The Athlete’s Guide to Burnout

What is Burnout?

Burnout is defined as physical, emotional, and social withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable sport activity/environment because of increased stress due to high demand to perform.

What that means is burnout is the result of increased training volume and the intense demands to perform at a high level that is placed on the athlete. This increase in their levels of stress and anxiety often leads to detachment and a loss of interest in the sport.

For example, take a soccer player who is going into the playoffs and has their training intensity and frequency increased to the point where they feel overwhelmed and exhausted.

If the athlete is not given the proper time to recover between sessions and does not have the proper off-time to focus on the other aspects of their life, they will begin to feel staleness and burnout.

As a result, they will lose interest in their training and practices, and won’t care about the outcome of their team's success in the playoffs.

What are the Effects of Burnout?

Physical Effects of Burnout

The physical effects of burnout include:

  • Inability to fall asleep
  • Waking up in the middle of the night
  • Elevated resting heart rate
  • Decreased performance
  • Loss of appetite
  • Overuse/increased vulnerability to injuries
  • Increased illness (weakened immune system due to stress)
  • Greater fatigue and tiredness
  • Source: Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 7th Edition

Mental Effects of Burnout

The mental effects of burnout include:

  • Emotional exhaustion
  • Lowered self-confidence
  • Lowered perception of control
  • Feeling a lack of accomplishment
  • Low motivation
  • Lack of energy
  • Concentration loss
  • Heightened anxiety and stress
  • Increased irritability
  • Antisocial behaviours
  • Source: Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 7th Edition

What Causes Burnout?

Lack of Recovery Time

Training is the addition of stress to the body. In the case of weight lifting, the muscles are placed under stress damaging the muscle fibres. This is known as overloading.

The recovery period following training allows for the muscle fibres to build themselves back up stronger so they can lift heavier weights.

If an athlete does not take the proper time to recover, the damaged muscle fibres will be unable to build back up.

As a result, the athlete will feel the physical effects of burnout, primarily fatigue and muscle soreness, and there will be no improvement in performance. In addition, they will be unable to exercise effectively at the same frequency.

Lack of Balance in Life

Everyone needs balance in their life, but each person's needs are different. For example, some people like Michael Jordan chose to centre their life around working to improve their performance at any cost, at the expense of their social and family life.

In contrast, Dennis Rodman who was on Jordan’s team demanded a vacation to Las Vegas and a quick WWE event appearance to take time for himself away from basketball.

He valued his social outings and relationships and knew they were necessary to prevent burnout.

This vacation was not approved of by Jordan and the rest of the team but they also knew that this was what Dennis needed to continue performing at his best.

If an athlete lacks the balance they need to perform at their best, there is often an increase in anxiety and stress due to a loss of feeling in control.

They develop a negative perspective towards their sport as they see it as a chore or commitment, rather than something they love and feel the benefit of. The physical, emotional, mental, and social benefits of sport begin to fade.

Photo of Girl laying in bed

Feeling overwhelmed is a very common side effect of Burnout

Improper Overtraining

One other thing to look out for is improper overtraining.

Overtraining is an intentional technique where an athlete trains at a high volume and intensity for a short period of time. It is followed by a decreased volume and intensity of training or rest period to prevent injury and allow for proper recovery.

An example of this would be an athlete increasing their frequency to 2-3 training sessions per day and increasing the weights they are lifting to/near maximal capacity for 3-14 days (1). This is followed by an equal amount of days of rest with a significant decrease in training intensity and frequency (1).

When used properly this type of training allows for muscle growth, strength and aerobic improvements and an elevation in overall performance.

However, if overtraining is used for a longer period than recommended or without the necessary rest period, an athlete’s body is unable to properly recover from the added stress, resulting in burnout and a decline in performance.

How to Prevent Burnout?

To prevent burnout make sure that you have a maintainable training frequency, schedule rest periods throughout your day, week, month, and year, and establish your priorities in your life and create balance in your life.

Establish a Maintainable Training Frequency

Your ideal training frequency should be one that you can consistently maintain without fear of overwhelming yourself physically or mentally. This differs from person to person so it is important to listen to your body and work around your schedule.

In the offseason, I would recommend weight-training 3-5 times a week at a high intensity with multiple skill workouts per week.

Schedule Rest Periods

Just as important as training is recovery, so make sure to schedule rest periods throughout your day, week, month, and year to prevent burnout.

Day

Take time each day, even if it's just an hour, to allow for your mind and body to relax. It is important to take time for yourself to maintain optimal physical and mental health.

Whether it’s reading, watching TV, or playing video games, taking an hour for yourself is incredibly beneficial after a good workout.

Photo of people playing video games

Have you ever been trash talked by someone half your age on Warzone? Yeah, us too

Week

Each week you should allow for at least one full off day where your body can rest from the physical stresses from your workouts and practices.

It is also very beneficial to have an active recovery day each week where you can stretch, foam roll, etc. or decrease the intensity of your normal exercise routine, to give your body a break.

Month

Every 4-6 weeks you should allow for a deload week where you lower the intensity and frequency of your training.

This can be as simple as training 3 times a week if you usually train 5 times, lowering the weight you lift or doing less reps, running 3 miles instead of your usual 4 miles per session. This lessens the stress the body is used to being placed under.

Year

Each year you should take time to get away from the stresses of your sport and training. I’d recommend taking a month off as soon as you finish your season.

This time away from the gym allows you to clear your head and relax as well as helps you think critically on how you want to move forward and improve when you return to the sport.

An example of this yearly rest period is Bill Gates’ think week that he takes twice a year.

He spends a week alone in a cabin away from all the busyness and stress of his everyday life reading research papers and books. This allows him to think critically and come up with new ideas as he is provided with a fresh environment without the overwhelming and often hectic stimulus of his typical work environment.

The same idea applies to when you take your yearly rest period. Use it to help you refocus on your plan of attack for the upcoming season full of energy and with new ideas.

Establish Your Priorities and Create Balance

To find a balance in your life, you first need to identify your priorities.

Start by writing down your top five priorities on a piece of paper. Examples include

  • family,
  • sport,
  • friends/social life,
  • school,
  • career,
  • etc.

This will give you a clear picture of what is most important to you and should give you an understanding of how to structure your life and time.

Begin to schedule your days with the intention of creating the right balance between your top priorities.

There will always be some give and take. Things don’t always go according to plan but having a framework for what priorities are guiding your actions helps you feel balanced and in control.

Conclusion

Burnout is an increased level of stress, anxiety and exhaustion, resulting in physical and emotional withdrawal from training and sport. It is caused by a lack of recovery time, improper use of overtraining, and a lack of overall balance in life.

Burnout results in several physical and emotional effects, hindering the athlete from performing at their best and leading to the loss of desire to train and compete.

Burnout can be prevented by developing a maintainable training frequency, scheduling proper rest time, and establishing your priorities to find a balance amongst them.

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References

  1. Weinberg R & Gould D, Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 7th Edition
  2. Phillips M, https://medium.com/mind-cafe/bill-gates-think-week-practice-can-help-boost-your-creativity-and-focus-your-mind