Mental Burnout in Sport
Part 1: What Causes an Athlete to Experience Mental Burnout
Burnout is a phenomenon in sport that can come in many shapes and sizes, and there are a variety of factors that may lead to an athlete burning out. The most common cause is over-training. In the quest for perfection, coaches will prescribe a harder training regime with more repetitions and higher expectations during the competitive season. Athletes will work harder during this period to meet the demands of the coach. This is why all sports have an off-season; to accommodate the need for the demanding competitive season and to allow for adequate physical and mental recovery to control the incidence of burnout.
Another less obvious cause for burnout is when an athlete’s skill set significantly increases over a shorter than normal amount of time, or he or she breaks a certain performance barrier and excels beyond expectation in competition. Although coaches and athletes should be thrilled to see this kind of progression, they should also ensure they are aware of the potential threat for mental burnout this may cause.
For the most part, athletes’ progress though sport in a linear manner as depicted as the orange line of Figure 1. However, not every athlete follows this path. The green and blue lines depict examples of other common forms of progression. The green line indicates an athlete who makes rapid development over a short period of time, while the blue line depicts an athlete who progresses regularly, but then hits a plateau and eventually resumes progression. In both cases, the athlete will experience cognitive dissonance. Cognitive Dissonance is mental stress or discomfort experienced by an individual who is confronted by new information or performs an action that conflicts with existing beliefs. Cognitively, the athlete is following the orange line, because that is “normal”. However, physically the athlete has deviated. This creates a cognitive gap between what the athlete is doing versus what they believe they should be doing. That gap causes a tremendous amount of mental fatigue because the mind is constantly working in over drive.
In the case of an athlete who has progressed too quickly (a green line situation), the mind has not had adequate time to solidify the cognitive pathways for the new skills and the new standards for performance. The mind is running at top speed in attempt to catch up.
When an athlete hits a progression plateau (a blue line situation), the mind is expending twice as much energy with every practice and competition. It will run ahead following the orange line but must turn around and run back to the place of the plateau since that is where the athlete actually is. The longer the athlete stays in the plateau, the further the distance of each of the minds “runs” and thus the more mentally exhausted the athlete becomes.
Athletes and coaches know the importance of recovery. It is common knowledge in the world of sport that training and/or competing too much without sufficient recovery will cause an athlete to burnout. If an athlete’s progression deviates from the regular linear pattern of progression, mental energy is expended at an exponential rate without enough recovery, and may cause him or her to burnout. Mental burnout is not always as obvious as its physical counterpart, but can be equally as detrimental. Coaches need to be sure to take this into consideration when an athlete displays divergence from the norm with regards to skill development.
Part 2: Signs and Consequences of Mental Burnout
Part 3: How to Help Prevent and Recover From Mental Burnout
 Festinger, L. (1957). A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance. California: Stanford University Press.