It got to the point where I even considered quitting altogether. Luckily, the athlete in me wouldn’t allow that and I’m glad I didn’t listen. At first, I ignored the pain because, you know – stupid meathead, and as much as I preach about taking a step back or modifying when needed, I understand how hard it can be to actually do. Since I was 2 months away from Nationals, I continued training as I would have otherwise. I figured I would suck it up and worry about it once Nationals was over. Eight months later I squatted 70kg at Worlds. What made things worse was feeling lost and no longer having the desire, motivation, or even enjoying training. I believe that’s how I found myself deep into the rabbit hole of sport psychology research. I wanted to love training again. One of the greatest things that can happen from these types of negative experiences is the unique opportunity for personal growth. I hope to share a part of my experience, what I’ve learned from it, and hopefully provide you with simple strategies you can implement yourself in case you or one of your athletes ever experiences burnout.
Burnout is actually quite hard to define and managing it can be even harder. Outside of physical exhaustion there are really no obvious signs. Burnout can also stem from pressure from coaches, parents, or the athlete themselves – brought on by the competitive desire to meet challenging goals but being unable to fulfill them. In my case, I felt burned out as a direct result of the pain I was having in my glute. It made it uncomfortable to squat – which then made going to the gym no longer enjoyable. I didn’t compete at 2019 Raw Nationals because of it and that brought on an entirely new set of emotions. Let’s start with what burnout actually is.
Exhaustion is one of core components of athlete burnout. Physical exhaustion, either from overtraining, lack of proper recovery, illness, or injury, can create feelings of emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion can then lead to feeling unmotivated, lethargic, or mentally fatigued, and ultimately leading to decreased performance.
Decreased performance results in a reduced sense of accomplishment. The athlete feels they’re no longer meeting the goals or expectations that others put on them (parents, coaches, fans, etc.) or expectations they put on themselves. One of the reasons elite athletes excel in the first place is that they are willing to commit and dedicate their time to intense and sometimes extreme training conditions that most of us are unwilling to commit to. These athletes often consider their sport to be a large portion of who they are. Burnout then becomes a threat to their personal identity.
The emotional stress and the level of importance many athletes place on social acceptance can result in them feeling withdrawn, depressed, and unmotivated. The athlete may then try to cope with these feelings by developing a cynical and negative attitude towards training or their sport. At this point, the athlete loses their desire and gives up, or worse, decides to withdraw from their sport completely.
The difficulty with athletic burnout is that many athletes may not understand what or why they are feeling the way they do so it’s important to recognize the signs. These include:
The obvious goal is to prevent burnout from happening in the first place. Unfortunately, just like it’s impossible to prevent injury or illness, it’s impossible to completely prevent athletic burnout. However, by understanding what burnout is and what it entails, coaches and athletes can at the very least minimize the risk and take the appropriate steps to return to their previous physical and emotional state.
The following 5 strategies are often used in the field of sport psychology and performance for many different contexts (3, 4), but I will explain these concepts as it applies to dealing with athlete burnout and my personal experience with using these techniques:
Goal setting is the process of progressively challenging standards of performance and helps increase the chance of success by influencing the extent in which we perceive a stressful situation (3, p168). It also gives the athlete an active role in the recovery process which can positively impact their emotional response. After my experience at Worlds, I worked with a rehab specialist who 1) assured me that how I was feeling was okay and that 2) as long as I was committed to the rehab process my specific goal of competing at the Arnold’s was possible. Having a goal in place is important, but it’s also important to have specific steps in place to get there. Oftentimes, athletes only focus on the end goal. Skipping any of those steps will only force us to take a step back, further prolonging the recovery process.
Although my goal was to compete again, I also told myself that if I didn’t feel ready, I wouldn’t and that was okay. I also knew that in order to compete again I needed to be healthy. That meant focusing on rehab rather than the weight on the bar.
(For a more in-depth explanation of goal setting refer to Refence 2, Ch. 5)
While there does seem to be conflicting information on how effective mental imagery is (4), I do think it’s important to discuss here as it does seem to at least help some individuals struggling with burnout. Mental imagery is a cognitive skill where the athlete recreates a positive experience or experiences which in theory provides the subconscious mind with positive memories (3, p166). Mental imagery can be a great tool to use to for help the athlete ‘experience’ success again.
Self-Talk is essentially the internal conversation we have with ourselves every day (3, p167). This one was important for me and I’m sure is very relevant to others as well. The internal conversations we have with ourselves are either positive or negative – which can affect our overall mood and performance. When I was dealing with my glute pain, I would to go to the gym, but as soon as I got under the bar my first thought was, “OMG, this is going to hurt so bad.” Guess what, it did! Once I was able to change the narrative to a more positive statement like, “Yes, I was in pain last time, but that was last time. I’m going to go in and do what I can today. If it’s not heavy, that’s okay. At least I came in put in the work.” I can’t give sole credit to myself on this one. I was fortunate enough to train with a few people who were very aware of the consequences of negative self-talk, and would call me out whenever I was doing it.
When we hear the term ‘relaxation techniques,’ many automatically think of meditation and/or yoga. Yes, meditation and yoga are great relaxation techniques and they also have quite a bit of literature to back them up (5) and has even shown to increase pain tolerance in injured athletes (6).
I am personally a big proponent of meditation simply because I’ve found that it helps with my internal self-talking points. This may vary from person to person but find something that you enjoy and do it. Go for a walk, ride a bike, listen to music, or write (if you’ve noticed I’ve been actively writing more content. This seems to help me)
One of the hardest parts when dealing with burnout is the difficulty talking about it. Burnout can result from pressure from others, pressure we place on ourselves, injury, illness, and/or overtraining. Determine what exactly may be causing the burnout and speak with an appropriate professional.
I believe my experience with burnout was a result of my glute pain. I’m fortunate enough to be around some of the smartest individuals when it comes to training, programming, rehab, and injury. I have a coach who understood my emotional breakdowns (thanks Chad!) and I worked with a rehab specialist who understood that pain wasn’t just physical but also a very emotional and mental experience. When I told them I didn’t do well with my rehab they didn’t make me feel bad about it. I was told that what I was feeling was completely normal. I was also given a training program that allowed me to modify my training in a way that wasn’t painful which of course made training at least someone more enjoyable again. I won’t go into detail about specific exercises because everyone is different and also outside the scope of this article. However, I do think having an outside ear helped immensely.
After Nationals I took some time off from powerlifting focused training and instead began working on sprint mechanics and track and field workouts. It was a nice break from the monotony of powerlifting training. It was also fun and stimulating because, well I sucked. I wasn’t doing it for sport so that didn’t matter. I honestly wish I continued with it for longer than the 6 weeks I did it for. For athletes who feel tired from prepping for a meet, or simply post meet fatigue, I’ll often recommend a week off from any training program and just go in and gym and do whatever it is that they feel like doing. Usually a week or two of this training is plenty for the athlete to get excited about structured programming again.
Sometimes all an athlete may need is a simple break from intense training. When it’s not possible to take a break, a change in location or modification of workouts or training days are all that’s needed especially in athletes who are experiencing low-level burnout.
Our society places a great importance on sports and sport performance. As athletes, that can mean unrealistic expectations to perform which can ultimately lead to athletic burnout. I hope that by sharing my own personal experience that I can help others who may be experiencing something similar. I would like to further explore this topic so be on the lookout for more articles similar to this in the future!