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The Athletic Burnout Is Real: Atlanta Teens Talk Balancing Sports and School

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“Winning isn’t everything … it’s the only thing.” – Vince Lombardi

I used to live by this quote during my freshman year at Columbia High School. Football to me was a lifestyle. I always came to practice bright and early to show my coach how dedicated I was to be on the football field. Everything my coach said was gold. As crazy as this may seem, this is true. My mother was just so worried about me because I didn’t do sh-t else but football. It got to the point where my mother’s thoughts and opinions didn’t mean sh-t. I was like a robot, programmed to not question a d-mn thing my coach was telling me.

There have been times I came home from football practice and didn’t even eat dinner because I was so tired. This once happened for a whole week. Breaks were hard to enjoy, too. Right after my sophomore season ended this past November, we hit the weight room about a month later for workouts. That pretty much means that we only had a month away from football all year.

I’m sharing this with you not to bash the sport of football but to help you understand where athletes like myself come from when we complain about going to practice. Based on an article by Ralph D. Russo for Hero Sports, football has the second highest decline rate at -19.2 percent from 2011-16.

Much of this decline is due to a growing awareness of risk of injury, but one story that rarely gets told is the one about teen athlete burnout.

Sports psychologist and author of “Inner Strength: The Mental Dynamics of Athletic Performance” Ralph Vernacchia, Ph.D., defines athletic burnout as “a state of mental and/or physical exhaustion, caused by excessively prolonged or excessively intense stress arousal.”

Teenage student-athletes are prime for burnout because they don’t have time to do anything else, including homework sometimes, because they have to be 100 percent committed to their sport. Rising Columbia High School senior and football player Justin Thrasher has experienced this first hand.

“Our coach stays on us about work and things like that, but when we say something to him like, ‘Coach I have a lot of homework I need to do, can we end workouts a little earlier?’ he will be like, ‘That’s what comes with being a student-athlete.’ After that, we really don’t have much to say about it.”  

Former Parkview High School basketball player Matthew Spradling, 17, agrees that balancing school work and sports can be an obstacle.

“Well, I know from experience [coaches] be like, ‘Yeah it’s important, you need to go do [school work].’ They’ll give you some time to do it, but when you get it done or get to a good stopping point, you have to come to practice. Or if you miss the whole practice, you’ll have to make up that workout after you get the assignment done.”

High school coaches are trusted with the responsibility to help student-athletes balance school and sports. Depending on the school, one may be prioritized over the other. Even though some coaches have earned reputations for pushing teens too hard, some teens welcome the challenge.

One DeKalb County student-athlete who wished to remain anonymous said he does not get burned out from practice, he actually finds practice to be rewarding.

“It makes me feel good,” he told VOX ATL. “You know your work is going to show when you get in the game. We learn how to [balance] both.”

He also said balancing school and sports is not as difficult as it sounds. “There’s a time and place for everything. You come home you do your work. I know if I can get something done, I’ll do it. When you’ve been a student-athlete for so long, you know what you’re doing. Yeah, you feel burned out, but you keep pushing yourself no matter what. You know you gotta come home and do your homework.”

For some reason, society has shaped athletes to be rigid, non-emotional, unbreakable, and people who eat, sleep and sh-t sports. There was even an incident when Fox News Anchor Laura Ingram said NBA player LeBron James should “just shut up and dribble.”

Contrary to popular belief, some athletes do have lives and interests outside of sports. People like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Hulk Hogan wrestled but still took time off to do movies. NBA player Victor Olipdipo who plays for the Indiana Pacers has his own R&B album. NBA player Dwight Howard always had a love for animals and wanted to become a zoologist until he discovered his talent for basketball. He now has his own snake collection.

Just like the professionals, teen student-athletes have lives and interests outside of school and sports. But with high school sports growing in popularity and summer leagues, competitions, fundraisers and training increasing, there seems to be no end to any sports season.

I’m currently living this reality. As I write this story, I am headed off to football practice as another season approaches. But instead of going into the season and living by Lombardi’s quote, I have now adopted one from soccer player Lionel Messi, “There are more important things in life than winning or losing a game.”

For more, listen to the accompanying podcast where we talk to Atlanta-area student-athletes and coaches about athletic burnout and balance.

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Noel, 17, attends McNair High School and is a VOX Media Cafe reporter this summer.

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