Understanding How Athlete Burnout Happens and How to Prevent It

Understanding How Athlete Burnout Happens and How to Prevent It

The physical signs of burnout are not always apparent, but they can be clues that you need to take your athlete's needs more seriously.

The idea of burnout is a fairly modern idea, originating in 1974 from psychologist Herbert Freudenberger. Though it is typically related to work, athletes are also at risk of burnout in regard to their sport. While burnout can look different in every person, usually, the three major factors are exhaustion or energy depletion, disconnection from emotions or an increase in cynicism or negativism and feelings of ineffectiveness or lack of accomplishment. For an athlete, this can present as skipping or non-compliance in workouts, feeling overly frustrated with the plan or their training, not being able to set goals or the inability to be satisfied with a race result.

Because the human body does not separate our stress, it is possible that a stressful job, being a caretaker, or other aspects of life can cause burnout in sports. Additionally, athletes can experience burnout for the following reasons:

  • Overtraining or returning to training too quickly after a race (figure 1)
  • Over-eagerness in signing up for races
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Having a perfectionistic, or “Type A” personality
  • Not being able to ask others for help
  • Neglecting other hobbies or interest
  • Not seeing the desired fitness growth
  • Falling short of race goals
  • Losing the “why” of racing or training
  • Not feeling in control of their body or training
  • Not feeling valued or seen for their successes

While many of the symptoms of burnout are emotional, such as frustration, irritability, and loss of interest, it can also manifest physically through body aches and pains, headaches, sleepiness or sleeplessness, and compromised immune systems.

As a coach, it is important to validate any of these feelings with your athlete and give them space to discuss their satisfaction in training.

an infographic showing the progression of training load

Coaching to Prevent

The top priority of any coach, but for the success of their athlete as well as for job security, should be encouraging safety and enjoyment of the sport. For that reason, helping an athlete prevent or heal from burnout is imperative. The first, most important role of the coach is to make sure they have an open line of communication with the athlete, as well as a strong report of trust. Once that is established, be sure to check in on how the athlete is really feeling about their training or race performance. If the signs and symptoms of burnout start to appear, try the following ways to help your athlete prevent falling to the point of giving up on their sport.

Schedule adjustment

Move around your athlete’s schedule to allow for more group runs, cross-training, or less volume. Using the Workout Builder feature on TrainingPeaks, to keep track of overall Fatigue (ATL) and Form (TSB) can be a great tool to ensure an athlete is not overtraining or running the risk of physical burnout.

Avoid monotony

Find new and creative ways to schedule workouts in order to keep the athlete interested and engaged in their training. Using the Joe Friel workout catalog in the TrainingPeaks app can help make speed work more interesting and allow the athlete to deviate from the standard long workout terrain (trail running instead of road running, mountain biking instead of road riding, etc.) can help keep some variety in training.

Embrace Individuality

Get to know your clients and help them feel seen in their training plan. Including statements, such as “this would be a great run to bring your dog,” or “have fun at your group run, have a cookie for me!” can remind the athlete that you are creating the plan, especially for them, helping them feel valued in the relationship. Similarly, taking time to send your athlete articles, podcasts, or books they might find interesting (even if not related to training) can help form a unique connection.

Be aware of life stressors

Keep notes if your athlete might have difficulty with sleep, have a stressful job, or is experiencing other life transitions or stressors (job changes, moving, divorce, growing family, etc.) Adjusting days off to align with these stressors can help limit the amount of pressure that is placed on the athlete.

Do not be afraid to discuss overall health

Having conversations to ensure your athlete is adequately nursing and hydrating their body, sleeping well, and practicing mental and physical self-care regularly can help screen the athlete for risks of burnout. Workout on an interdisciplinary team in being able to refer out to massage therapists, dieticians, chiropractors, physical therapists, or doctors can help you stay within your scope of coaching and provide your athlete with needed support.

Taking a Break

It is possible to give your athlete a break without discontinuing coaching. If the athlete is having trouble aligning with their values assigned to the sport, help them find a new athletic goal and support them in the journey. At other times, it might be more appropriate to let the athlete continue in training toward their sport of choice but discourage them from wearing a watch- going out on rides, runs, or other workouts, “just for fun.” There are times when a full break from coaching is necessary. Remind your athlete you are always available for return and check in regularly during breaks from your working relationship.

Healing

In the end, burnout in life seems inevitable, but helping athletes see it as a chance to rest and recover, rather than an opportunity to give up, is crucial in their health and happiness in the sport. If an athlete has fallen deeply into burnout, here are some ways to encourage them to find a way out:

Reframe

Help the athlete redefine their relationship to sport and how they see themself in the activity. This could include taking some time off from racing or deleting social media apps that can cause anxiety.

Prioritize

Discuss with the athlete what is most important in their life. Cutting back on training to allow more time with family or enjoyment of creative pursuits can help the athlete regain energy.

Support

Remind the athlete to connect with others. This can be in the form of a running group, more frequent communication with the coach, or a gentle discussion about the importance of therapy.

In the end, the athlete has the most control over their own health and enjoyment of the sport. As a coach, you can help guide them in the right direction. However, to prevent your own burnout, learning to set boundaries and remove yourself from others’ stress is important. Be sure to take time and reconnect with your own values in coaching and sport if you feel as though you are at risk.

Additional Info

Here’s a discussion on burnout with Chelsea Vibert, LPC and Therapist at the Jefferson Center, a community mental health organization in Jefferson County, Colorado.

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