“Burnout occurs when your body and mind can no longer keep up with the tasks you demand of them. Don’t try to force yourself to do the impossible. Delegate time for important tasks, but always be sure to leave time for relaxation and reflection.”
― Del Suggs,Truly Leading: Lessons in Leadership
We are all susceptible to burnout, whether it be in sport, our careers, extra-curricular activities or from the business of our every day lives. There has been a lot of talk in sport about athlete burnout and it often comes up in relation to youth sport due to its competitive environment, push for year-round training and early specialization.
After researching “youth burnout” in my theoretical sport psychology class, I have come to align with Smith’s 1986 definition in which he defines burnout as:
“A psychological, emotional, and physical withdrawal from a formerly pursued and enjoyable sport as a result of excessive stress”.
His early research focusing on burnout in sport looked at the nature of burnout, causes and consequences after it was initially studied in the health care field in the 1970’s. Since then there has been research examining burnout in coaches, organizations, practitioners and has moved to even sport practitioners. In youth sport, the research has branched off into individualized sports and into specialized focus on perfectionism, coaching styles, and peer motivational climates.
One of my favorite articles on Youth Burnout is by Gould and colleagues (1997), “Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: III. Individual differences in the burnout experience”. It is a qualitative analysis that looked at the mental and physical characteristics of youth tennis athletes, identified factors leading to burnout and provided recommendations for intervention & prevention through studying individual athletics experiences. I choose to look at this article in my sport psychology class and it has continued to resonate with me. The professor challenged me to think critically about taking this knowledge from the research, review different perspectives on burnout, and let it guide my practice with youth athletes.
A Few Things to Consider When Talking About Burnout
Talk to your athletes, coaches and parents. Don’t hesitate to discuss training requirements, scheduling demands, timing and expectations that may be essential to developing positive habits and routines. Talking is good… and if you normalize these important topics in early work, when faced with addressing the tough stuff (avoiding teammates, not wanting to attend practice, low motivation, sport not being fun anymore), it becomes easier to talk about within a stressful context later.
I remind athletes, coaches and organizations that I work with – everyone experiences sport differently and similarly, athletes may experience burnout in differently. I recall the most significant aspect of burnout is that it is a PROCESS. This means that there is no linear progression, despite personal/situation factors (Gould, 1996) that may lead to it, there is no definitive or universal size that fits all. Be cognizant when you are discussing potential burnout, that the athlete’s individual perspective of what they are experiencing matters and it may be completely opposite than someone else who trains or competes in a similar sporting environment.
Don’t be Afraid to Check In
I continuously check in with athletes. Simple questions can spark some fascinating and meaningful dialogue:
“How are you handling the demands of training and competition?”
“Is there anything we can do to support your training in the next month? Your schedule looks hectic – can we amend in any way to help you succeed?” “How can I support you in the next few weeks?”
“What are some of biggest challenges in preparing for your upcoming training and next competition?”
Keep in mind that this conversation should be tailored to the athlete based on their age and both their cognitive and emotional capacities.
Question Yourself & Critically Reflect on Prevention Measures
Prior to intervening take time for you to review your own involvement. Have you prepared your athlete? I reflect on this topic frequently. I make it a priority to review the work I have done with my athletes, the decisions I have made in our work together and consult schedules and competition guides for further review and analysis.
In your role as a parent, coach, support staff or support system, have you talked about realistic scheduling together? Have you discussed avoiding burn out, healthy lifestyle choices and balance within sport for each role (whether it be athlete, parent or coach alike) to succeed? I encourage athletes to share how they are coping with the scheduling demands of training and competition, and we prepare for these events with agendas, timetables and by addressing potential challenges. This can easily be done appropriately by coaches and parents too.
Take Time to Think about how you want to bring these topics up in conversation. I have found that keeping notes about what I observe (motivation levels, communication tendencies, social interaction) or professional experience in my role have been helpful to refer to when I am working with athletes for later conversations.
As coaches, parents, support staff how can we help? I think if we continue to talk about healthy training, consult with LTAD (Long Term Athlete Development Model) regarding sport specific training for each athlete (which takes into consideration age, level of competition and additional factors) makes a difference. Coakley (1992) suggests placing emphasis on education, resource accessibility, parent/coach involvement. Also, it’s important to note that for kids, sport is supposed to be fun, and consistently reminding all parties of its importance should never be undervalued. Recognizing the signs of burnout and having the courage to talk about it is not just essential from an educational or prevention perspective within sport but encourages greater awareness of its effects. It’s what you do in your role in the sporting context that matters the most. If burnout is evident or if you see athletes susceptible to burnout, please take time to consult others in the appropriate fashion (coaches, support staff) or an expert, whether it be a mental training coach or psychologist.
Burnout hurts – physically, mentally, socially and emotionally. I have included some of the predominant words that come to mind when thinking about burnout which I included in my presentation for class (see below). As a young athlete, I experienced burnout. It changed my approach to sport and challenged me beyond measure. The greatest lesson I learned from that experience was that in any role you may have with athletes, taking time to talk about the challenges of sport, healthy motivation and what athletes, coaches or support staff are experiencing …. matters. Honor it and trust the value of those conversations as you don’t necessarily understand the impact you may have.
Coakley, J. (1992). Burnout among adolescent athletes: A personal failure or social problem? Sociology of Sport Journal, 9,271-285.
Gould, D. (1996). Personal motivation gone awry: Burnout in competitive athletes. Quest (00336297), 48, 275-289.
Gould, D., Udry, E., Tuffey, S., & Loehr, J. (1997). Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: III. Individual differences in the burnout experience. The Sport Psychologist, 11,257-276.
Smith, R. E. (1986). Toward a cognitive-affective model of athletic burnout. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8, 36-50.