Burnout: perception and planning

It’s hard to avoid the burning topic of the past week: burnout.

Essentially there are two sides to the debate – those giving credit to Sterling because he showed the maturity to speak up and give Hodgson the choice, versus those left baffled that a 19 year old was too tired to pull on a Three Lions jersey at this early stage in the season.

Whichever side of the fence you sit on, we know that injuries are somewhat of a necessary evil from having international-class players in your squad, and that clubs are often left counting the cost of the international break.

The issue of overuse, however, is slightly different. The notion is that too much football will lead to residual fatigue snowballing into increased risk of injury – hence why we need to protect our young high-potential talent. Prevention rather than cure.

Makes sense from a sports science perspective, except that there doesn’t seem to be much evidence to show that younger players do burnout if utilised too much – at least not in the Premier League. The chart below plots the percentage of league minutes played by players from one season to another (e.g. 2010-11 and then 2011-12 etc), since 2008. Players under the age of 21 are highlighted in red, players 22 and over in grey.

Copy of u22yoymins

If young players were prone to burnout, we would expect to see a greater percentage of players move from being a core player (>50% minutes played) one season to being a squad/fringe player (<50% minutes played) the next – just like Seamus Coleman did from 2010-11 to 2011-12. However, this isn’t the case; 35% of under-22 core players were ‘relegated’ to a squad or fringe status the following season, either through injury or simply lack of selection. This sounds like a lot, but in fact it is exactly the same rate as those aged 22 or older.

There’s always a context, but the data infers that there’s a lot of squad churn anyway, irrespective of age profile. This is likely to be as much about being displaced by new signings than burning out. It’s dog eat dog, and only the strongest will survive.

Assuming they stay injury free, the best players will play progressively more minutes season-on-season; because they’re good enough and because ultimately any club or country wants to see their best young talent come through the system. In Sterling’s case, over the past three league seasons he’s played 51%, 65% and 87% (so far) of minutes respectively.

While protection is a sensible approach, it’s equally important to create clear pathways to enable player development; we want to see players above the diagonal line in the chart above as much as possible (as that would mean they’re playing more minutes than the previous season). In order to achieve that, we need a framework to forecast how much reliance there will be on core young players like Sterling. This is one of the many reasons why we built Evolution – to help clubs plan for the future.

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