A Female Coach At The Side Of A Swimming Pool Giving Instructions To Several Triathletes Training

The Truth About Coaching Burnout and Reclaiming Your Passion

BY Phil White

Regularly recalling your motivations and purpose can help you ride out the inevitable ups and downs in coaching — and other careers.

When you first became a coach, the chances are that you relished it. Perhaps you still remember your first workout, still have your initial programs, and maybe even still train some of the same people. But over time, it’s possible that coaching has lost its luster and might even have become a drag. If not, you could be left wondering why you became a coach at a point in the future. In either case, it doesn’t have to be like this.

Let’s explore several tried-and-true ways to keep your momentum, protect your time, and leave enough in the tank for your craft and clients.

Start Treating Yourself Like a High Performer

Peter Olusoga, a British sports psychologist and senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University in the UK, has extensively researched coaches who become overwhelmed by their profession. In a chapter that he and fellow psychologists Göran Kenttä and Marte Bentzen contributed to the book “Coaching for Human Development and Performance in Sports,” Olusoga stated, “Coaches have reported stress leading to anxiety, losing confidence and withdrawal from sport, in addition to the physical and emotional exhaustion and cynicism often associated with burnout.”

The co-authors went on to write that the fallout from burnout isn’t limited to just the coach but also extends to those they serve: “These negative impacts on coaches have also been linked to a host of potentially detrimental athlete outcomes, including damaged coach-athlete relationships, impacts on the coaching environment, athletes’ performance and development and athlete burnout.”[1]  

To help coaches and their clients avoid such wide-ranging and detrimental effects, the researchers suggested that a shift in both mindset and daily habits is needed. “In order for sports coaching, especially at the elite level, to be a truly sustainable profession, we argue that coaches must adopt a performer’s mindset,” he stated. “Specifically, while the coach has a duty of care (not to mention contractual responsibilities) toward their athletes, they must also develop appropriate stress-management skills and ensure adequate recovery for themselves.”

Olusoga and his colleagues went on to suggest that coaches develop a consistent mindfulness practice, prioritize sleep, buck the sports trend of wanting to appear unbreakable by showing vulnerability and get regular physical activity. The latter is more of a pressing challenge than outsiders might imagine. Still, you’re probably all too familiar with the challenge of fitting in your own programming when you’re consumed with planning, delivering, and evaluating blocks for your clients.

As a veteran coach once joked to me, “What’s the best way to ruin your own training? Become a coach!” To get back on track, schedule workouts deliberately, just like you would for one of your athletes, and then make sure you keep the appointment. If your day becomes compressed, get in a shorter session instead of skipping it entirely — you’ll still get a physical and mental boost and feel better able to cope with the demands of the job.

Rediscover Who, What and Why

If you were to describe the traits of the best coaches you know, you’d probably rate them highly on how passionate they are about their sport, the role and the athletes they guide to their goals. But as powerful as this fuel is, it can often be used up too quickly.

In their book “The Passion Paradox,” Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness wrote, “Surrendering completely to passion may work for a day, a month or even a year. But if left unchecked, most passions burn bright and burn short. It’s not that you don’t want to pace yourself, but simply that you can’t. You’re far too overwhelmed by the acute pull of passion to realize the emotional and physical effort you are putting forth may be unsustainable. Before you know it, you run out of energy. What could have been a lifetime of passion and meaningful work instead looks more like a short bout of reckless excitement.”[2]

If you run out of energy, the passion that previously kept you going may ebb away like bathwater when the plug is pulled. Suddenly, you’re left wondering if you can keep going or if it’s worth trying. Before you know it, you’re either considering quitting or, at the very least, no longer feeling able to give your best to your coaching. In this case, it’s time to take a big step backward and reassess what motivated you in the first place.

“Just ask yourself why you’re committed to your pursuit,” Stulberg and Magness recommend. “Similar to reflecting on your core values, when you reflect on your purpose, not only do you reinforce the mastery mindset, but you also become more likely to stick with challenges over the long haul.”[3]

They go on to state that if you’re intrinsically motivated for the right reasons, then regularly recalling your purpose can help you ride out the inevitable ups and downs in coaching — and other careers. Doing so can also prevent you from making a rash decision to walk away if you feel like you’re already burned out.

Another key component of reconnecting with what bestselling author Simon Sinek calls your “why” is remembering the “who.” Which people are you trying to help, and what are you hoping to help them achieve? When you feel worn slick, it’s essential to acknowledge that while the personal development aspect of coaching is meaningful, it’s not about you. It’s about one client’s aim to qualify for the Boston Marathon, another’s to finish their first ultra and a third’s desire to come back from injury.

A coach is a conduit from where their athletes are to the best future versions of themselves. So listing out all the people you serve and what you’re doing for them can be a strong motivator to press on and avoid burning out.

Find Your People

The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) work is usually only recognized when its athletes are standing on podiums with the world watching. Yet behind the scenes, the USOPC is just as committed to developing its coaching network as its Team USA competitors. High-level coaches are what provide the bedrock for all those medal-winning performances on the world stage.

One of the organization’s most comprehensive resources is its quality coaching framework. Created by national governing bodies and Dr. Wade Gilbert from Human Kinetics, this not only includes standards for coaches to utilize with athletes but also principles for their well-being. In a chapter on self-care, the framework states that coaches feel overwhelmed and eventually burned out because they feel like they have to go it alone.

Although coaching is technically a group activity, if you’re a solo entrepreneur and/or are coaching mostly remotely, you might be leaning on yourself too heavily. This doesn’t apply to the people part of the job — like interacting with your athletes — but all the other requirements, like balancing the books, advertising and marketing and business operations in general. If you’re a self-reliant person by nature, then your tendency is likely to take on too much and try to do it all on your own. And when you start feeling worn-out, you probably just dig further into the work, creating a vicious cycle.

“Coaches tend to prefer to work independently and address personal and professional issues without assistance from others,” the USOPC framework states. “But just as athletes require a support team to excel and sustain, so do coaches. Indeed, a strong coaching network can be a great source for emotional and social support.”[4]

This is all very well and good on paper, but if you want to go from isolated to connected, how do you go about that? The first step is figuring out what you’re hoping to get from being a more active part of a coaching community and what you can give back in return.

“The best coaching networks are filled with energy givers,’ the USPOC guide suggests. “These are action-oriented peers who are positive and enthusiastic and will boost the spirits and reduce the tension of those around them.”

The USOPC suggests actively seeking coaching peers who will offer accountability, are good listeners, show humility and gratitude and are committed to furthering the needs of others.

If you can’t find such connections on your own, local chapters of the governing bodies you belong to might be a good start, as are online groups of like-minded coaches. Also, seek out people at local clubs and organizers of races that you and your athletes participate in.

It shouldn’t take too long to find like minds who can provide a sounding board, offer mutual support, and keep you from burning out.

It’s easy to let your love of coaching put blinders on your work-life balance. See how a busy coach finds the balance to burn brighter.


[1] Peter Olusoga, Göran Kenttä, and Marte Bentzen, “Coaching Under Stress and Burnout,” Coaching for Human Development and Performance in Sports, (New York, Springer2020): 371–409, available online at https://www.academia.edu/68962843/Coaching_Under_Stress_and_Burnout.

[2] Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness, The Passion Paradox (New York: Rodale Books, 2019), 14.

[3] Stulberg and Magness, The Passion Paradox, 98-99.

[4] “USOPC Quality Coaching Framework,” United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, available online at https://www.teamusa.org/About-the-USOPC/Coaching-Education/Quality-Coaching-Framework.

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About Phil White
Phil White is an Emmy-nominated writer and the co-author of The 17 Hour Fast with Dr. Frank Merritt, Waterman 2.0 with Kelly Starrettand Unplugged with Andy Galpin and Brian Mackenzie. Learn more at www.philwhitebooks.com and follow Phil on Instagram @philwhitebooks.

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