USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is the latest column from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.
Does this sound familiar? An athlete continues with a strenuous daily exercise routine, yet feels as if he is not improving in overall physical conditioning. His running time is lengthening, and he feels as if he cannot lift as much weight as he had just a month ago without feeling physically taxed. He struggles to recover from the previous day’s workout. The athlete is starting to have sleep issues, feels moody and is having trouble with schoolwork and relationships. Often, athletes, coaches and parents believe this scenario suggests anemia, lack of sleep, depression, dehydration or an underlying viral infection, when the athlete may in fact be suffering from burnout as a result of continued physical conditioning and the pressures of being a student.
Studies show that the most ambitious and talented athletes run the greatest risk of burnout and may even consider quitting their sport without realizing the options they have to stay in the game and become re-energized. While there is a physical component to athlete burnout, the mental stress involved is more problematic since mental health concerns may be subtle or the athlete may attempt to hide them for fear of being stigmatized. Since May is Mental Health Month, this is a good time for parents and coaches to learn about the signs and symptoms of burnout, identify how athletes can help themselves and seek information on risk factors to identify burnout early and prevent its debilitating effects.
Burnout is a result of prolonged response to chronic stress – physical and/or mental – and may be brought on by others (coaches, parents) or by the athlete. Burnout may also result from exercise addiction.
Signs and symptoms of mental burnout include:
- Emotional exhaustion
- Feelings of frustration, anger, failure or ineffectiveness
- Impaired relationships and schoolwork
- Withdrawal from others or activities previously enjoyed by the athlete; this includes quitting the sport.
- Disconnect from others; emotionally detached from teammates, coaches and even parents. The athlete doesn’t get too excited over a victory or show any emotion to a sudden and crushing defeat.
- Fatigue or frustration that lingers or worsens during or after a long season.
Important steps to take if an athlete feels burned out:
- Stay connected (and have a support system): Studies show that when athletes feel autonomous, competent in their ability and connected to their support system (family, friends, coach, teammates), they should feel a lower sense of burnout. This balance of psychological needs is a good step in preventing burnout, even during a long, and at times grueling, season.
- Sleep, eat and hydrate: It is important for student athletes to get at least 7-8 hours of sleep, stay hydrated (going to the bathroom 8-10 times daily is a reliable indicator of good hydration) and eat balanced meals.
- Set aside time: Encourage athletes to establish a daily routine, and take some “personal time” every day to enjoy a hobby or do things away from the pressures of being a student and an athlete.
- Be smart about alcohol and drugs: Talk to athletes about not using alcohol, only taking medication prescribed by a licensed medical professional and not using illegal drugs or abusing prescription drugs. The opioid abuse epidemic is a real concern today, and athletes are not immune.
- Speak up: Athletes who feel burned out should talk with a parent, the school’s athletic trainer, coach or other trusted adult about feelings and concerns. Referral to a licensed mental health care professional may be recommended to provide the care to best manage the athlete’s mental health and wellness.
Check out these resources for risk factors and additional information on burnout:
- The Exercise Addiction Inventory – a brief, six-question screening tool to determine exercise addiction
- Mental Health America – the country’s oldest mental health organization that provides great information and on-line tests to screen for mental health issues.
- In 2015, the National Athletic Trainers’ Association spearheaded an inter-association consensus statement on developing a plan to recognize and refer student athletes with psychological concerns at the secondary school level. This is a good resource for more in-depth information.
For additional information on athlete burnout and mental health, NATA has created an infographic handout. Visit atyourownrisk.org for additional sports safety tips for athletes and parents.