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When More Isn’t Better: Managing Burnout in Sports

Sir H. N. Reliance Foundation Hospital and Research Centre

By Ms. Maithili Bhuptani | 8-Aug-2023

What is burnout, really?

The pressure of being a successful athlete entails endless training hours and physical conditioning. 

The attitude of “more is better” in terms of constant activity in a quest for individual or team success, is prevalent in today’s sports world, starting at the youth level and continuing through the secondary school and collegiate levels.

Most people think of burnout as— complete physical and emotional exhaustion. This is really just the last and worst phase of burnout, says Keith Kaufman, a sports psychologist teaching at Catholic University. Burnout is a response to the chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery.

Burnout could actually mean the following about an athlete:

  1. That they need a change
  2. They realize they love the sport less, as demands increase
  • Or they just fail to cope with normal stress

So, how do we understand whether an athlete is really burning out?

The first stage of burnout is a sense of staleness, marked by a lack of crispness & energy in performance. The second stage, overtraining, is where performance begins to plateau. It’s easy for athletes to overdo it, since there is only a fine line between being at peak performance and overtraining.

The final stage of exhaustion and withdrawal is the endgame for burned-out athletes according to Kaufman.

Hence, burnout is a syndrome of continual training and sport attention stress, resulting in staleness, overtraining and eventually burnout. 

Who can it affect and why do athletes burn out?

Several theories and explanations exist as to why an athlete experiences burnout, but usually, it’s a combination of physical and mental stress. 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 well-being.

Various factors can cause burnout and they can be easily broken down into internal factors such as perfectionism, high expectations, or loss of love for the sport, and external factors, including physical exhaustion, excessive time commitments, or even injuries.

A recent study looking at what causes athletes to fall out of love with their sport has suggested that overly perfectionistic tendencies and fixation on mistakes play a significant role (Olsson et al., 2021). The study found that athletes who were hyper-self-critical and those who reacted very negatively to even minor perceived failures were more likely to experience burnout with their sport.

It is worth noting that burnout can affect anyone who specializes in one activity — even kids on sports teams. Studies in youth sports are showing that burnout increasingly can be found among younger athletes who compete in a high-intensity environment, already specialized in a single sport, without an offseason.

Warning signs of burnout:

The symptoms of burnout may not show up obviously and clearly. A distinct 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.

Not all athletes will demonstrate symptoms the same way with some cases being very apparent and others being more difficult to identify.

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

Inconsistent performances

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

Decreased energy level

Frequent absence or resistance from practice or game

Anger, Irritability, or Apathy

Mood swings

If you’re wondering whether you’re suffering from athlete burnout, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Am I easily fatigued?
  • Do I experience difficulty staying focused?
  • Am I easily irritated?
  • Do I have problems falling asleep?
  • Am I suffering from frequent illnesses or inflammation-related (or -itis) injuries – tendinitis, bursitis, fasciitis, etc.?
  • Is my motivation or self-esteem low?

If the answer to any of the questions in the above athlete burnout questionnaire is yes, then you’re under too much stress. And it’s likely you’ve developed that condition over a prolonged period of time.

What is the cure for burnout?
The cure to burnout is simple yet incredibly hard: recovery and renewal.

Rest and time away from sports are the two best methods to prevent and treat athlete burnout. Considering that many athletes rise before or at dawn for conditioning sessions and practice, their sleep cycle is hampered to be fully effective in providing the rest necessary for daily activities and sports performance. This results in a state of constant fatigue, placing the athlete at risk for developing burnout and mental health issues, especially when the athlete feels there is no escaping the time and physical demands of their sport.

Part of the problem is that athletes (and people in general) tend to compartmentalize their stress: There is work stress and relationship stress and sports stress, as Kaufman explains. Most don’t realize that stress is stress across the board.

Tips to Combat Burnout:

For Athletes:

  1. “More is better” is a fallacy.
    o Action: Schedule one day off from training this week. Do something completely unrelated to sport; your brain needs rest too!
  2. Change your relationship with sport.
    o Action: List ten reasons why you enjoy training and performing in your sport
  3. Develop stress management and coping tools.
    o Action: Everyone processes stress differently. Stress management techniques such as mindful breathing, and intuitive eating can only help if you give them a try. Download an app on your phone or computer that walks you through the process.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. 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 newfound joy. However, the right path should result from a collective decision by the support staff and the athlete.

Remember, there are no quick fixes to burnout, but there are many ways to alleviate stress levels and return to a healthier state of being.

Here are 8 different tips on recovering from burnout that you can easily incorporate into your daily routine.

  1. Track your stress levels: If you’re into gadgets, stress trackers are a great way to monitor your anxiety. Trackers also help you to understand more about your personal stress patterns and behaviors.

  2. Identify your stressors: Knowing what your stress triggers are will allow you to avoid or reduce interactions with them.

  3. Create a habit of journaling: Journaling has proven to be an excellent emotional decompressor. Creating the habit might take some time, but the results will naturally teach you how to recover from mental exhaustion.

  4. Seek professional help from a coach or therapist: There’s no shame in seeking help from a trained psychologist or coach. In fact, it’s encouraged. Therapy dramatically reduces stress levels and can facilitate healing from a mental fitness and emotional well-being perspective.

  5. Get quality sleep to recover from an athlete's burnout quicker: Sleep is by far the most effective way to reduce mental pressure. It’s the only time of the day when the body is in a state of complete rest and can, therefore, recover both physically and mentally. For athletes, it’s the main recovery time – when the body is asleep and fasts for an extended period of time the production of Human Growth Hormone(HGH)is at its highest. So, not over-eating before bed and sleeping well helps to speed up muscle recovery and adaptation.

  6. Practice mindfulness and meditation: Many people ask, “How long does it take to recover from burnout?” The answer is that recovery is a process, not a destination. Life skills like mindfulness and meditation focus on the bigger picture. This encourages people to cultivate a more peace-oriented lifestyle.

  7. Change your language: In particular, when we engage in negative self-talk our mind actually starts to believe it. In fact, there’s an area in the brain – called Reticular Activating System– that helps the brain notice things and make connections. So, when we focus on the negative our brain naturally looks for things that are wrong with us or in the world and presents that to us. The good thing is that this mechanism works in the other direction equally well. If we focus on the good things, our lives will naturally become filled with the good stuff. A great way to start is to change the words we use in our daily lives. For example, instead of saying I am not ready for this say I got this. Or instead of saying I can’t do anything right try saying I am learning from my mistakes.

  8. Train ‘in the present’ to prevent burnout in sports: Be realistic and train based on where your physical condition currently is – not where you want it to be. When we compare ourselves to something we believe is better we get emotionally attached to that condition and disconnected from reality. The only person we should compare ourselves to is who we were yesterday.

For Parents:

  1. Keep a healthy perspective on your child’s sport. Sport is about developing the whole child not just a player.
    o Action: After practice or a game, avoid speaking first to let your child start the conversation. Listen, empathize, and validate her feelings. This allows for a feeling of autonomy and helps increase confidence, motivation, and enjoyment.

  2. It’s not all about the outcome.
    o Action: After the next game ask your children, “What went well today?” rather than “How did you play today?”

  3. 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.
    o Action: Try a new sport that you and your child can test out together. Have fun with it!

Support from Coaches & Sport Science Members:
Athletic trainers can help in identifying and preventing burnout in athletes through an awareness of the signs and symptoms, and in communication with coaches and strength staff to monitor the athletes for overtraining, which is a large contributor to burnout. Whenever an athlete, particularly a younger athlete new to the level of participation, exhibits some signs and symptoms of burnout, a physician evaluation for a physical cause is warranted. After the physician exam and any testing prove negative, consideration should be given to modifying the activity to permit more athlete rest and recovery. If physical causes for signs and symptoms of burnout are negative, consideration should be given to referring the athlete for a psychological evaluation and care.

Coaches and strength staff should be educated on burnout and consider modifications to workouts both in terms of intensity and length of time in order to preserve optimal levels of performance and to prevent
burnout. Some measures such as heart-rate monitoring during practice and conditioning are one of several approaches teams are utilizing to monitor potential overtraining.

To conclude, burnout has been labeled as a serious problem that can affect more than an athlete’s performance. Watch out for signs that may help you prevent chronic burnout!



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