Late February, 2018:
It’s the Monday after the U of A track team’s Conference finals. I’m asked to come back to practice even though I've been promised the next few weeks off from training. I am in the dark equipment storage closet: crying, anxious, and unable to move. After 30 minutes, I leave the building, and I don’t come back to my varsity sport for five months. This is burnout, and it can happen to any athlete.
What is Burnout?
We hear the word tossed around within youth, amateur, and even professional sport. But what exactly is burnout?
Beth Sitzler from the National Athletic Trainers Association says that “burnout is a response to chronic stress of continued demands in a sport or activity without the opportunity for physical and mental rest and recovery”.
She also explains that “burnout is a syndrome of continual training and sport attention stress, resulting in staleness, [and] overtraining”.
Misconceptions about Burnout:
On the U of A’s track and field team, I compete in the throwing events: the more commonly-known shot put, and the less commonly-known weight throw. In weight throw, I wind a 20 pound ball and chain around my head, and then proceed to spin in circles until I gain enough speed and momentum to throw the 20lbs weight over 14 metres.
As throwers, we are known as being the “strong” athletes. The problem for me was that I believed “strong” meant both mentally and physically strong. When I began to experience the signs and symptoms of burnout, I had a hard time admitting that I was struggling. I thought that admitting that I was burnt out was going to make me a weaker person. And, as a thrower, I felt that being perceived as weak would tarnish how people viewed me as an athlete.
For me, I thought burnout could only happen for the best of the best athletes (e.g,. the Olympians of the sport). But, what I quickly found out, was that burnout can happen to anyone and everyone. Whether you are a track and field athlete, a synchronized swimmer, a hockey player, or anyone in between, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of burnout. More importantly, it’s essential to know that admitting you are burnt out and seeking help is not a sign of weakness, but rather one of the most courageous things that a person (and athlete) can do.
What are the signs and symptoms of Burnout?
At the National Athletic Trainers Association, they suggest the signs and symptoms include:
Leveling off or diminished performance or conditioning, including strength and stamina losses, chronic fatigue
Physiological signs such as having a higher resting heart rate and blood pressure
Cognitive issues such as difficulty in concentration or diminished work in school, forgetfulness
Illnesses as a result of suppressed immune system
Emotional issues such as disinterest, moodiness, irritability
Low self-esteem, increased anxiety and depression as a result of falling short of sport demands
Back to Late February, 2018:
Looking at the signs and symptoms of burnout as I write this blog post, it makes me wish that I was told about them earlier.
As I was in that equipment closet, I was experiencing almost every symptom on the list above. My performance was severely lacking and I was always tired. My workload in school grew and grew, and I just couldn’t keep up. During this time, I had also developed a chronic auto-immune condition resulting from the high levels of stress. And finally, I was almost always irritable, moody, and anxious.
So, what did I do?
For me, I took five months away from my sport. I didn’t step foot in the building in which I trained five days a week for 3-4 hours at a time. Being in that building made me physically sick and anxious, so I stayed as far away as I could.
Thankfully for me, most of my burnout aligned with spring and summer break. So, I took some much needed rest. I got my sleep, ate a better diet, and managed my time better.
Now, two years later, I am in my last year of my varsity sport. I have been able to recognize the impact that a more balanced lifestyle can have on my mental health.
I am not crying in equipment closets anymore.
My performances have gotten better, my grades have improved, I am managing my chronic auto-immune condition, and my mood has gotten better. I just competed in my last Conference finals and I have never felt better!
Now that I have recognized what the signs and symptoms of burnout are, and have been making sure that myself, and my teammates don’t have to be in the position I was two years ago. I know that burnout can strike at any time, and it is important to do everything that I can to combat it.
How to Treat Burnout:
Beth Sitzler suggests that “rest and time away from sport are the two best methods to prevent and treat athlete burnout”. Speaking from personal experience, I would also suggest talking to your coaches and teammates - athletes are often susceptible to ‘struggling in silence’ and so starting a conversation and getting support from people who have been there is an important step.
If you recognize that you or somebody you know is struggling with burnout, refer them to a doctor or mental health care specialist.