Burnout in Athletes

Burnout in athletes is often misunderstood or dismissed.

A football player quits his pro career in his prime. A competitive soccer player declines offers to play in college. A dominant youth softball pitcher says “It’s just not fun anymore,” sets her glove down, and walks away.

Burnout leaves those on the outside shaking their heads. He walked away from how much money? You could pay me half that and I’d play. I cannot believe she passed up the chance to play in college. How can it not be fun when she’s THAT GOOD?! She didn’t even give high school ball a chance.

The textbook definition of burnout in athletes is “A psychophysiological response due to frequent but generally ineffective efforts to meet excessive demands, involving a psychological, emotional, and sometimes physical withdrawal from an activity in response to excessive stress or dissatisfaction.” Definition from Weinberg & Gould’s Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology.

Breaking Down the Textbook Definition

Now that we’ve got our textbook definition, let’s break it down.

Psychophysiological response. Athletes feel burnout mentally & physically.

Frequent but generally ineffective efforts. Athletes try often to cope, but it doesn’t usually work or doesn’t work for long.

Excessive demands. Athletes have a ton going on. Sport, school, & life. It can all add up. This doesn’t necessarily include overtraining, but it often does. It’s important to note, it’s the athlete’s perception of the demands that is key, not the perception of the coach, parent, or Monday morning QB.

Psychological, emotional, & sometimes physical withdrawal. Sometimes athletes with burnout check out mentally. Sometimes their heart isn’t in it. Sometimes they stop showing up altogether, such as missed practices or quitting the team.

In response to excessive stress or dissatisfaction. Athletes facing burnout aren’t being lazy. They’re not blowing off class or practice. Burnout doesn’t mean anything about their character or that they didn’t want it enough. And it certainly doesn’t mean they’re not “mentally tough.” After many attempts to cope and feel better, for athletes with burnout, withdrawal feels like the only option left.

Essentially, burnout in athletes happens when the demands feel too high, coping strategies fail, and it all seems like too much. At that point, athletes withdraw mentally and/or physically from their sport and sometimes school and friendships.

An Example of Athletic Burnout

Let’s say you’re on a college swim team. Most of your teammates absolutely love it. There are a few teammates who view it like a job. They say they’re “just there for the scholarship” but despite the non-traditional view, they don’t seem to mind their job.

While you’re on the same team with these athletes, you’re not feeling as great about things. You definitely loved the sport at one time. I mean you’ve been competing since you were 8! Most of your friendships developed through swimming. Your coaches inspired you and your parents supported you. Obviously you cared deeply about winning. You were good and the trophy collection was fun to earn. The day you signed to swim at the college of your choice was “the best day of your life” at that point in time.

Now here you are. A college sophomore. Competing in a sport you remember loving, but you’re not feeling the love for it now. You start to dread practices. Your coach is good, but demanding. She will call you out when you don’t have anything left during those last sprints so you give it everything you have…which seems to be less and less each day. You’re staying up late to get your homework done. The travel schedule has you missing a lot of class and you can tell your professors are getting annoyed. You might change your major anyway. You’ve been questioning if you’re cut out for engineering.

You stayed home when the team went to dinner this weekend. Just not feeling like you could get off the couch. You’re actually starting to check out when they talk about their lives anyway. You care, but it’s hard to keep up and honestly sometimes you don’t feel like you’ve got anything left to give. You missed Monday morning’s weights and you’re thinking about saying you’re sick for this afternoon’s practice. You said you were sick last week too, but maybe they won’t remember. Honestly, you kind of don’t care if they do.

Associated Factors and Symptoms of Burnout in Athletes

Recognizing the symptoms of burnout is important for coaches, parents, athletic personnel, and of course, for the athletes themselves. The scenario above showed how burnout symptoms may appear in the life of a college athlete. Below is a list of symptoms you may see in an athlete experiencing burnout and factors associated with burnout.

Symptoms of Burnout May Include:

  • Exhaustion/Extreme Mental & Physical Fatigue.
  • Lack of Energy
  • Loss of Focus
  • Reduced Interest in Sport or Team Activities
  • Lack of Trust in Athletic Personnel
  • Change in Personality–Acting Impersonal or Distant
  • Low Sense of Accomplishment
  • Low Self-Confidence or Self-Esteem
  • Feelings of Depression
  • Feelings of Anxiety
  • Low Motivation

Factors Associated with Burnout:

  • Overtraining
  • Focusing on Outcome (i.e. winning)
  • Beginning Competitive Sport at a Young Age
  • Specializing at a Young Age
  • Lack of Time with Friends Outside of Sport
  • Travel Demands
  • Less Time for School Work
  • High/Unrealistic Expectations
  • Parental Influence
  • Authoritarian/Demanding Coaching Techniques
  • Athlete’s Personality Factors (i.e. perfectionism)

Techniques for Athletes Experiencing Burnout

Short Term Goals: Long-term goals may seem overwhelming. Setting short-term goals and rewards can help when athletes need that extra motivation. An athlete might set the short-term goal of attending all of their classes for the week. Once they’ve done this, they’ll go get that reward! Rewards can be something small, but inspiring.

Relaxation & Time Away from Sport: Breathing exercises and other strategies for reducing anxiety and incorporating mindfulness are great for burnout too.

Taking Care of Yourself Physically. It’s tempting to let self-care go when burnout happens. Make nutrition a priority. If possible, make it easy too. Order or choose healthy meals. Get some physical activity in. As athletes, sometimes we can dismiss a walk or yoga as not being “a real workout.” That’s just not true and this kind of movement is key to burnout recovery.

Your Sport Story Activity. Take some time to reflect on your sport story. What would the documentary of your sport story include? This often helps you remember and reconnect with your why.

  • What was your favorite moment in your sport?
  • Why did you start competing in your sport?
  • What type of athlete are you?
  • What do you value?
  • What lessons have you learned in your sport?
  • What will you miss most when it’s over?
  • What advice would you give to a younger athlete just starting out?

Self-Talk. Look at your thoughts. Our thoughts determine our feelings, actions, and results…and that’s actually good news. Why? Because you get to choose your thoughts…even when it doesn’t feel like it. Work on dumping the doubt. If you’re not ready to give yourself a pre-game pep talk yet, you can work towards neutral thoughts. When your brain is dismissing your attempt at positive self-talk, try to find a neutral thought like “I’m an athlete” and work up to the positive, confident thought we’re ultimately going for. 

Diagram of Burnout Recovery Techniques: Relaxation & Time Away from Sport, Physical Health & Self-Care, Get Support, Short-term Goals, Self-talk, Your Sport Story Activity

Getting Support for Athletic Burnout

It’s good to talk to someone who understands or will listen and make an effort to truly hear what you’re going through. Think about people who are trusted resources for you. It may be a parent, a friend, an athletic trainer, or another supportive person in your life.

Of course we recommend working with a sport psychologist or mental performance consultant. A counselor or psychologist can be great resources too, but it’s often helpful to talk to someone who “gets” what athletes are experiencing. A sport psychology professional will work with you to navigate burnout and develop a complete mental game. At Sterling Sport Mindset, we get what it’s like to experience burnout and will guide you through a personalized strategy that you can use on and off the court.

If you’re experiencing burnout and would like to get ideas for coping, read about our initial consultation and schedule a time with one of our sport counselors.