Athlete Burnout – Symptoms and Prevention



Photo: New Day Shelter

Simply put, burnout is a constant state of stress that develops into physical and emotional exhaustion, bitterness and dissolution, and inadequacy and lack of accomplishment.

But what causes burnout?

For athletes, there are a few theories:

  1. Excessive pressure to train, perform, and win
  2. Overtraining with little recovery time
  3. Shift from intrinsic (having fun, learning new skills, making friends) to extrinsic (medals, scholarships, endorsements) motivation
  4. Entrapment – Time and energy invested does not equal the rewards
  5. Empowerment – Organized competitive sports controls an athlete and their life, making them feel powerless

Burnout does not hit you all at once.  It is a creature that slowly develops and grows but as it does, it gives you clues that it is starting to take over your life!

Physical and emotional exhaustion, bitterness and dissolution, and inadequacy and lack of accomplishment all have their own warning signs to help you identify their onset.  Many of these warning signs overlap each other and can indicate more than one issue.

Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D., states, “These signs and symptoms exist along a continuum. In other words, the difference between stress and burnout is a matter of degree, which means that the earlier you recognize the signs, the better able you will be to avoid burnout”.

Signs and Symptoms – Physical and Emotional Exhaustion:

  1. Chronic Fatigue
  2. Insomnia
  3. Forgetfulness/Impaired Concentration and Attention
  4. Physical Symptoms
    1. chest pain

      Photo: Outside Magazine
    2. heart palpitations
    3. shortness of breath
    4. gastrointestinal pain
    5. dizziness
    6. fainting
    7. headaches
  5. Increased Illness
  6. Loss of Appetite
  7. Anxiety
  8. Depression
  9. Anger

Signs and Symptoms – Bitterness and Dissolution:

  1. Loss of Enjoyment
  2. Pessimism
  3. Isolation
  4. Detachment

Signs and Symptoms – Inadequacy and Lack of Accomplishment:

  1. Feelings of Apathy and Hopelessness
  2. Increased Irritability
  3. Lack of Productivity and Poor Performance

“If you are experiencing some of these symptoms, this should be a wake-up call that you may be on a dangerous path. Take some time to honestly assess the amount of stress in your life and find ways to reduce it before it’s too late.” warns Sherrie Bourg Carter, Psy.D.

Preventing or resolving burnout can be dealt with by both the parent and coach!

Rest is key in  preventing or helping resolve burnout.  But as a parent, the hardest thing to do is to tell your athlete that they need to take a break from gymnastics.

Your athlete will resist because gymnastics is a sport of progressions, repetition, and regular stretching and conditioning.  Any amount of time off may result in lack of forward movement in development.

So instead of completely eliminating practices, try cutting down on the amount of days and/or hours a day an athlete attends practice.  This can be a good compromise.

Photo: Sentier Psychotherapy

Enrolling your child in yoga or some sort of stress management or relaxation classes can help.  Giving your child the tools to identify and cope with the stresses of training and competition can be just as beneficial as the strength and conditioning they learn in practice.

Try to identify the causes of your child’s stress.

Do they feel the pressure to train and compete due to your time and financial commitment that you have invested in their training?  Is there a conflict between your athlete and a coach or fellow teammates?  Does your athlete feel like they have no say in their training and feel scared to speak up to you or their coach?

Or does your athlete have FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)?  Are they feeling pressure from family and friends to participate in activities outside their sport?

There is a great article by Rebecca Smith on the website Complete Performance Coaching called “How Social Relationships Can Impact Your Athlete” that discusses FOMO and how to help our athlete deal with it.

Your child’s coach also plays a pivotal role in preventing burnout!

Dr. Charles Powell says, “Coaches should have an enthusiasm that can be felt by their athletes.  A coach’s excitement can transfer to athletes, and be the basis for a young person’s lifelong passion.”

Keeping learning fun and providing a variety of drills and activities will spark an athletes enthusiasm for learning.  The monotony of the same drills, stations, and daily routines can cause athletes to lose their excitement for the sport they once loved.

Coaches need to remember to tailor their expectations for each individual athlete.  Children do not all learn at the same pace.

Photo: UNC Healthy Heels

Skill development and progressional goals need to be challenging BUT attainable for the individual and not so out of reach that the athlete becomes frustrated.

“Challenging, while not overwhelming, athletes requires coaches tailor training for each individual. Expectations should be significant but not unachievable as research has found that athletes who achieve small incremental successes are likely to express greater levels of enjoyment.” states Dr. Charles Powell.

Powell goes on to explain that coaches should not be focused on the “prizes” of competition but instead should be focused on the athlete’s growth and accomplishments, which will then result in winning!

As parents and coaches, knowing the causes & symptoms of burnout and how to deal with it is key to the success of an athlete.

Ensure that their is a clear and open line of communication between the athlete, parent, and coach so that the athlete feels comfortable communicating their thoughts and feelings about their training.

Remember; it is their training, their bodies, their emotional/psychological well being.

Rose Giordano, PhD explains, “The key to being successful in sports is to begin with an underlying enjoyment of what you are doing and showing up regardless of winning a gold medal.  In a nut shell, if you’re not having fun, then is it really worth it at all?”


Related Articles:

SafeSport & USA Gymnastics – Reporting Procedures for Sexual and Non-Sexual Misconduct

Warning Signs of Sexual Abuse

Protecting Gymnasts From Predators – Part 1

Protecting Gymnasts From Predators – Part 2

Protecting Gymnasts From Predators – Part 3


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