By Carl Valle
Burnout is hard to define. For this article, I’m referring to the point in time where it’s a good for an athlete to take a break from conventional training; the specific time in a career or training phase where they need some time away. I’m seeing athlete burnout more and more often and want to speak about it instead of looking the other way.
It’s easy to write about periodization, recovery techniques, and the latest technology. It’s harder to talk about an issue to which I may be contributing. Coaches dispense enormous amounts of stress on athletes, and sometimes the responses aren’t healthy. My goal is to create awareness so others will take the baton and help provide a support network for athletes instead of making the problem worse. Most of us are involved in sports for the right reasons, and while good intentions are great on paper, how they unfold may not be pretty.
I’m not claiming that burnout is an epidemic. Also, this article does not discuss how to handle a depressed athlete or an athlete dealing with a health crisis like substance abuse.
What is Athlete Burnout Really?
Burnout. Defining it, managing it, and talking about it isn’t easy even without the sports component. When faced with burnout, coaches must deal with a moral obligation that may hurt their team’s success as well as their own jobs. Now that CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) awareness is growing, we must see athletes as humans with regular needs. Yes athletes are special talents, but they’re not impervious to things other people experience every day, such as the loss of a parent, fears of rejection, and problems with substance abuse.
Athletes will have eating disorders, addictions, and depression. For these issues, call a professional immediately, even it means pulling over while driving. You never know the true timeliness of helping a person who is struggling until it’s too late.
Burnout is not depression, but it’s worth noting the similarities and understanding that mishandling either may have severe consequences. Both conditions have signs and symptoms that overlap, so it’s essential to know the differences. When in doubt, assume the worse and have the peace of mind that you’re acting responsibly.
A convenient and easy definition of burnout is found in several books on sport psychology. Burnout could mean an athlete needs a change, realizes they love the sport less as demands increase, or just fails to cope with normal stress. Summarizing burnout in sports as “physical and or emotional exhaustion” is a lazy and horribly oversimplified definition.It’s essential to know the difference between burnout and heavy fatigue. Click To Tweet
Athletes will hit dark points during heavy training periods, and knowing the difference between burnout and heavy fatigue is everything. Not challenging an athlete is dangerous athletically, as it guarantees that the athlete won’t be prepared when it counts, but overtraining is just as bad.
The key is to go further than the books, further than looking for clues, and further than simply speaking to the athlete; it’s asking the athlete if they are enjoying the process. If an athlete doesn’t have the desire or confidence to keep up the pace, and they feel a need for a change, it’s likely they are burned-out. It’s not about blame or a sign of weakness; it’s about the individual listening to their inner self and taking action. Working with a sport psychologist or therapist is ideal, but most of the frontline work will be with the coach since we work with the athlete more than anyone else.
Why Do Athletes Burnout?
Several theories and explanations exist as to why an athlete experiences burnout, but usually it’s a combination of physical and mental stress that requires recreation. Burnout is not the same as overtraining, but overtraining can play a factor in burnout. Burnout happens when an athlete simply does not see the sport in the same light as before, and in fact, the sport may be causing harm to the athlete’s wellbeing.Inspiration can’t always solve lack of motivation. Click To Tweet
We know that burnout mainly comes from doing too much of the same thing over time rather than experiencing an acute event like illness or injury. Burnout usually happens when balance is disrupted or when the rewards are not enough to maintain the effort. Each athlete has a threshold that is right for them. Motivation can’t be solved by inspiration, it too sometimes requires a break from, or reduction in, involvement with the sport.
Warning Signs of Burnout
The symptoms of burnout may not show up clearly. An obvious indication is when an athlete doesn’t put in the effort and complains during training. Burnout can compromise competition, but usually team or personal pressure to perform masks it. Most athletes who have pride will not want to disgrace or embarrass themselves in public. When an athlete is burned-out, they may quit a race or just ask to be taken out; even the best athletes have limits.
Other warning signs are less obvious:
- willingness-to-train scores on wellness questionnaires
- mental fatigue
- general staleness with the sport and process
Like other syndromes, burnout is like Winter. It creeps up slowly and when it snows, it’s too late. Athletes who burnout but keep going, trying to be tough or to “will” themselves, tend to get so deep in a hole they quit. An athlete retiring is eventual. Quitting early means they’ll attempt a comeback, sometimes successfully but many times in vain.
How to Decide on a Break or Change in Training
In sport, natural gaps from competition occur after the season ends, but those breaks may not be enough. To keep fresh, an athlete may need time away from intense training or any preparation. Some athletes seem to never have a problem with too much exposure to training and competition and simply love the preparation process and the thrill of competing. What makes one athlete need a break from their commitment could be another athlete’s minimal effort. It’s all personal, but a semblance of criteria does exist.What makes one athlete need a break from their commitment could be another’s minimal effort. Click To Tweet
Here are three options that do the trick for me. Don’t use this as a template, use it as a springboard to something better. The suggestions below can apply to a single athlete or a group experiencing burnout symptoms.
1. Total Break and Time Away
While it sounds cowardly, an athlete may need to escape and get away from everything, including home. With peace being at such a premium, many elite athletes literally find themselves on an island alone just to get away from the chaos and madness of their lives. Burnout may have happened earlier in the season, and they found a way to persevere for obligations. But after the season is over, they take a welcome break. Sometimes athletes don’t have the luxury of taking a break in the middle of a season, but the promise of an organized break can keep them motivated with the light at the end of the tunnel.
2. A Change in Environment
When taking a break is a problem, sometimes a change of scenery is welcome. Often a different training group, a new training facility, or a different city or even country is needed. Change without stopping training and competition is important, as it can help quarantine outside distractions. Most of the time, I see that bad chemistry exacerbates burnout. A healthy team culture can reduce problems if the environment is supportive and fertile.
3. A Modification in Training
There are times when it’s not possible nor needed to change location or to stop training and competition demands. Athletes with low-level burnout may respond to a fresh training program or reduced training to create more time and energy for a more balanced experience. For example, a high school athlete may need to drop double sessions or take a break from club training and still participate in the sport and respond fine. A new training program with the same volume and intensity may provide a change that gives an athlete a new perspective that motivates them or gives them new found joy.
The right path should result from a collective decision by the support staff and the athlete. Friction occurs with youth sport as well as elite sport; everyone involved has personal self-interest. If an athlete isn’t enjoying the process, has less love for the sport (or all sports for that matter), and is not putting in the effort, something needs to change. No rules exist, but if one style of break doesn’t work after the athlete comes back from the respite, it’s ok to try again to get it right.
When to Change Coaches, Retire, or Change Jobs
Coaches also burnout. Athletes sometimes should retire or change sports. Handling burnout in ways other than a break can mean moving on, either from a coach, training group, or the sport. Sometimes burnout is not a temporary issue. It’s a sign that the sport is no longer worth the time and effort.
I was on the verge of burning out last year from working way too many hours without any recreation or vacation. I wasn’t tired, and I was still passionate, but I wasn’t as effective. I lost my sharpness because my administration of hours was poor, and I worked longer and harder instead of knowing when to say no. I had to walk away from some coaching assignments, and it was the best thing I could have done as I prevented myself from burning out.
It’s easy to rationalize that working hard and working long hours pays off, but like training, rest is required to grow. Rest needs more than a vague prescription–how you rest and why you need a break or a change is the name of the game.Rest is required for athletes and coaches to grow. Burnout is temporary. Click To Tweet
Athletes may need to change coaches or switch training groups or teams. It happens all the time with college transfers and pro sports trades, though those could be for reasons other than burnout. Burnout is a temporary issue, and a change in uniform may not be the solution.
Finally, when it’s, it’s time. Most athletes retire because they can’t play, not because they feel it’s time to move on. Coaches have a hard time stopping as well. But when the writing’s on the wall, reading it and letting go makes sense. I am a few decades away from retirement, but I’ve learned from my mentors that retirement comes from a gut feeling that naturally happens at the right time.
Don’t Underestimate Burnout
Burnout doesn’t scare people like it should. Burnout can lead to other problems if not carefully managed, such as a premature retirement or even injury to an athlete. Managing a career is knowing how to pace everything, not just the training mileage or the amount of weight lifted. I’ve likely avoided burnout accidentally from talking to athletes. Only when one quits the sport early, do they realize that the warning signs were not easy to spot.
Coaches should be just as vigilant with their careers as they are with their athletes. It’s just as easy, if not easier, to get burned-out. Burnout is real, and a smart plan is to constantly reflect on why you coach or why your athletes compete and stick to those core values.