally enjoy their sport and be emotionally invested in it, they eventually become disaffected. Participation can be very stressful."

Many professional soccer clubs' youth organisations recruit children as young as eight and get rid of unwanted players annually until they reach the age of 12.

Youngsters then sign two-year registrations and must survive "culls" at 14 and 16 before being offered a three-year contract.

"It can be harsh," said Dr Hill. "At its worst, we are talking about an environment that can develop, foster and maintain a mindset where athletes are wholly invested into the idea of being the next David Beckham.

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"In fact, of the estimated 10,000 athletes involved in youth football at any one time, less than 1% is thought to make it as a professional soccer player."

The study, published in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, focused on associations between perfectionism and burnout among young footballers.

Non-perfectionists and players who displayed perfectionism driven by their own high standards rather than those of coaches and peers were significantly less vulnerable.

Athlete burnout is said by psychologists to have three core symptoms - a sense of reduced accomplishment, emotional and physical exhaustion, and devalued participation in a particular sport.

"Perfectionism can be a potent energising force but can also carry significant costs for athletes when things don't go well," Dr Hill added.

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"Reports of psychological difficulties and interpersonal problems, for example, are not uncommon among athletes who describe themselves as perfectionists.

"We need sport to be a positive experience for all participants. Sport can be used as a vehicle to develop life skills, a sense of self-esteem and quality relationships with others, but we know it can lead to disaffection, poor moral decision-making and make people feel miserable about themselves.

"There is nothing necessarily positive about sport. It is about the environment that is created."

Perfectionists were "stuck in a self-defeating cycle", he said.

"They are overly dependent on personal accomplishment as a means of establishing a sense of self-esteem but are always dissatisfied with their efforts," Dr Hill explained.

"Even success can be problematic because they simply become more demanding until they inevitably experience failure."