Few studies have investigated the role of overall life stress and wellness on performance and injuries in elite junior sport. The adolescent phase of development is one where athletes face many competing demands. As a result, whilst their need for sleep has not changed to that of childhood, evidence suggests their perception of their need for sleep has decreased.2. In other words, they are more likely to stay up later because they do not feel inherently as sleepy.2 These elite junior athletes face a number of additional sources of stress outside sport training and competition that include employment, participation in other sports and activities, academic studies, social activities and family. 10 At the same time, they are also developing and establishing their own personal identity and progressive independence skills and dealing with many new life and social challenges.
All of these activities, if not managed effectively, can lead to stress which can further influence an athlete’s mental and physical readiness to perform. 11 Thus, many researchers have suggested that it is particularly important to monitor perceived stress during periods of heavy training. If not monitored and managed, this external stress can increase fatigue levels and, in turn, decrease performance capabilities 11. This can also have impacts on psychological health and self-confidence.
Previous articles have discussed the importance of positive sleep health (also called sleep hygiene) in elite junior athletes as well as recommending optimal recovery strategies for this population (http://www.thesportinmind.com/author/timlathlean/). There is increasing evidence that adolescents, whilst going to bed later, are required to also rise earlier. This is due to a number of reasons, including in order to engage in morning sporting activities3. Such increasing demands result in sleep restriction and deprivation, which, in turn, may decrease performance and increase the risk of overtraining 7
Self-analysis tools, such as the “Hooper Index”, which require individuals to rate factors such as perceived exertion, muscles soreness, sleep quality and mood states may provide an easy and valuable measure of how an athlete is coping with the demands of training9. Recently, a scaled questionnaire has been developed to assess indicators of general wellness in Australian Football League (AFL) players during a two week pre-season camp1. Within the questionnaire were five questions relating to general fatigue, muscle soreness, mood, stress levels and sleep quality. Buchheit and colleagues1 found a negative correlation between training load (TL) and these self-analysis measures (that is, the higher the TL the worse the wellness scores on the following day), suggesting that such tools are sensitive in assessing the acute effect of variations in TL. Gastin and colleagues also used self-reported wellness ratings to monitor player recovery over the course of an AFL club’s season.6
Elite junior athletes need to acquire the necessary physical capabilities in order to progress further in their chosen sport. Gamble 2013 describes this as the ‘theoretical U-curve relationship between workload and injury risk’. 5
Figure 1: Adapted from Gamble 2013
Additionally, these athletes need to maximise their recovery time by optimising rejuvenation through healthy sleep patterns and other recovery activities such as optimal nutrition and rest (http://www.thesportinmind.com/articles/monitoring-of-recovery-strategies-for-elite-athletes/). It has been found that in a quest to obtain physical traits such as aerobic fitness, strength, power and repeated sprint ability, athletes are competing in as many competitions as they can, as well as supplementing this with other sports and recreational activities.4
Further, elite juniors athletes are reaching the age where they have capacity to earn an income, providing motivation to seek employment. This may add further stress to their sporting load and further create demands on their time. Additionally, academic requirements are high within this age group, with many athletes attempting to graduate from secondary school with sufficient grades to facilitate their chosen career path, outside of sport. Whilst these are all necessary activities to enhance a healthy multidimensional identity for these athletes, it also contributes to their overall global/life load. Therefore, it is even more important for elite junior athletes to manage the physical stresses that arise from participating in elite training and competition, in addition to the various sources of stress outside of their sport.
A recent study of wellness in AFL players asserts that whilst the use of such self-analysis measures may be practical in a team sport setting, their effectiveness is dependent upon the compliance and support of both athletes and coaches, and should also being considered in conjunction with objective information.6 A combination of quantitative TL and self-assessment data may help to identify athletes who have an undesirable balance between training stimulus and recovery. By doing so, prolonged fatigue (as either functional or non-functional overreaching8) will be identified before it’s development into an overtraining syndrome.12 Monitoring and managing load and recovery effectively through self-analysis tools such as the Hooper Index, has the potential to ultimately result in improved long-term player welfare. This highlights the need to find time for elite junior athletes to identify their stress and recovery in all aspects of their lives.