Athlete Burnout

Suggestions for coaches in managing the physical and mental variables of overtraining in a uniquely modern environment

Managing mental and physical burnout and overtraining requires coaches to teach their athletes to be their best monitors, weighing the known physiological principles with their individual mental and physical stressors

“When you are not practicing, remember someone, somewhere is, and when you meet him, he will win.” 

Ed Macauley, the 1949 A.P. college basketball player of the year, is responsible for conjuring up guilt in every Normatec wearing, forced L1 training, heart rate monitoring athlete. Thanks to ‘Easy Ed’ (how appropriate, given his quote) ensuing ad campaigns reverberate in the recesses of young athletes’ mental chambers, internally debating the supposedly requisite extra set, extra interval, or extra hour of training.  

The struggle for coaches – navigating the overbearing parents-laden culture, ripe with regularly registered 10-year olds in private workouts, personal coaching, and expensive clubs – is complex. In addition to the “ol’ ball coach hat,”  they must don physiologist, psychologist, and physiotherapist hats as well, often for a 12-year old expecting excellence in all three. The days of the clipboard and stopwatch, the “you’re off the team” and “take a seat on the bench, son,” are gone. 

All of this is to say that our shift towards an athlete centered approach (which I’m in favor of), has at times grotesquely evolved into an athlete directed approach (which, if defined a certain way, I’m certainly not in favor of), and conflated the issue of overdoing it – mentally and physically – with the competitive pressure to grind and strive. Adding to the equation are an increased social media presence, earlier sport specialization, and application of inconsistent philosophical approaches to concepts such as competition, identity, and athlete autonomy. The result: burned out athletes and mental health issues.  

It won’t do for coaches to ignore the new lexicon – we must learn to manage the variables and operate in the modern space. As I have been in the classroom, on the sideline, and in the game in today’s arena, I have developed some theories on how coaches and athletes can reconcile outward pressures with smart training. 

Two compasses must be at play in guiding athletes. The first is the physiological compass, and though it is more empirical, this label comes with a caveat. Despite a vast ocean of “scientific” research, one must keenly decipher between established mechanisms which drive productive practice, and papers which were completed so they could get the “published” stamp and/or simply analyze correlations or narrow relationships. The former can serve as guideposts for your situation, and the latter typically contribute to dogmatic approaches to training doctrines, fuel for the facebook-argument fire. It’s better to read widely, grab onto key, established principles, and recognize when and how different coaches have applied them to certain situations.

One of those key established mechanisms is the concept of supercompensation. In order to reach peak performance, athletes need to stress the body AND allow it to recover. During training, we tear down muscle and stress energy systems. During recovery, the body makes adaptations in those departments, leading to enhanced performance. Theoretically, the maximal amount you can stress the body while maintaining adequate recovery will allow for the maximal supercompensation and thus, the maximal improvement. A coach once told me, “Running is good. More is better.” I would an addendum: “Running is good. More is better – provided you are recovering.” 

If you are concerned your athlete is physically burned out, utilizing timed tests, heart rate readings, power data, and whatever other metrics you have for monitoring performance on the field should allow you to see if you are correct. Then, make adjustments accordingly. This article speaks to current tools used by Olympians, researchers, and coaches on how to gauge ski fitness – the gamut of relevant tools are accessible to teams in a variety of situations.  

The second compass is the “joy” compass. As endurance athletes, we probably know of at least one type-A individual (maybe they are standing in the mirror) who literally trained themselves into the ground. However, have you ever wondered if 12-year old Steph Curry, hoisting literally thousands of fifteen-footers per day, “shot” himself into the ground? As a former ball-sport player who spent hours on his driveway keeping track of consecutive free throw streaks, I don’t remember, even once, thinking about how I had spent 3-4 hours playing hoops on a given summer afternoon. I simply remember playing until I was either too tired to continue or another activity grabbed my fancy. The nature of endurance training makes this concept difficult to apply, but I believe it is essential. Play with a purpose. Stoke the fire of joy in your athletes, and monitor the flames – if they go out, you’re in trouble.  

Our job as mentors/coaches is to guide athletes to introspectively do this on their own, too. Going to an additional private coaching session, extra lifting or technique practice, or being part of multiple club teams is a decision which should be internally assessed. Do you want to do this? Does heading out for another game sound fun?

I’m a big believer that an athlete’s volume – while dictated by their physical status, training age, etc., – is often best discovered through mental channels. In other words, it doesn’t necessarily work to say, “They are 21, so we can’t prescribe more or less than ‘x’ amount.” When an athlete is viewing their hours simply as hay in the barn, they are approaching a dangerous cliff. Some skiers loathe training above 700 annual hours – and burn out at this level of stimulus. Others can’t get enough at 1100, and thrive. Both might have the physical tools to handle the same amount, but the interconnected web of the mental and the physical won’t allow for an equal prescription.Those who genuinely enjoy the physical motion and acts of skiing, biking, and running, and have finely tuned their internal stress sensors not only can handle more, but may thrive off of it. This is because the two compasses interact with each other.

 Devon Kershaw said in a podcast that our body is like a glass of water. You want to show up at the workout and/or races with as full of a glass as possible. A poor night of sleep, an argument with a teacher, a bad break-up, a stressful situation at work, etc., all cause leaks in the cup. Stress and load are not simply physical.  It’s not quite as black and white as identifying an emotional metric and a physiological metric,  and then boom! – you’re ready to train! Instead, it’s an interconnected and interdependent web. Thus, coaches need to be able to equip their athletes to first and foremost 1) understand physiological principles and 2) apply them and read them within their own body of training. 

Of course, a fine line exists between always and only doing what you want at the expense of developing resiliency, toughness, and discipline. We know there is a time and place to tune out our desire to be lazy and simply get the work done. This is where the ‘art’ of coaching truly manifests itself. Younger athletes should be allowed more freedom in determining when an extra pinch of practice spice can be integrated, while older athletes should be encouraged to follow the recipe more closely. The key is developing – in the athlete themselves – an intrinsic awareness of how different loads impact their mental and physical state. They need to identify when getting out the door in the pouring rain is the right call…

…and when snuggling back into their Normatec is more appropriate. 

I bet Ed Macauley never had one of those.

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