As athletes, we have a tendency to humanize the sports we love, creating unrealistic expectations and attributing impossible emotions to them. We tend to think of the game as something we can possess. Blissfully unaware of our circumstances, we push forward, faster, busier, more consumed by the game and what it means to our sense of self. Of course, it’s only a game, and every game has a time limit. But sometimes we get taken out of the game without warning or explanation before we are ready. For many student athletes, the desire to play ends before your abilities. For others, the ability to play ends before you are ready.
Inescapably, your moment in time will come. You will walk away from the game at some point, and whether this happens before or after you’ve accomplished everything you’ve set out to isn’t always up to you. Sometimes, the reality of athletic burnout can hit you before even really know it’s happening.
In this article, we’ll discuss the signs of burnout, and teach you how to recognize if and when you are experiencing this condition. We will also delve into why it happens, with consideration of its symptoms and causes. Most importantly, we will discuss what to do if it does happen and consider how you can move forward as a student, and as a person, with an identity unattached to athletics.
With more than 25 million student athletes participate in sports at any given time between the ages of 5 and 20, it’s inevitable that some percentage will experience “burnout” or encounter some type of debilitating injury during this time. How you respond to this shows what you are made of, but these things can also be a sign that your path lay elsewhere.
As an athlete, your yearning for the game may cease. This is truly a hard conversation to have with anyone, especially with oneself. Eventually, our clock will run out and the game will be over. I was told by one of the NFL’s all-time greats, Hall of Fame running back Gale Sayers, that every player, regardless of age or level, should “prepare to quit.” What the legendary back meant is that one must be mentally prepared for the realities of quitting, and for focusing one’s energy on the next phase of life.
Without a doubt, you are going to reach a point when the sport you love is no longer your identifier. Far too often, we associate our athletic performance with what makes us unique. We sometimes assume that this is what distinguishes us from others. We can forget that our individuality, our characteristics, our personality, these are the things that define us, and not the games we play…no matter how well we play them.
As we proceed, you’ll see that understanding this is the overarching rule is essential to overcoming and navigating athletic burnout.
What Is Burnout?
Athletic burnout has always been a concern for youth sports in particular. Everyone has an opinion and most people are more than happy to share those opinions. One important thing to remember, each student athlete is different. However, the NCAA’s characterization of student athlete burnout is perhaps the most universally applicable definition:
The state of burnout is often regarded as the endpoint of this breakdown process and is characterized by the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion…What leads to burnout is too much training stress coupled with too little recovery.
The pressure on today’s student athlete to succeed is tremendous. To excel in sports requires a great deal of specialized training, repetitive drills, a hefty investment of time and a large monetary price tag. In turn, the heaviness of one’s commitment will only continue to grow with time. Your love for the sport can often be overtaken by the challenges that have very little to do with the sport itself. The investment and reward for success today adds an enormous amount of individual pressure. Relieving yourself from the heaviness of that burden can ultimately elevate your game.
With all of the emerging sports technology and opportunities to train like a professional today, students have more ways than ever to increase their individual odds at long-term success. Unfortunately, these opportunities can also add a great deal of stress to the experience for a young athlete. The amount of time required to become better at a particular sport can truly become a dominant force in a student athlete’s life. This added load can diminish one’s love for a sport. If you feel that you might be vulnerable to burnout, err on the side of lesser training. Trading in the use of that time with another activity may be a better option. You might also find that engaging in new and different training techniques can break up the reoccurring and repetitive use of certain muscles. Allow your mind and body a distraction from repetitive and mundane training.
Recognize the Signs
Even gifted individuals with raw and rare talent will require a certain level of training to get better. The climb is yet steeper for the average student athlete. One thing that both of these athletes have in common is that both are susceptible to injury and burnout as a consequence of over-training. As a student athlete, pushing yourself to perform at the highest possible level is a given, but watching for the signs of burnout is critical to your success and wellbeing.
For you to perform at the top of your game, you must have a clear understanding of what type of person you are mentally and physically. Your life is made up of many moving parts: family, school, friends, social media, the list goes on. On top of that, you are perhaps accustomed to being the athlete that was always better than everyone else when growing up. But as you ascend levels in your sport, others are catching up, some are even better than you. Physically, you may be giving one-hundred percent, but you find that your mental game is inexplicably distracted. You may feel your motivation is the same or you may feel like you have reached the end and can go no further. You may be telling yourself that you are working really hard but not improving.
As a developing young athlete, know that you are going to hit plateaus but that these plateaus are not always burnout. You are taught to push through numerous stages of exhaustion and injury. This can happen several times through your training and development journey. Know the difference between reaching a plateau and hitting a wall. Are you truly burnt out or do you just need to take a step back? Ask yourself the hard questions about your level of dedication and your willingness to keep up with your commitments going forward.
Understanding Your Motivation
The athletes you compete against and alongside of may have distinctly different motives for playing a sport. By no means should you waste time trying to figure out why they are training so hard. What drives you internally may be very different than what drives them.
Most likely, when you first got into the sport, it was fun, social and physically engaging. The key is to hold on to that motivation as you advance with the game. It helps to know why you are playing. Are you playing because you like the game? Because you like to compete? Because you have a natural gift? Because you feel pressured by peers? Because you feel pressure from a parent? Because it truly is your passion? For some it’s about winning the next award. For others it’s about being the best. For others, it may be the ambition to make a lot of money.
Figuring out what drives and propels you forward may be the place to start. Have a realistic set of attainable short-term goals as well as long-term aspirations. Having an unrealistic set of expectations can be a big contributor to burnout. Setting a goal to get to the next level may be enough. It is critical that you focus on what you can realistically hope to accomplish today without worrying about what your peers, your siblings, or others have attained.
Of course, parents can put a lot of undue pressure on you too. Parents may have unrealistic expectations regarding your ability. Let them share what they know, but also share with them. Remember, they love you unconditionally and because of this, it can sometimes be hard for parents to keep things in perspective. They want the best for you and want you to achieve your goals. Regrettably, they can throw you off your game by pushing you beyond your own ambition. Remember, the motivation must come from within you rather than from those around you.
Finding a Solution
Extensive research has been done over the years regarding the mental state of both aspiring and veteran athletes. Straight up, you know your own personality better than anyone. Be honest with yourself! Whether you are feeling depressed, irritable or quick to anger, you may recognize that something is just not quite right.
Often, the first step to confronting this feeling is finding better ways to manage both time and expectations. You may need to take a “time out.” No need to consider quitting, just take a step away from the game for a short time. Use that time to reflect on what you have accomplished up to this point and how much work you have put in. When you stop and reflect, you may be amazed at how much you’ve actually accomplished to this point. This should help you to get up, brush yourself off, then re-evaluate your plan. Reconsider where you’d like to be in the next couple of years and formulate new steps for arriving at that place.
Refocus Your Efforts
You may find your solution to burnout on the field of play or elsewhere in your life. Here are a few tips that might help you navigate the feelings of burnout:
- Find new and interesting ways to challenge yourself.
- Take a mental break. There is no shame in stepping away from a game to give your brain some recovery time.
- Allow plenty of physical recovery time as well. Injury and discomfort may be adding to your stress and preventing progress.
- Try some new and unconventional training approaches. Employ the growing body of research and technology available to you for advanced training.
- Research what other athletes do to decompress and try a few methods out.
- Compartmentalize your athletic responsibilities so that you can better enjoy engagement in outside activities.
- Get feedback from coaches, teachers, parents, friends or anybody else who can help you keep things in perspective.
- Go to sleep. Make sure you know how much sleep your body needs to perform at the highest level and abide accordingly.
- Choose friends wisely. Hang out with people that lift you up mentally, not ones that drag you down.
- Find ways to lay down or confront mental baggage that might distract from your athletic performance.
- Use your brain. Don’t just play harder, playing smarter.
Beyond these tips, almost every study that has been done points to the importance of simultaneously resting your body and your mind. Give your body appropriate time to recover and keep your energy level up. The end result will give your body what it ultimately needs to perform at the highest level.
Making excuses merely masks the issues that lead to burnout. It is important to be honest. If you did not play well, realize that you have more work to do, or you require more focus. Maybe you need to play smarter. Making excuses only adds to your frustration, because you have solved nothing. Take criticism seriously and do something with it. Use it, but absolutely put it in that mental compartment for cold storage so you can focus on performing.
When frustration builds —and it will —focus on what you do well. Don’t spend a lot of energy on the things you did wrong in a game. Do it right the next time. If you continue to do something wrong, ask for advice on how to fix the problem. Your coaches have been there before.
It’s also important that you don’t compile and confuse issues. If you’re not getting enough playing time or you are recovering from injury, you probably aren’t experiencing burnout. These are just parts of the game. Obviously some injuries require a longer recovery time. Don’t let that time drag you down. Use that time to nurture your mental faculties instead. Many players have overcome devastating physical setbacks. Most will tell you that rehabilitating your mind at the same time as your body is crucial to making a full recovery.
How to Cure Burnout
First of all, don’t let yourself get hung up on the expectations of others. Knowing the difference between internal and external motivating factors can help you maintain a healthy sports career. If you are the kind of player that assumes the coach is talking about you when he walks into the locker room and declares that the team stinks, you might be vulnerable to burnout. Free yourself from this mindset. A good player feels responsible for the team’s success but doesn’t allow that burden to become a dark cloud of personal disappointment.
That said, if you are truly tired of a sport, if practice bores you and you dread the thought of playing in another game, you may be burnt out. It happens. You may still love the game, but the challenges no longer drive you. Training every day is just not enough.
Before you give up, be sure that this is truly burnout, and not the constant stress of attempting to meet the exceptions of others. As I have stated in other articles, compartmentalize your sports life. Take the things people say and put them in their proper place. It can be tough to insulate yourself from the harsh words of somebody whom you respect. However, you have to be able to put these words in their proper compartment and move on. Find the good advice in those harsh words and dispense with the rest. What others feel about your role in the game is immaterial. It’s what you feel in side that either renders you vulnerable to burnout or gives you the drive to overcome it.
The fire that burns in you for a sport has been built up over time. It took some kindling and some kind of spark to get it started, then you continued to add more wood (training) to keep it going. As the flames grow bigger, your talent begins to shine through. As you play, train, practice, and progress, that flame only grows. Others may throw water on your fire or try to deprive it of oxygen, but it continues to burn brightly inside you.
The problem comes when the fire gets too big and possibly rages out of control. Burnout most often occurs when, instead of trying to contain the burn or bring it under control, we douse the fire, sometimes putting it out ourselves or else opening the door to let others put out the fire. Control the burn. Take the time to understand what it took to build the fire and remove any extinguishers from your personal surrounding. Protect the flame from those who can suck the oxygen out of it with negativity.
On an internal level, you may find your biggest challenge is keeping your training interesting and engaging. Dare to try different training techniques. There are countless apps for sports training launching every day. Here is a great site to visit to see the latest technology being created for the sports industry.
You’ve accepted your burnout and you are preparing to move on. The big question now is: Who am I? Everyone knew you as an athlete. In your mind, they identify you with that sport and nothing else. It should be a good feeling to know that at least you made an impact. But take a look around your classroom. How would you identify your classmates? One plays the drums, one’s a bookworm, one’s a baseball player, one’s a cheerleader and there are probably a couple that you never really noticed before. Presumably, you don’t define each of these people as what they do so much as who they are. Give people the credit to know that they too can see you for who you are beyond your athlete prowess.
The real challenge is within you. The first step is to stop thinking of yourself as nothing more than an athlete. Life has many challenges and you just completed one. This is a great time to observe and pick a new path, perhaps another sport. If not another sport, get into something you always wanted to do. Doing nothing in the place of your sport can allow negative influences to take a foothold in your life. Being mentally prepared to quit will make this transition smoother but not any less confusing. Come up with a few ideas for what you’d like to do next.
Prepare to Quit
As crazy as it may sound, every player needs to be prepared to quit, regardless of their level of play. When I say quit, I do not mean give up! There is a point when you are going to stop playing and you need to have a plan to move on with your life outside of sports. Don’t let it be a shock to your system when that time comes. Emotionally prepare for this is moment. Inevitably, it will come.
So, You’re Done… Now what?
Most importantly, find healthy ways to constructively redirect your energies. Now that you are done with that sport, perhaps it’s time to give back. Just because you left a sport, doesn’t have to mean you hate it. Referee, coach or train others to be better than you were. Be open to trying new things, you might find that you are good at many things. You just didn’t have the time to invest in these things before.
Moreover, your participation in a sport has implications beyond the field of play. As a student athlete, you may have played the game for any number of reasons. Some are playing to get out of their environment, others simply because they are good at it. Usually, the myriad of reasons that you played can be drilled down to one thing. Figuring that out can teach you how to lift that burden and make your transition to a non-athletic life easier. Being able to rationalize why you were playing and applying what you learned while playing, more often than not, will give you a powerful motivation in your next venture. Know that whatever you desire to do next, you will be better prepared for those challenges because you played sports.
Ultimately, remember that sports are like life. In both, you should dream big but set realistic expectations. We have all heard the saying that when you fall off the horse, you should get back on. Good advice, right? But if you keeping fall off the same horse, it doesn’t matter how much you love it. You have to find out what’s wrong. If you love riding, maybe get another horse…
Sports have a subtle way of teaching and preparing you for life’s circumstances. You have been yelled at, humiliated, embarrassed, lost, won, failed and succeeded, all at some point along the way. Relax and move on, knowing you will have a passion for something else, even if you haven’t found it just yet!