Feeling Tired? Lacking Motivation? You’re Not Alone!
In the world of COVID-19, burnout is a true risk, particularly for athletes who are used to performing at high levels with many opportunities for feedback. Athletes do not have the typical consistency of a competition schedule to guide their patterns of behavior through short term goals. Without these progress markers, it is possible that athletes will fall into the trap of monotony in their training and lose sight of their long term goals, despite the best efforts of those who work with them. However, there are things that can be done to help mitigate the risk of burnout and return to focused training. This begins with understanding stress.
Stress is everywhere right now. Busy people (particularly coaches, athletes, and parents) often think of things in bubbles, or subsections, because it helps to separate all the different tasks that we have to accomplish in our lives.
For young athletes, this is especially true. An athlete’s school life may have its own bubble that carries school related experiences, emotions, and stress. They may also have subsections for family, or piano lessons, and definitely for volleyball. In their minds, all of this stress is separate and distinct.
It would be much easier if athletes could enter a ‘volleyball’ specific mindset that eliminates all of the other stressors in their lives. But the truth is, stress is additive. When we experience stress in one part of our lives, we experience it across domains. For example, an athlete’s stress at school impacts their ability to cope with stress in volleyball. An athlete’s stress in their friend groups can make it difficult to cope with stress at school.
Stress is additive. Think of your stress as stacking blocks. The taller the tower gets, the more difficult it is to keep it from tumbling. Each new stressor that is added to your tower adds to your total stress level. Some stressors are heavier and more awkward than others. Some are smaller and feel less important. But each and every stress that you have in your life contributes to your total feeling of stress. It is as if a number was assigned to each bubble in the image above, and that sum total is reflective of your stress all the time.
When athletes experience stress for a long time without being able to relieve it, they can begin to experiences symptoms of burnout. Think about it like this- the longer you have to spend making sure your stress tower doesn’t tumble, the more tired you get. Burnout is a state of both emotional and physical exhaustion that is caused by life’s constant stressors in all areas.
It is important to note: Stress isn’t always bad. Stress can force us to prioritize and put effort towards accomplishing our tasks. However, prolonged stress- stress that occurs when you can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel- can cause us to feel burnt out.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is described as not having energy, motivation, or passion because of a lack of emotional and physical resources. In sports, burnout comes from continuous training without time for physical and mental rest or recovery.
People who are experiencing burnout begin to feel empty, numb, and hopeless. We lose our passion for what we do and find it difficult to care about doing the little things right. In sports, it can eventually feel like your body is just going through the motions.
Am I Heading Towards Burnout?
Burnout is a multi-step process in sports. Before you are burnt out, you will often experience a period of staleness, or an inability of your body to perform at the level expected. If you’re in this phase, you might feel like a crusty piece of bread- if you push too hard, you feel like you might crumble.
When an athlete starts feeling a little stale, a coach or parent might notice a pattern of training days where they are not able to perform optimally. Their jumps are a little lower, their hits may be a little weaker, and their speed might be a little slower. If the coach, parent, or athlete notices this for a week or more, it is important to check in. This is an athlete’s signal to stop and reflect on their needs. If an athlete progresses through a period of staleness without recognizing their needs, they are at risk for burnout.
In sports, burnout looks like:
- Not having the energy to wake up for early morning workouts multiple days in a row
- Feeling bored with your workout routine or feeling like your routine lacks purpose
- Wanting to quit because your progress and work feels unproductive
- Difficulty concentrating during workouts, school, or other areas of life
- Lower performance than usual for multiple days in a row; feeling constantly tired
- Low self-esteem and confidence in sport; finding reasons to doubt yourself
Burnout, and it’s associated emotions, are serious but do not have to be permanent. Identifying staleness early and giving athletes tools to work through burnout can help them to recover and continuing playing with passion and excitement. Gould and Dieffenbach (2002) recommend the following actions to avoid burnout:
- Recognize that there is a fine line between training hard and overtraining. Stay vigilant to track symptoms of overtraining early on.
- Athletes and coaches should log the most effective ways to physically and psychologically refresh during training. This will help keep track of tools that have been successful and can continue to help.
- Physical activity levels are only part of the overtraining and staleness process. Take care to minimize other stressors, particularly leading up to an intense competition.
- Athletes should constantly check in on their reasons for playing. Are they playing for themselves? They should avoid too much focus on pleasing others.
- Athletes should be sure to attend to other areas of their life to achieve balance. Having a singular focus at all times can be harmful to developing a multifaceted identity and harm sports participation and achievement.
- Athletes should feel comfortable speaking to their coaches about these issues. Creating a dialogue using this language early on can help create an effective line of communication between athletes and coaches.
(Gould & Dieffenbach, 2002, Enhancing Recovery: Preventing Underperformance in Athletes)
Helpful Activities to Recover and Motivate
Have athletes draw out their ‘bubbles’ of stress. They don’t need to show these to you- they should be private. Give them the following criteria and steps, modified to your individual team and their needs:
- Draw a circle for each area of your life right now. A larger circle indicates more stress. A smaller circle indicates less stress. (When presenting this activity, give them examples of your circles, where appropriate and comfortable- if not, general examples include: School, Work, Health and Fitness, Coaching)
- Now ask them to give each bubble a number based on their current stress in that area, with (1) being least stressful, to (10) being most stressful.
- Have athletes add their bubble numbers together and write down the sum of their stress bubbles next to their pictures.
- Inform athletes that each area is not distinct from other areas. All of these bubbles add together to make their total stress. That is what their final stress number represents: the additive pressure that they are under at any given time.
- Recognizing and keeping track of perceived stress is important for athletes to combat burnout and learn how to manage their performance and emotions. Challenge them to keep track of their stress number for a week in a row.
- When a number changes, have them also consider what changed to move that number up or down. Did they have something come up that day that can help them predict stress in the future? Is there something they tried that helped them manage stress? Is there something they would like to try next time?
An important step in rebounding from periods of staleness and recovering from burnout includes tracking stress and logging successful ways of coping. After athletes have an idea of the nature of their experience of stress, it is important to give athletes the language to consider their struggles, the tools to apply to their situation, and the opportunity to practice these coping skills. This activity aims to give athletes a way to think about their stress visually- while integrating the additive nature of their multifaceted life. It is the first step in an ongoing process.
Burnout is a result of some level of psychological need not being currently met. During the time of COVID-19, it is a lofty task to ask coaches to play a role in meeting these needs safely. If you are working with an athlete and struggling through a time of amotivation, paying attention to the athlete’s needs for competence, autonomy, and relatedness through creating and fostering short term goals may aid in designing effective activities and workouts that mitigate burnout during these times of uncertainty.
Many athletes have practiced goal setting at some point in their sport journey. However, when future performance opportunities are not scheduled and questions exist about the nature of participation, it can be ineffective and increase stress to focus on these events. In the meantime, an effective strategy to access short term goals and help athletes process achievement is through a focus on small wins. Small wins are a series of “concrete, complete outcomes” that are moderately important and establish a pattern towards achieving a goal (Weick, 1984). Establishing bonds around small wins have been shown to build allies amongst teammates during difficult or stressful times.
In this activity, have athletes copy the following chart into their reflection journal or notebook:
Athletes should share a small win each week with the team or teammate that they anticipate working with in the fall. This can help foster accountability and assist with building fluid team dynamics early on through providing athletes with essential information on how to support each other. Then, when your team can return to the court, the players can adjust to working together again more quickly.
Important Note to Coaches: Always make sure that you are also paying attention to your needs. Coaches can experience periods of staleness and burnout as well- and it is essential to model effective self-care to aid athletes in their own coping processes. You are doing important work and you are appreciated more than you know.
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About the Author
Lauren Pierce is a Performance Consultant for athletes, coaches, and players in Tucson, AZ. She is currently a Mindset Coach for Club Cactus Juniors Volleyball, a JVA member club, and holds her PhD in Educational Psychology where she studies aspects of team and individual motivation. Lauren grew up playing sports and continues to compete at the elite level in obstacle course racing. Her time as an athlete and coach motivated her to pursue research applications related to ‘the mental game’. The passion and commitment of the athletes and coaches that she has worked with inspired her to continue her work by developing a mental performance program as she pursues future research and teaching in academia.