Mental Burnout in Sport
Part 2: Signs of Mental Burnout in Athletes
As discussed last week, the mind can become extremely fatigued if an athlete makes a great deal of progression in a shorter than normal period of time for the specific sport. This will create cognitive dissonance and is one of the many situations that may cause an athlete to experience mental burnout (see previous post for more information). Physical and mental burnout often occur simultaneously, and share some of the same signs, however the consequences for each are quite different. Like with physical burnout, its mental counterpart may appear in the form of an athlete looking physically fatigued and lethargic in practices or competition. But mental burnout also has its own warning signs independent from the physical side.
Some of the most prevalent signs an athlete is suffering from mental burnout as a result of rapid progression and cognitive dissonance are as follows:
1. When motivation and effort are low
This sign can be mistaken as physical burnout, as the athlete will under perform in practice, and so appear to be putting in less effort. If the athlete is under performing in practices, it is important to have a conversation with him or her to distinguish whether it is physical, mental or a combination of both. If the athlete is lacking motivation and enthusiasm but appears to be putting in effort, it is likely a case of mental burnout.
2. If the athlete develops a fear of performing a specific skill in practice or fear/anxiety of competition
Competition anxiety is normal, and all athletes who care about their performance experience some type of nerves and anxiety before a game or competition. If an athlete develops an increased amount of fear and anxiety around competition, or an abrupt fear of specific skills in practice this is another warning sign of mental burnout. If an athlete has achieved rapid success and progression, he or she has not had time to cognitively process this new self-belief. The result can be fear, as the athlete does not fully believe he or she is capable of these things, despite the fact that they were performed and achieved.
3. If the athlete exceedingly surpasses expectations in competition, and the next competition is followed with an underperformance
When an athlete exceeds expectations by performing a personal best by a significant margin, it is expected (by the athlete and/or coach) that he or she will produce similar results next time. When it comes time to compete again, it is likely that the athlete’s mind has not yet been able to fully comprehend what the body is capable of and accomplished. The athlete then enters the competition with all its mind power being put towards trying to understand, thus leaving none for competition focus and a permanent mental distraction.
4. If the athlete gets sick suddenly or gets sick various times throughout the season
Although sickness can be caused by a variety of factors, and sometimes one cannot escape the dreaded “flu season” unscathed, stress plays a large role in immune system functioning. Some factors that contribute to stress in a competitive athlete are competing multiple times in a season, the internal and external pressures of competition, hitting a performance plateau, or cognitive dissonance in progression or results. If an athlete is experiencing stress as a result of one or a combination of various factors, the immune system is being compromised and the athlete is at a higher risk for getting sick. If an athlete gets sick, it is not to say that he or she is most definitely burnt out. However if the athlete’s ailment seems to be recurring, or is cured only to come back soon after, it is likely that he or she is overloaded with stresses and is either at risk for, or battling through burnout.
It is important to be aware of the signs in order to be able to identify burnout in an athlete. If it is identifiable, it can be treated and overcome before the athlete gets in too deep.