Burnout: Avoid it By Maintaining Balance

Athlete BurnoutBurnout is a term used for long-term mental, emotional, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It can be caused by work, exercise, sport, or one’s lifestyle, and may even be influenced by certain personality traits such as being a narcissist, perfectionist, or pessimist (1, 2). Symptoms of burnout include apathy, disengagement, feelings of helplessness, lack of motivation, detachment, and depression. In sport, it can occur as a result of stale habits, too much racing, too much training, or repeated letdown. Burnout can often lead to departure from the sport, overtraining syndrome, and in extreme cases even suicide.

Some celebrity athletes that suffered from burnout include Andre Agassi, Michael Jordan, and Tiger Woods. These top athletes were so deeply consumed within their respective sport, that they had trouble striking a balance between their personal and professional lives.

Agassi admitted in his book, Open: An Autobiography, that he hated tennis with a passion, yet he continued to play. This eventually led him to drug use as his coping mechanism. Michael Jordan moved away from basketball, played baseball, then basketball again. He retired from basketball twice, and came back twice! Tiger Woods, arguably one of the best golfers ever, played since he was two-years old. Only a few years back, when his personal and professional lives were no longer in balance, Tiger’s game began to steadily deteriorate, and he just wasn’t playing like the Tiger we all came to know during the height of his career. He temporarily stepped away from the sport that had been the focus of his life. These athletes simply got tired, went through burnout, tried coping one way or another, and were eventually forced to take a break. 
In sport, avoiding burnout requires finding balance and maintaining enjoyment. Here are a few tips to achieve and maintain balance (3, 4).

  • Monitor attitudes of clients and players. Know the signs of burnout.
  • Educate clients/players (and parents) on what burnout is and how to prevent it.
  • Establish short-, medium-, and long-term goals that are realistic and achievable.
  • Create a behavioral contract. This contract specifies expectations, responsibilities, and contingencies for behavior.
  • Avoid routine. Training programs should be challenging, varied, and remain enjoyable. Allow clients or players to have a hand in planning training sessions.
  • Schedule adequate rest days. This ensures recovery between bouts of exercise.
  • Avoid extended playing seasons. There should be a clear off-season.
  • Practice relaxation and visualization techniques. For instance, deep breathing exercises.
  • Emphasize enjoyment. Maintain a fun atmosphere during training sessions.
  • Refer out. Don’t be afraid to refer your client to a sports psychologist or other qualified mental health professional.

Following these tips will aid in minimizing the chances of burnout. The celebrity athletes mentioned earlier each ignored one or more of these tips, and ultimately paid a price. Maintaining balance is the key to avoiding burnout and its consequences. Watch for signs and symptoms in your clients or players, and if recognized, act accordingly to reverse it.

  1. Ghopade J, Lackritz J, Gngaram S. Burnout and personality. J. Career Assess. May 2007;15(2):240-256. doi: 10.1177/1069072706298156
  2. Martínez AA, LB Aytés 2, CG Escoda. The burnout syndrome and associated personality disturbances. The study in three graduate programs in Dentistry at the University of Barcelona. Med Oral Patol Oral Cir Bucal. July 2008;13(7):444-50
  3. Veale DMW. Psychological aspects of staleness and dependence on exercise. Int J Sports Med. June 1991;12(1):19-22.
  4. Gould D, Udry E, Tuffey S, Loehr J. Burnout in competitive junior tennis players: II. Qualitative Analysis. Sport Psychol. 1996;10(4); 322-340.