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Every major athletic team in the world has a sports psychologist or mental performance consultant on deck for its athletes. We know the role that psychology plays in athletic performance, and this is why this area is so heavily prioritized for professional athletes. But what about the amateur athlete? How can the amateur athlete spot early signs of burnout and effectively right the ship?
A landmark study from 1997, conducted on 236 age-group swimmers, defined burnout in athletes as a multidimensional mental health disorder consisting of: emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced level of accomplishments, and sport devaluation (losing interest or resentment towards sports) – all of which are in alignment with the accepted definition of occupational burnout as well. Athletes with burnout syndrome may experience any of these dimensions at different levels.
For as much good that comes from participating in sports, factors such as early specialization in adolescent athletes (year-round training and competition in a single sport) as well as the nature of competition and professional level contracts can lead to increased risk for burnout and potential dropout from sport. A consensus statement from The British Journal of Sports Medicine in 2020 underscored that while certain personality traits can aid in athletic success, these same traits can also be associated with mental health disorders, with athletic culture piling onto this.
Early Signs of Burnout
How can we spot burnout? A study from the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health outlines affective problems such as low mood and hostility toward the athlete’s training environment, coupled with distracted focus, memory, and feelings of helplessness. Physical symptoms start to present, such as fatigue, increased chance of injury, and for some, this is often the stage when doping is considered. The study describes the final stage as behavioral issues, with absenteeism and poor sports performance, leading to a final dropout from the sport.
This is an unfortunately common pattern in adolescent athletes who have demonstrated extraordinary athletic talent, making parents and coaches more likely to encourage early specialization. But what about adult, amateur athletes?
As a coach, I often observe athletes teetering on a thin line—their stress levels at work and in their personal lives climb while they try to maintain the same volume and intensity in their training. We know that stress is stress and the body struggles to discern between the different types. These athletes can keep it together for a bit, but oftentimes doing so culminates with emotional, psychological, and physical exhaustion. This trifecta either leads to injury, illness, or withdrawal from something that once brought the athlete joy.
Other times, I notice athletes become so heavily dedicated to a goal (typically, a very results-oriented goal with specific paces and finishing times in mind), that they begin to develop anxiety around workouts and an even greater degree of performance anxiety with races. It’s easy to say “just focus on the process and the results will come!” and while this often proves to be true, it’s difficult to make the shift and shed the fear-driven response when the athlete is deeply steeped within it. What was once a positive, exciting goal for an athlete turns into the very thing that begins to drive them away from the sport.
What Does The Science Say?
A common misconception with athletic burnout is to pull the plug entirely on the sport. However, numerous studies demonstrate that leaving the sport does not relieve the symptoms of burnout, but actually worsens the athlete’s mental and moral states. So what does work to treat burnout?
A meta-analysis from 2022 found that cognitive behavioral therapy (most commonly used in athletics and includes things like journaling, setting attainable goals, practicing cognitive relabeling, and undergoing situational exposure) and mindfulness-based interventions (meditation, bringing the focus to the present moment, shifting awareness to bodily sensations: otherwise known as body scanning) were effective forms of reducing most burnout dimensions. Cognitive behavioral therapy interventions were more effective at reducing emotional and physical exhaustion, but mindfulness-based interventions were still found to be beneficial when compared to no psychological intervention.
The meta-analysis also found that the positive effects of intervention were significantly higher in female-identifying athletes, demonstrating the gender gap that still exists in sports when it comes to being open to mental health consultation and with less stigma compared to male-identifying athletes.
Perhaps the most interesting finding was that online interventions were more effective in reducing emotional and physical exhaustion and the devaluation of sports dimensions compared to offline, traditional face-to-face interventions. The authors attribute an increase in openness to online assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and underscore the efficacy of such online mental-health interventions in better coping with psychological stressors wherever the athletes are located.
A recent study from 2023 tested a mindfulness-based stress reduction program on higher level athletes and recreationally active adults, testing both dynamic (mindful yoga) and static (body scanning) strategies. The analysis showed that both intervention strategies improved functional psychobiosocial states, reduced perceived stress, and enhanced mindfulness levels in both athletes and recreationally active individuals. Interestingly though, the interventions had longer lasting effects on the higher level athletes. The authors recommended longer-term programs in recreationally active people, stating the effects of mindfulness strategies seem to be less impactful and enduring in this specific population.
A Coach’s Insight
It’s important for coaches (and loved ones) to keep a pulse on the athlete’s overall stress levels and mental health. A dynamic training program is always going to reign over a static training program that leaves no room for adjustments based on the athlete’s physical and emotional states. While not every athlete is “Type A,” most athletes are hardworking, intrinsically motivated individuals who like to check boxes. When flexibility isn’t encouraged and celebrated, this can precipitate a path towards high levels of stress and diminished physical and mental health.
I often find that having clear expectations on what the framework to achieve the athlete’s goals looks like is a helpful, even preventative tool to prevent burnout. If there is clarity surrounding the workload ahead, the athlete is less likely to be surprised about the time commitment and “normal” levels of physical and mental fatigue that will, at some point, set in as the athlete peaks for their goal event. Having an understanding of the training and periodization can help keep the benefits of engaging in the sport higher than the stress-related costs.
For athletes who feel they may be experiencing tenants of burnout syndrome, whether that’s feelings of frustration toward sport, mental exhaustion, or feelings of helplessness — I recommend asking yourself where your heart strings are pulling you. If UltraSignup or social media channels were null and no one would ever know what you were training for or what you decided to race (or not race), what would you do? What would make you genuinely happy? What excites you? Why did you initially embark on this journey? Having clear answers to these questions can help curb the frustration element of burnout that leads the athlete to exasperation towards “better” alternatives rather than sport.
Your path can always wind or change course. Nothing is ever set in stone, even if you signed up for the race. Training should be something that’s additive to your life and something that you look forward to, 95 percent of the time (with the remaining five percent accounting for normal lack of motivation that happens to every athlete, regardless of fitness level). If it’s not feeling that way, it’s worth taking a step back to reevaluate your core values and long term goals for yourself.
Learning how to relabel challenging workouts or races into opportunities for growth can be pivotal in getting a hold on early signs of burnout. Employing science-backed methods such as journaling (for example, journaling three positives that went well within each run), more frequently lining up for shorter, local races that don’t hold a lot of pressure in a lead-up to an A goal race (situational exposure), or implementing a mindfulness practice on a daily basis in order to lower perceived stress are all very accessible places to start for any athlete.
What A Sports Psychologist Has to Say about Burnout
If you reach a point where the aforementioned interventions still aren’t helping your symptoms of burnout, consider reaching out to a sports psychologist. Emily Saul, Ed.M, LMHC, a Boston-based sports psychologist, underscores that burnout is absolutely an experience about which any runner should feel comfortable reaching out to a sport psychologist.
“Much like our physical bodies need preventative care and also responsive attention through common practices like sleep, body work, strength training, physical therapy, etc., our minds and mental health deserve the same kind of attention and care,” says Saul. “Each and every runner deserves to have a healthy and generative relationship with running, so if that relationship is starting to feel depleting or is diminishing in quality and satisfaction, addressing it with the support of sport psychology makes the same kind of sense as seeing a PT when your body is experiencing some pain or “niggles” start making noise.”
Saul also argues that maintaining and strengthening the quality of amateur athletes’ relationship with running may be even more important compared to elite athletes, because they are less likely to have structured support systems and teams in place to help them navigate challenges and nurture their success.
“Sport psychology is not only responsive to challenges or disruptions to a sport practice, but is also specifically focused on enhancing and optimizing the athlete’s ability to grow, develop, and thrive in their sport. Every person with a movement practice, running or other sports, elite or not, can benefit from the opportunity to overcome mental challenges in sport and to grow, develop, and thrive,” says Saul.
Each athlete is on a unique trajectory. Some at a very high level, some simply looking to keep moving and maintain health. But what Saul states holds true for all. Every athlete is in search of growth, in some form, at their core. Regardless of fitness level, every athlete has the opportunity to develop an elite mindset and approach to their training, whether that’s enacting a self-guided mindfulness practice or seeking guidance from a sports psychologist. Every athlete benefits from placing an emphasis on mental health and taking burnout in sport seriously. The knee-jerk reaction is to walk away from the sport altogether, but the implementation of positive psychology tools, whether online or face-to-face, greatly benefits the athlete’s relationship with sport – and every aspect of an athlete’s life outside of sport.