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Understanding Burnout In Sports Part 1

Updated: Sep 22, 2020

Burnout is not the result of doing too much; it is the result of not getting enough rest.

- John Patrick Hinkey

At the foundation, mastery is based on repetition, consistency, and intense focus. It’s also the same ingredients that lead to burnout.

What is burnout? Over time, burnout is the increase loss of interest in sport.

Mild Burnout: Early on, burnout can start as a lack of interest or feeling of staleness in daily practice or training sessions. Signs of mild burnout include:

  1. Lack of concentration and increased forgetfulness.

  2. Disinterest, moodiness, and irritability

  3. Practices and competitions start to feel stale or lack energy and focus.

Medium Burnout: Over time, this lack of interest can become a feeling of dread and avoidance of training and competition. Dread and avoidance can be induced by feeling overwhelmed by the workload, commitment of time, and / or the pressure to succeed. Signs of medium burnout include:

1. Low self-esteem, increased anxiety and depression due to performance plateaus and/or poor

performance outcomes.

2. Become resentful of teammates, coaches, and training staff.

3. Difficulty achieving previous standards of success like hitting a certain time as a

swimmer or diminished accuracy and velocity on a shot as a lacrosse player.

Caliente Burnout: At the extreme, burnout is the complete loss of interest in sport. As a result, an athlete will either need extended time away from sport or end up retiring. Signs of caliente burnout include:

1. Feelings of utter exhaustion and wanting to withdraw.

2. Feelings of being trapped because he/she feels he/she has to preserver and

participate because of external factors, like needing to keep a college scholarship or getting paid

as a professional athlete.

3. Sport stress is likely to spill over to other facets of an athlete's life where everything feels stressful

and overwhelming. 4. Increase in illnesses and injuries.

5. Feeling overwhelmed and depressed to the point of not wanting to do anything. Developing or

worsening of mental health disorders.

Additionally, burnout can show in three specific ways, physical, behavioral, and emotional.

a. Chronic Physical Signs

i. Fatigue: after a full night of rest, an athlete still feel exhausted, and he/she will just feel tired

all the time.

ii. Insomnia: you have trouble falling asleep at night.

iii. Injury: an athlete seems to be more prone to injury and he/she may notice that it takes longer to

heal or recover as well.

iv. Lack of Energy: an athlete can feel as though he/she is exerting more effort to produce the same

results, he/she notices a decrease in strength and / or stamina, and he/she needs to take more

frequent breaks during workouts.

v. Appetite: an athlete can either feel an increase lack of hunger and appetite or the opposite where

she/he is eating more.

b. Chronic Behavioral Signs

i. Making more excuses rather than focusing on improvements for poor performances.

ii. Lack of Focus: at practice an athlete's mind may wander or be thinking about anything but the task

at hand. She/he can also get caught up thinking about all the other things she/he needs to do or

could be doing that's better than being at practice. In competition, an athlete doesn’t stick to the

game plan or can’t seem to remember the game plan.

iii. Lack of Enthusiasm: an athlete either dreads going to practice everyday or starts to find reasons to

skip practice. She/he starts to feel overwhelmed and extremely nervous when it comes to

competitions or she/he just doesn’t care and lacks the effort to compete and play hard.

Overall, an athlete's motivation to practice and improve is gone and everything feels forced.

c. Chronic Emotional Signs

i. Irritable and Snappy: an athlete is on the defensive and reacts by getting angry and argumentative

with teammates, coaches, and people who care about him/her.

ii. Apathetic and Not Caring: this is where an athlete doesn’t care whether she/he wins or loses, nor

does she/he care about whether she/he is giving effort and improving. It's that

thought of, “Who cares, why does it matter?”

iii. Negative Self Talk: an athlete will be overly critical of her/his skills and abilities, feeling like she/he

isn’t good enough or not as good as she/he use to be. This mindset leads to a loss of self


iv. Wanting to quit. This occurs when an athlete no longer wants to be there because she/he feels like

it’s a waste of time, she/he isn’t good enough, or she/he feels that it just isn’t fun anymore.

Lastly, all athletes, young and old, experience some form of burnout throughout their career. Burnout is part of the ebbs and flows of sport. The gut response to burnout tends to be the “Grind it out” mentality. It’s where you try to suppress those feelings, thoughts, and physical fatigue by working harder. The hope is that at some point you will just get over it. This grind it out mentality tends to steer athletes toward overtraining and disregarding rest and recovery.

Reasons for just grinding it out include:

i. To maintain standing on the team (i.e., as a starter).

ii. A strong athletic identity that is consumed by the motivation and demands to succeed, a perfectionist mindset, and having high expectations and goals.

iii. A need to keep a scholarship or to get paid as a pro athlete.

Building Awareness Is Key

Take a moment to think about and write down times you have experienced burnout as an athlete and in life. Categorize them as mild, medium, or caliente levels of burnout.

Or, if you are currently experiencing burnout, identify which level you are currently at.

On the other hand, if you feel like you have never experienced a certain level of burnout or any level of burnout, think about teammates or athletes who have exhibited these different levels of burnout. Think about how burnout feels, makes you act, and makes you think.

Tune in to part 2, to gain insight on how to manage burnout and to stay motivated!

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