Athlete Mental Health Articles

Athlete Burnout: How to Manage Burnout in Sports

Eli Straw
Athlete Burnout: How to Manage Burnout in Sports

Are you feeling burnt out? Do you not have the same motivation you used to to go to practices and games? Do you sometimes even dread going to training? If so, then there's a good chance you're dealing with athlete burnout.

Burnout in sports is incredibly frustrating! Not only does it hurt mentally and leave you feeling physically exhausted...but it can also cause you to feel lost.

For most athletes, their sport is their identity. It's what they do and it's who they are. So, when they feel like they've lost the love they used to have for the game it can be devastating.

So if you're feeling burnt out, what now?

Well, you need to begin working on managing this burnout.

As a mental performance coach, I've worked with many athletes on managing burnout in their sport and regaining the passion to play.

And the way that's done is by getting to the core of why they're feeling burnt out in the first place.

What Causes Burnout in Sports?

Burnout in sports occurs as a response to chronic stress. The pressure you've been under (whether that be physical or mental) has led to you feeling overly stressed.

It's often a sign that your body needs rest.

But interestingly enough, that rest doesn't always mean stepping away from your sport or not practicing for a couple weeks (though that is sometimes necessary as we'll talk about later).

What you truly need rest from is the stressor or stressors that are causing the burnout in the first place.

Overtraining

Now this first stressor is where you may need to tone back training a bit or physically take some time off.

If you have trained yourself into the ground, then you may simply be physically and mentally exhausted!

Overtraining leads to burnout because you aren't giving your body enough time to rest.

But it can also lead to burnout because of the time it takes up.

When I've talked with athletes who are dealing with burnout, a lot of times they feel like they have no balance in their lives; they have no time for anything other than training.

So overtraining may not only be a physical thing, but also a mental one because it creates an imbalance where all you do is train.

After a while, this can tire you out and lead to you feeling burnt out.

Perfectionism

Another cause of burnout in sports is perfectionism. The main reason has to do with the idea of never feeling perfect.

Let's say you train for years, yet, in your mind you're still not perfect. Never mind the actual improvement you've made, you simply only focus on where you aren't yet.

If that happens, it's very easy to feel burnt out because all your training can seem like it's going nowhere.

In reality, you are a completely different (and better) player than you used to be, but in your mind you only allow yourself to see your mistakes and shortcomings.

Perfectionist athletes tend to only focus on what they did wrong. They don't also see what they did well. And in every game and practice there are things you do well and things you can improve.

But if you only ever see what you did wrong, which is typically how a perfectionist words it, what do you think will happen over time?

You're going to lose motivation and suffer from burnout because you never feel good enough!

And who wants to always feel like they're not good enough? That kind of thinking will eventually get to anyone.

Anxiety & Fear

Another stressor that leads to burnout in sports is a combination of fear and anxiety.

Sports performance anxiety and fear of failure go hand-in-hand.

When you’re anxious, you worry about what will happen. For the most part, this occurs because you are afraid of making mistakes.

But both fear and anxiety are draining. They will wear you out and suck all the joy out of the game.

If you continue to show up to practices and games with anxiety and fear, after a while, the negative emotions are going to make you dread your sport.

Also, a major cause and symptom of both fear and anxiety is negative self-talk. This involves thinking negative thoughts surrounding yourself and your game.

If you keep thinking negatively, don't you think that after a while you're going to get tired of that and feel like enough is enough?

Well, your mind's indication that enough is enough is feeling burnt out.

Symptoms of Athlete Burnout

If you are feeling like you're currently dealing with burnout, here are a few signs and symptoms to help you decide.

  • Loss of motivation to train and perform.
  • Lower levels of performance.
  • Chronic fatigue.
  • Irritability and moodiness.
  • Dread when it comes to your sport.
  • Feeling lost & questioning if you want to keep playing.
  • Poor focus during training and games.

If you are dealing with any of the above symptoms, then there's a good chance you are currently facing athlete burnout...now what?

Well, now we've got some work to do and questions to answer. But the good news is, if you want to manage burnout you can!

Steps to Manage Burnout in Sports

To manage athlete burnout there are specific steps you can take.

What I'm going to do is walk you through a similar process to the one I use with the athletes I work with in one-on-one mental performance coaching.

Step #1: Deciding to Keep Playing or to Take a Break

The first question you must answer is whether you are going to take a break from your sport or not.

This can be a tough question to answer but is very important. Because if you truly need some time away from your sport, then it may be difficult for you to apply the tools you're going to learn while you're still playing.

The perfectionism, anxiety, or fear may just be too much at the moment. And so the best option may be to step away and take a break for a bit.

This may be for a few weeks or for an entire season.

Now, if you don't want to take a break, that's also a good option.

But if that's the case, you need to be aware of the burnout you're feeling and be patient with yourself as you work to improve.

Step #2: Deciding if You Want to Regain the Passion to Play

When you are feeling burnt out, this is a similar thing that happens when athletes lose the love for their sport.

And so, to manage burnout, one of the best things we can focus on is regaining that passion to play.

However, this does take work, which is why it's a question you must ask yourself.

Are you willing to put in the effort to regain that love for your sport, knowing the positive impact it will have on managing burnout?

Step #3: Work to Bring Joy Back into Your Game

To reduce burnout, you want to focus on finding that joy you used to play with.

This goes back to earlier where I said sometimes you don't need a break from your sport, you just need a break from the stressors causing burnout.

There are players who can train and train and not feel burnout because they love it. While you may be feeling tired of training and worn down because you've lost that love.

But the cool thing is that you can feel that love and joy again. Simply by changing what you focus on and realizing that you must bring joy with you each day.

An exercise I like to use to help athletes retrain themselves to enjoy their sport again is making a list each day of what they are looking forward to and what they enjoyed that day.

Write the first list in the morning to get you into a better mindset and then write the second at the end of the day to positively reflect on your day.

The idea is to retrain what you focus on.

Instead of focusing on your mistakes, how much you dread playing, and so on, you start to focus more on what you enjoy about your sport.

The more you do that, the less burnt out you tend to feel.

Step #4: Focus on Reducing Perfectionism

With perfectionism being one of the main stressors causing you as an athlete to suffer from burnout, to manage burnout you want to work on reducing perfectionism.

You can do this by using a combination of objectives and a simple evaluation system.

What you want to do first is set specific objectives for practices and games. This helps to reframe your expectations, since as a perfectionist you will likely set extremely high expectations for yourself.

You want your objectives to be 100% within your control.

For practices, set your objectives in terms of things you want to work on. Then for games, think about setting objectives in terms of things you need to focus on to help you perform your best.

Then after each practice and game you want to use a very simple evaluation system. This helps you control the tendency to only focus on what you did wrong.

There are two questions you must answer:

  • What did I do well today?
  • Where can I improve?

It forces you to first look at the positives of your performance. That way you start to feel better about yourself and your game.

Then, you still get to look at your mistakes, but you are going to do so in a way to help you actually improve, rather than being a way to point out why you aren't good enough.

Using the combination of objectives and an evaluation system helps you reduce the tendency to be a perfectionist which helps you manage the burnout you're facing.

Step #5: Work to Reduce Fear & Anxiety

For the last step, we are going to focus on two exercises you can do that will help reduce the anxiety and fear you may be feeling.

This works by building more positive mental skills and characteristics that will lead to you feeling more confident and enjoying yourself more while you perform.

Both of which help with burnout as an athlete.

Exercise #1: Self-Talk

The first exercise is to alter the way that you think. If you are dealing with burnout, you likely have a lot of negative thoughts surrounding yourself and your sport.

The same is true when you feel anxious or fearful.

So, you want to work on changing how you're thinking. This can be done through the use of a self-talk routine.

  • Write out all the negative thoughts/beliefs you have about yourself.
  • Create a positive/productive alternative for each one.
  • Repeat the new list to yourself at least once a day (preferably more).

The more you develop positive and productive self-talk, the better your thoughts will be and the more confident you will feel.

Then what you can do is focus on repeating the new self-talk statements to yourself during practices or before games.

Exercise #2: Mindfulness Meditation

Think of mindfulness meditation like a break for your mind.

When you're dealing with burnout, the stress has gotten to be too much. You can give your mind the rest it needs each day by practicing mindfulness.

Mindfulness also helps with anxiety and fear because it teaches you to be more present. And fear and anxiety are caused by outcome-oriented thinking.

Here's how to practice mindfulness meditation as an athlete:

  • Choose how long you will meditate and set a timer (I suggest 5-10 minutes to begin with).
  • Get into a comfortable position and close your eyes.
  • Now begin taking nice deep breaths.
  • Focus on your breath and the rhythm of your breathing.
  • When you start to think about something else, gently bring your attention back onto your breath.

Mindfulness is a great way to provide the rest your mind needs each day and to help you instill a calmer state that will help against fear and anxiety.

Mental Coaching for Athletes With Burnout

The five steps outlined above are a great way for you to get to work on managing burnout as an athlete.

But I also understand the value of working through this with someone else. Which is why I offer one-on-one mental coaching for athletes struggling with burnout.

With mental coaching, I will work with you to identify why you're feeling burnt out and get to the core stressors leading to you feeling this way.

Through weekly coaching sessions we will begin working through your stressors and helping you regain the love for your sport.

If you're interested in learning more about mental coaching and how you can get started, please fill out the form below.

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of success in all that you do.

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Eli Straw

Eli is a sport psychology consultant and mental game coach who works 1-1 with athletes to help them improve their mental skills and overcome any mental barriers keeping them from performing their best. He has an M.S. in psychology and his mission is to help athletes and performers reach their goals through the use of sport psychology & mental training.

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