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Lost Love of the Game – Burnout

By Hunter Swanson | Monday, April 30, 2018

There is a term hiding in the dark recesses of athletics, spoken by the self-imposed exiles and hollowed stars of yesterday – burnout.  Professional sport psychology defines burnout as, “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment.”  In other words, burnout is when an athlete is mentally, physically, and emotionally done.  He or she is overwhelmed from training and competition, which breeds resentment or a complete loss in interest in playing and starts underperforming to the point of leaving the sport.

Sports are games at their foundation for a reason – they are a place for boys and girls to learn social interaction, hard work, the triumphs of success and coping skills from failure, and have fun.  But many of these core values have fallen to the wayside and replaced with unrealistic expectations and hyper-competitiveness.  When the fun is gone, burnout is soon to follow.

CAUSES OF BURNOUT

Burnout can be broken down to two factors: internal and external.  Internal burnout factors are things like perfectionism, high expectations, or loss of passion for a sport.  External factors would be physical exhaustion, excessive time commitment, or injury.  Pressure surrounding these factors contribute to the wearing away of the foundation of sports – enjoyment.

An athlete’s perception of stress and pressure is what matters most in the development of burnout.  They no longer enjoy the game and don’t feel a sense of accomplishment anymore.  It’s more of a chore that must be completed than a game that’s meant to be played.  And when sports are viewed in this light, at best an athlete’s performance will be hindered and at worst, it leads to quitting the sport completely.

Kid running with football through cones

Two of the most common causes of burnout are specialization and maladaptive perfectionism.  Specialization is a singular focus on one sport, especially at an early age.  This often leads to overtraining and a serious neglect of proper rest.  Younger and younger athletes are expected to be training like a professional in order to lockdown a position on a high school team or a college scholarship.  Unfortunately, this type of training is quite counterproductive.  Continually over-exerting physically has negative consequences on an athlete’s mentality.

Maladaptive perfectionism is a big way of saying unrealistic expectations.  Athletes, due to external and internal forces, will hold themselves to rigid expectations and impossible expectations and when they cannot reach or maintain that standard, suffer.  Sports are unpredictable, so being unable to cope with challenges and changes can lead to stress and eventual burnout.

BURNOUT WARNING SIGNS

Burnout is not as easy to recognize as an illness or an injury would be and not all athletes demonstrate symptoms of burnout the same way.  Some may be glaringly obvious while others keep it very well hidden.  Here is a simplified chart of physical, behavioral, and psychological symptoms to try and help.

Physical Symptoms  Behavioral Symptoms   Emotional/Psychological Symptoms 
 Constant fatigue (even after a full night of rest)  Lack of enthusiasm or enjoyment from practice or competition  Expression of the desire to quit
 Decreased energy level  Inability to focus  Decreased confidence
 Increased level of illness and injury  Making excuses for bad performance  Feeling their performance is insignificant to them or their team
Inconsistent performances Frequent absence or resistance from practice or game Anger, Irritability, or Apathy

TIPS TO COMBAT BURNOUT

Athletes:

  • “More is better” is a fallacy
    • Action: Schedule one day off from training this week. Do something completely unrelated to sport; your brain needs a rest too!
  • Change your relationship with your sport
    • Action: List ten reasons why you enjoy training and performing in your sport
  • Develop stress management and coping tools
    • Action: Using breathing as a tool for relaxation is invaluable

Parents:

  • Keep a healthy perspective about your child’s sport
    • Action: After practice or a game, avoid speaking first to let your child start the conversation. Listen, empathize, and validate your child’s feelings. This allows for a feeling of autonomy and helps increase confidence, motivation, and enjoyment
  • It’s not all about the outcome
    • Action: After the next game ask, “What went well today?” rather than “How did you play today?”
  • Avoid early specialization. Although logically you may think the earlier the better, it in fact it has the opposite effect on athletes. Allowing kids to participate in various sports throughout the year enhances development and athleticism
    • Action: Try a new sport that you and your child can test out together. Have fun with it!

Coaches:

  • Enthusiasm and love for the game is contagious
    • Action: Be aware of your own burnout in sport and take action in self-care when necessary
  • Make sure practices include some unpredictability. Monotony in practice can lead to burnout for both athlete and coach
    • Action: Add in a new drill that is challenging and fun but still achievable
  • Point out the good. All too often we focus on faults and not enough on success and effort
    • Action: Make clear expectations for practice and provide each athlete with individual positive feedback

For more information regarding burnout and how to prevent it, please contact Kat Swanson or Devin Markle at mindset@sportsacademy.