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Mental Equipment
November 1998 Article

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Combating Burnout in Sport

Dr. John Murray Photo
Dr. John Murray

If you're a serious athlete, and you've been sarcastic, quarrelsome, and irritable in recent weeks, this may not indicate a severe personal problem or a mood disorder. Rather, you might be experiencing some of the beginning symptoms of burnout. Burnout is not a reason for panic, but you should take time to understand and combat this challenging condition.

Description of Burnout

Burnout in sport is often defined as physical, emotional and mental exhaustion, but it is also described as the distress resulting from such exhaustion. It's a condition in which the athlete experiences stress over an extended period of time resulting in reduced motivation and interest in the activity. In short, you're worn out, tired of the sport, and don't ever want to see another racket, bat, or helmet again!

How could burnout possibly occur to individuals so committed to their sport, so excited by the thrill of victory, and so focused on continual achievement? Well, these positive traits of commitment and desire are often the very cause of the problem. Individuals who take their sport less seriously rarely experience burnout, but they never maximize their performance either. If you have experienced burnout, start by giving yourself credit that you care.

Causes and Solutions to Reverse the Onset of Burnout

There are many causes of burnout and it usually develops slowly over time rather than suddenly. Let's briefly examine three of the most common causes of burnout with solutions to reverse the onset of burnout. You may need to combine these solutions to meet your specific needs. If you are completely exhausted mentally and physically, and have already reached burnout, the only real solution is to take time off from your sport. Return to sport when you are ready again, with greater knowledge to avoid becoming another victim of burnout.

Cause: Pressure to Win

Whether you're struggling to break top 10 in the tennis world or just fighting to remain on your high school rugby team, too much pressure to win (from others or self-imposed) can be extremely frustrating when the results are not coming as fast as you expect. It's a vicious circle in that your ambition and drive to succeed actually causes your performance to decline. You eventually throw in the towel rather than patiently discovering the key to improvement.

Solution: Rediscover the Process

Winning is great, but remember not to put the cart before the horse. Throw all your mental and physical energy into what you are actually doing, and forget about the outcome of winning versus losing! Get in touch with the intangibles such as striving to learn, find meaning in your activities, and find success in performance rather than winning. When you are away from the pressure to win, winning often takes care of itself.

Cause: Overworked and Lacking Fun

Whenever the fun of sport vanishes for an extended period of time, you're announcing your candidacy for burnout. You may become too serious or too intense about performing well and the whole point of the activity is lost. You spend all your time working on your sport and no time is left to live. Sport at any level should be fun, or performance will decline and burnout becomes more likely.

Solution: Schedule Fun Into Your Life

Since you're so good at remaining on schedule and training to perfection, you might as well adjust your schedule to find a place for fun too. Reduce the number of hours you spend training and plan in time for social activities and other events that have nothing to do with your sport. Find another sport and schedule that in too, or just plan time to rest. When you are practicing, look for ways to enjoy the experience. As you inject joy back into your life, sport becomes less of a chore and you're free to be more creative too.

Cause: Poor Social Support

Poor social support is one of the most common sources of burnout in sport. This might mean poor relations with your coach or fellow players. If you are a coach, you may have lost the support of your team. Whatever the case, it is very difficult to remain upbeat and motivated in a climate of low perceived social support.

Solution: Reconnect With Others

It's impossible to be best friends with everyone on your team or to have the complete support of everyone you know outside of sport. As you strive for optimal performance, however, it's sometimes easy to forget the enormous impact that social support has on both self-esteem and performance. You might figure, there isn't any time to develop those relationships because you are too busy performing and trying to succeed. The fact is, a balanced social life off the court, and social cohesion within the team setting, acts as a buffer against potential burnout. Share your feelings with others and they will be glad to reciprocate. Get out of the sport setting and go see a movie. Keep in touch with friends and relatives and share your good and bad times with them.

A More Serious Problem?

Before you can combat burnout, you must first recognize it as a problem and then act to change it. Burnout is so common in sport that I felt you'd benefit from this addition to your collection of mental equipment. Remember to reduce the pressure to win, find time to have fun, and get connected socially. If these tips don't work and your feelings of burnout continue to persist even after you've taken time off, you may want to seek the assistance of a psychologist or other qualified mental health professional. Good luck and I'll see you again next month!

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Mental Equipment Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Dr. John Murray, all rights reserved.

Dr. John F. Murray is currently a licensed clinical psychologist and sport psychologist in Florida. In addition, he is a tennis professional (having taught tennis internationally in North America, Hawaii, Europe, Middle East), formerly certified with both USPTA and USPTR. He has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and masters degrees both in Clinical Psychology and Exercise & Sport Sciences from the University of Florida. He maintains a personal web site at http://www.johnfmurray.com/.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to John by using this form.


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