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  • Writer's pictureTracey Hemphill

Athlete Burnout

Updated: Jul 23, 2019

By: Tracey Hemphill – BA Sport Psychology (2002), Swim South Africa Level 3 coach(2012), ASCA Level 5 coach(2019), Transformational Life Coach (2018), NLP (2018)

“It’s not the load that breaks you down; it’s the way you carry it.” – Lou Holtz

If you are dealing with high performing, committed or disciplined youngsters, it’s highly likely that you have a host of overachievers and perfectionists. Some naturally born that way and some socially prescribed.

Overachievers are driven, focused beings, who will always do the extra and jam-pack their day. Put a target in front of them, and they will use all of our means to nail it.

Perfectionists. Not only will the task be achieved, but it will be done at a level nothing short of brilliance. Excellence isn’t the bar; they need to go higher.

Ultimately, athletes compete. It’s what drives them, and this requires them to put themselves through stress to adapt and improve. It is a rewarding and maddening process for everyone involved.

In so many ways, this competition is the reason that they achieve their goals and are successful. On the other hand, there is a risk that, if not managed correctly, it will be the reason that they don’t.

If I had to guess, I would say that a large portion of our athletes fit into one of these two categories. Probably 60% of our athletes are overachievers and perfectionists, and in most cases, it is more of a weakness than a strength. It leads to a life of discontent and inadequacies where things are just never good enough.

The definition of burn out is physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. A burnt-out individual has exhausted their system to such a point that they probably can’t even sleep anymore. They’ll lie awake trying to find a solution to the way they are feeling so that they can get back on the productivity train as soon as possible. As an overachieving perfectionist, you probably still won’t let being burnt out stop you conquering your goals, so at what point is there a give?

And… there will be a give.

In an era of heightened attention to athlete’s psychological wellbeing and awareness, this is an area which we need to start paying attention to. Burnout in athletes is avoidable if we are aware of the warning signs. We are living in a world that is incredibly competitive and publically measured in every way. How much athlete-management is taking place between the parents, the coach, the support, and by the athlete? In my opinion, a lot, but not enough. We are aware of the areas that need attention, but time and resources limit us.

Burnout is a condition that is currently getting a lot of attention in the corporate field, with many studies carried out on nurses and entrepreneurs. Recognition of the condition came about in 1989, and the studies started including athletes in the early 2000’s. The following is not isolated to athletes in their approach to complete burnout but is the process which I have found to be most relative to athletes. This process was founded by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North, and elaborated on by Hamza Kahn in his TED talk.

Stages of Burnout.

1. The compulsion to prove oneself

2. Working harder: Doing more, and before you know it, you are neglecting basic human


3. Neglecting one’s own needs: Compromising the very things that give you energy like

sleep, nutrition, and balance.

4. Displacing conflicts and putting things off

5. Compromising values: Ego Depletion – The idea that one only has a limited amount of

will power, and that when that runs out your ability to make good decisions is seriously


6. Denial of emerging problems.

7. Withdrawal from people, friends, teammates, and family.

8. Odd behavioural changes: Start doing things that people deem as odd.

9. Depersonalisation – Not seeing value in yourself or others.

10. Inner emptiness: Not sure where you are going anymore, and you start to question


11. Depression.

12. Physical, mental, and emotional burnout.

Even more important than knowing the stages, is knowing the consequences of doing nothing. While we have been fully aware of the terminology and the risks involved, we have failed to fully understand the implications of ignoring it, on a mental, emotional, and physiological level.

In my squad of competitive age group swimmers, I can legitimately say that at least 50% of them at any given time are teetering in and out of critical stages of burnout. I didn’t have a strategy to deal with the problem, even though I knew it was a growing problem. Furthermore, I didn’t give it the attention that it deserves.

Dealing with athlete burnout requires a little more understanding and respect. It will affect the athletes long term if they don’t learn the skills to manage the signs of burnout. If we get honest with ourselves we know that 99% of these athletes are in our programs to learn life-long skills that they will use in adulthood. Skills that will ensure they develop into contributing, well-balanced members of society. Less than 1% will make it to the big time, and those that do are taken through a program to learn how to cope and deal with perceptions of exhaustion and load demands.

We all have several scales and measurements to evaluate our programs. But how many of us are measuring athlete burnout experiences? Anyone have a plan, strategy, or program in place to help this athlete cope? Is this just for the sport psychologist to deal with? The guys that they will see for an hour a week maybe, when we as coaches are on the ground every day with the athletes, and it’s a straightforward subject to understand.

So what are the signs?

• Feeling overwhelmed & exhausted.

• Devaluation of the sport as a result of lack of accomplishment. This behaviour relates to

the athlete’s expectations, unrealistic goals, bad management of goals, and increased


• Low satisfaction of needs – Social, independence, competence, personalisation, and an

entrapped commitment requirement.

Various longitudinal studies have been conducted on athletes regarding burnout, and the role of the coach and the leadership style of the coach has played a major role in their findings.

1. Gonzales et al (2015)

Is one of the longitudinal studies which implicates the leadership style of the coach as a major contributing factor to the development of burnout. This study was done with 360 male youth athletes. The results were based on self-determined testing (SDT), and the following perceptions were found based on athlete perceived coaching styles and athlete outcomes of wellbeing, self-esteem and burnout. The results are not surprising.

• A supportive coaching style was positively associated with self-esteem and wellbeing and negatively associated with burnout via a positive association with psychological need satisfaction.

• A Controlling-Dictatorial coaching style was negatively associated with self-esteem development and positively associated with burnout.

The final conclusion of this test was basically that more testing over more age groups and levels would be necessary to correctly and positively conclude their findings.

2. Barcza – Renner et al (2016)

The above test was conducted on a group of 487 division 1 collegiate swimmers and focused on the potential mediating effects of athlete perfectionism and motivation, the relationship between controlling coaching behaviours as opposed to more relaxed and interactive coaching style and burnout.

The study was conducted within three weeks of their conference champs.

Athlete perceptions of a controlling coaching behaviour were predictive of athlete’s socially prescribed and self-orientated perfectionism and motivation. Self-orientated perfectionism was positively associated with autonomous motivation and negatively associated with amotivation and burnout, while socially prescribed perfectionism was negatively associated with autonomous motivation and positively associated with amotivation, controlled motivation and burnout.

All this being said, autonomous motivation and amotivation predicted athlete burnout in expected directions and the conclusion was that the social context of engagement has motivational implications on health and wellbeing of athletes.

3. Leiter & Maslach (adopted by DFreese et al)

Studied the athlete satisfaction with perceptions of congruence, or how it fit their interests and values as an athlete, and the interests/values of the participants in their sport organisation and how it implicated their psychological outcomes.

Incongruence suggested increased risk of burnout, and congruence increased adaptive psychological outcomes.

All data supports the importance of coaches and athletes sport based burnout experiences.

Prevention is better than cure, so we as coaches are potentially part of the problem and the solution. Early warning signs present in our athletes, and it’s about knowing when to intervene and what to suggest, and hopefully before the athlete reaches a critical stage of burnout which results in a breakdown of their wellbeing. Identifying the root cause is also important. Often is the case that the sport participation is not the root of the problem, but adding to the perception of the symptoms they are experiencing. Then it’s a good idea to look at the athletes load and identify where there can be compromises.

We have a number of problems that are compounding the issues covered here. Athletes start out participating in this activity for the mere satisfaction that it offers them. Satisfaction can be defined as the state resulting from the varying degrees of attainment of dispositional or environmental performance goals, and these have become more environmentally driven as a result of the times, social media and the obsession with how the individual is perceived socially. Recent studies on individuals perceived satisfaction with their lives is decreasing and leading to an increase in helplessness and hopelessness.

Perfectionism has been linked to serious mental health issues. People have become obsessed with the perfect life existence and are starting to live in a world where they are force fed this idea that nothing is out of reach if you want it badly enough. Mental health issues are headline items, and suicide rates are up by as much as 25% in some studies. Perfectionism was a subject of recent study, and they identified 3 types of perfectionism:

• Irrational perfectionist – focused on self and extremely high standards

• Irrational expectation on others – “if you want something done right, you just got to do it


• Socially prescribed perfectionism – This is the most prevalent and the most frightening one. Up by 18% in the last decade and forecast to effect 1:3 people by 2050. Socially prescribed perfectionism is meeting the perceived expectation of others. It’s completely out of one’s control, completely irrational and will lead to absolute hopelessness and helplessness.

Strategies of dealing with burnout include the following:

1. Help the athlete set daily intentions so that they have a measure of what has been

achieved every day.

2. Ensure productive goal setting and measurement. Pay attention to their goals and

ensure that they are not expecting too much of themselves. While it’s important to

dream big, make sure the athlete’s goals are constructive, with good planning.

3. Pay attention to the language they are using. An athlete who is experiencing signs and

symptoms of burnout should maybe be encouraged to use Transformational Vocabulary

to adjust their reality to something that makes them more comfortable.

4. Encourage the athlete to keep a sleep diary. Remind them that sleep is a part of the

rejuvenation process and that lack of sleep actually causes areas of the prefrontal cortex

to atrophy.

5. Remind them of the big picture and how seemingly impossible or pressing situations fit

into the big picture. Sometimes you even need to take it down a notch and isolate

events to the here and now. This is called chunking up and chunking down.

6. Look at their nutrition. Functional nutrition is a field of medicine that is using natural

foods to help people improve their health. Every individual is different, so we need to

establish what is going to help achieve optimal functionality. There is a lot of evidence to

suggest that functional nutrition can be used to treat symptoms of burnout.

For an athlete to perform and continue to adapt optimally, we need their motivation and their willingness to come back and do it all over again regardless. They need to find satisfaction in the activity in order to remain motivated, and it is clear from the studies above that we coaches are major role players in that endeavour. A happy, satisfied and motivated athlete, is more likely to perform, go on and lead a productive and well managed life, and less likely to struggle through their life, experiencing helplessness and hopelessness. Our role, although seemingly small and short, is actually is a major part of the emotional foundations that will build the athletes character.

Burnout is a very real issue.

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