Tired of Your Sport? It Could be Burnout

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A gentle wind rustled evergreen boughs around me, a stream galloped past my now-damp trail runners and my pup threw herself, ecstatic, against downed branches in our way. The world was right, but I wasn’t.

I saw it all, but I didn’t feel it. Instead, I had a heavy, deadened feeling in my chest and limbs. It was as if all the light and love had been drained from my body, leaving behind an empty shell. I set a timer for half an hour, promising myself I could turn around and tromp back to the trailhead when it sounded. I only made it 22 excruciating minutes.

A month after this “hike” I came across a Buzzfeed article, “How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation.” In it, reporter Anne Helen Peterson describes the psychological reasons behind why her to-do list felt so impossible. It gave me pause. Could that be what I was experiencing? After all, since the completion of 58 miles in a 24-hour hike-a-thon five months prior, I had barely been able to get myself on the trail. I kept trying, and I kept experiencing that same feeling of emptiness. Burnout might be the word to describe what I was feeling.

What is Burnout?

The term burnout was coined in the 1970s by Herbert Freudenberger to describe exhaustion-like symptoms he was observing in some medical professionals like doctors and nurses. Today, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases describes burnout as a “state of vital exhaustion” that may not go away on its own.

Burnout began appearing in sports science literature in the 1980s. Despite the parallels scientists were observing between professionals and sports figures, it took until 1997 for researchers to come up with a framework for athlete burnout syndrome, which looked just like the burnout experienced by medical professionals, but included some sports-specific symptoms like a feeling among athletes that they weren’t achieving what they’d hoped.

In 2001, a researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, Allison Margaret Eades, developed a questionnaire called the Eades Athletes Burnout Inventory. The inventory requires athletes to respond to prompts like “I feel overwhelmed by the demands of my sport participation” and “Iʼm not performing up to my ability in my sport,” rating them on a 7-point scale.

Then, in 2007, a study that circulated that same inventory among 980 adolescents in Sweden, found that between 1 and 9 of those athletes had elevated burnout scores. That might not seem like a lot, but if you take into account that the majority of athletes surveyed reported experiencing low to moderate levels of burnout, it begins to sound like a larger problem.

Symptoms

I wanted to learn more about how burnout could be responsible for the exhaustion that crept in every time I started thinking about hiking, so I turned to J.D. DeFreese, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, who writes about athlete psychological health.

“In the realm of sport, [burnout is] considered an issue that manifests in your thoughts and emotions,” DeFreese said. “Of the three facets or symptoms, one is emotional and physical exhaustion, two is feeling that you aren’t accomplishing much, and the last is devaluation—not feeling [the sport is] as important to you as it was at one point.”

Megan Kimmel, a sponsored mountain ultra trail runner, has felt that emotional and physical exhaustion. She started racing when she was working multiple jobs, buying a house and trying to find sponsors. “I was burning the candle at both ends,” she said. Fatigue and devaluation of the recreational side of the sport set in.

“I had zero desire to continue racing—but I had commitments to [continue to race],” Kimmel said. “I wasn’t happy doing it. The main part of that was I missed was recreating just for fun. All the sudden it was an obligation.”

To recognize burnout in yourself, Scott Sailor, president of the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, points to a few unique sensations: “Someone might feel fatigue or lack of engagement or even feel that they’re ill. Those all can be signs of burnout.”

If you’re experiencing a combination of the symptoms below for longer than a week, according to the National Athletic Trainers’ Association, you should consider consulting your doctor for help:

  • Diminished performance or chronic fatigue
  • A higher-than-normal resting heart rate and blood pressure
  • Difficulty concentrating or forgetfulness
  • A weakened immune system, leading to illnesses
  • Disinterest, moodiness and irritability
  • Low self-esteem or increased anxiety and depression because of missing sport demands

“It’s really important to take a good inventory of what’s actually going on,” Sailor said. “Are all of these things adding up to a fatigue situation—either physically or psychologically?” It’s a good idea to consult with your doctor or mental health professional if you believe you’re experiencing burnout. And, if you’re in need of immediate crisis intervention, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

A person lies down on a short wall in front of an open, green vista.

Causes

There are four main causes that are likely to contribute to athlete burnout, according to Dr. DeFreese’s research:

  1. An inability to cope effectively with stress. In this scenario, you’re unable to handle the demands of your sport—although the specific demands are less important than your response.
  2. Extrinsic motives. In this case, you place focus on external, uncontrollable motivation like winning races, instead of pursuing your sport for pleasure alone.
  3. High-pressure environment. In this example, your sport is all about competition, which can lead to greater societal pressure to perform.
  4. Entrapped commitment. Here, you’ve invested a lot in your sport and feel you can’t quit.

Kelsey Sipple, a product copywriter for REI and a recreational trail runner, is well-versed in burnout. She’s experienced all of the causes above. She finds that when she’s set unrealistic goals that she can’t achieve, she’s unable to deal with the stress.

She also noted: “I tend to experience burnout when I put a lot of mental pressure around one particular running event”—an extrinsic motive. Environments like high-pressure events can trigger the feeling for her, as well as that idea of entrapment—which comes about when she places running as the most important piece of her identity, making it nearly impossible to step away from the sport.

“I think it’s important to situate burnout in our broader understanding of health or well-being,” said DeFreese. “But burnout is not something that you have forever. It can be treated and mitigated.”

Ways to Cope

As DeFreese said, burnout can be treated. I turned to Derrek Falor, certified consultant for the Association for Applied Sport Psychology, to learn how a professional guides athletes suffering from burnout toward health. He suggested the following:

  1. Examine your reasons for getting involved in the sport in the first place. Reminding yourself of that initial driving force can be the first step toward recovery.
  2. Consider your external goals. What are they? Are they unrealistic? What kind of goals can you create based on controllable variables?
  3. Set a short-term goal, and debrief after each session. Did you hit your goal or not? If you did, how do you repeat it, and if you didn’t, what can you do differently next time?
  4. Lastly, sometimes there’s value in stepping away and cross-training or doing something entirely new—like learning a language. It’s important, at times, to give yourself the space to put the sport down.

In the end, “if you’re out there because you enjoy nature, there’s probably peace and joy in participating and doing,” Falor said. “The moment we add to it an event, we’re looking at it as an outcome base.” That’s the opposite of athletes who reach that dreamy feeling, a state of flow, he explained. Flow occurs when you’re in the moment, not because of a trophy. And isn’t that feeling what we’re all searching for?

As for me, I’m trying to remember the outdoors isn’t a proving ground—it’s my place to commune with all those things bigger (and smaller) than me.

After all, as Falor put it, “Nobody got into it because it is supposed to be a job.”

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