When enough is enough: uncovering warning signs of burnout in (elite) athletes

ImageSven Hannawald, a former German ski jumper and multiple Olympic medal winner, surprised the sports world when he terminated his athletic career in 2005 due to burnout. And also former tennis world star Andre Agassi is thought to have suffered from burnout during his career, not being able to find a healthy balance between his personal and professional life. Burnout in sports has become a prominent topic in the media, but what exactly is burnout?

In the scientific literature, athletic burnout is defined as chronic physical and emotional exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment as well as sport devaluation. So much for the definition within sport literature. But in order to really understand what that means, let´s give the word to athletes who know what burnout is all about: In 2008, Swedish researchers conducted interviews with several elite athletes who terminated their athletic career due to burnout. The athletes reported severe physical fatigue as well as mental weariness. Most of them had been “24 hour athletes” who were living and breathing their sport and had no time for any other obligations, let alone social activities. They progressively lost their inner motivation for the sport, leaving them to train and perform only for external reasons such as having to abide to a contract or not wanting to let down teammates, coaches or parents. The athletes felt that they could not achieve desired results despite all the hard work they put into their trainings, making them feel that they fought a losing battle. Another prominent symptom was that they eventually developed an aversion towards training and the sport itself, eventually causing them to terminate their career.

But how can it be explained that some athletes suffer from burnout and other athletes seem to be immune to the intense training loads, excessive traveling and jam-packed schedules? Are there any personal factors that make some athletes more susceptible to mental and physical exhaustion than others? Researchers have acknowledged that there are, indeed, personality factors that are associated with a higher risk of burnout. Having perfectionist tendencies and being highly self-critical can put athletes at risk: if the athlete cannot manage to fulfill these self-imposed expectations then the risk of suffering from burnout increases considerably.

It is important to know that the phenomenon of burnout is complex and is associated with imbalances in many areas of the athlete’s life: the sporting context, the physical and mental state, the athlete´s nutrition and his/her private life. Despite its complexity, burnout can be diagnosed and prevented if we are educated to identify the first warning signs. In the following I provide you with 10 symptoms suggesting that your athlete might be suffering from burnout: 

The athlete…

  1. … is constantly tired and sleeps much more than usual
  2. … exhibits an increasing aversion towards the sport by showing a negative attitude in trainings
  3. … complains about not seeing any results of his/her hard work and is fighting “a losing battle”
  4. … seems to have lost all enjoyment for the sport and only trains and competes to please others or abide to a professional contract
  5. … is a “24 hour athlete” and does not seem to have any other interests or friends outside of the sport
  6. … exaggerates physical symptoms, feigns an injury or drags out the recovery process of an existing injury
  7. … exhibits mood swings and gets easily frustrated, aggressive or depressed
  8. … shows signs of disordered eating
  9. … cheats in trainings or withdraws altogether from certain training activities
  10. … has unrealistically high self-imposed performance goals and is extremely self-critical

(If you are interested in further signs of burnout as well as additional physiological symptoms, follow this link). If you identify several of these warning signs in an athlete, address him/her personally and offer emotional and practical support. In a more severe case it is crucial that the athlete receives professional psychological and/or medical help in order to fully recover and regain strength. After all, being a successful athlete is less like a sprinting race, but more like a marathon that requires dedication and more importantly, enjoyment, motivation and energy refueling.

And who would be better to offer final advice than the Dalai Lama himself? “If you feel burnout setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself. The point is to have a long-term perspective.” 

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3 Responses to When enough is enough: uncovering warning signs of burnout in (elite) athletes

  1. Pingback: “Can I cope?” – Mental health in adolescent elite athletes | all about performance

  2. Pingback: FEATURE: Are we doing enough to address ELITE HOCKEY PLAYER BURNOUT? - GO HOCKEYGO HOCKEY

  3. Pingback: Athlete Burnout: Causes and Prevention Strategies | Metrifit

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