When athletic schedules become too much, it's time to take a break

"So, you want to be a kid?!"

It was not an accusation, but asked with relief. Jody Van Fossen had just learned that her daughter Danielle wanted to give up gymnastics. Danielle, 9 at the time, already had dedicated two-thirds of her life to tumbling. Her practice schedule had ballooned to 32 hours a week, making the balance beam feel more like a gangplank.

Middle-schoolers are prime targets for burnout, say coaches and parents alike, especially if they've already specialized in a sport. Danielle reached the breaking point a little earlier than most.

While many young athletes (and their parents) hope the final payoff for such dedication will be a college scholarship, just as many struggle with the day-to-day cost. Danielle's mom worried as well.

"I didn't want (Danielle) to miss out on her childhood," Van Fossen said. "I felt guilty about that some days when she was in the gym all the time."

Worthington City Schools teacher Scott Miller warned, "You have to sacrifice so much for the 'idea' of being good, and there's no guarantee."

Miller teaches English and has spent years coaching middle-school sports. He's witnessed burnout repeatedly and says it's most prevalent with young athletes who specialize.

"I think for as many kids who get to middle school and explore and try different things, there's an equal number who don't try anything new because they feel that commitment to the sport they've always done," he said.

Ironically, that focus can ultimately kill their drive. Miller says allowing a child time off from a sport may be the best remedy for burnout and ultimately increase their chance of returning.

Danielle, now 15 and a varsity cheerleader at Northridge High School in Johnstown, offers simple advice to peers who burn out: "Take a break!"

Danielle's break ended up being permanent but her mom doesn't look at those years or the expense as wasted, because she feels her daughter became a better athlete in the process.

Miller stresses living for the moment and not the potential pay-off: Find enjoyment and value in each practice or game. He also believes that kids can afford to specialize in just being kids without worrying about missed opportunity.

"There are no deadlines, there are no 'too lates,' " Miller said. "It's never too late to be good at something. It's never too late to excel."