The Burn Cycle: Mental Burnout

Apr 21, 2016

In soccer, as in life, you can get burned in many different ways. We all know how painful turf burns can be and how long they take to heal; but those injuries pale in comparison to the lingering pain and scars of mental and emotional stress. Yes, they both truly suck. The more you know about this unholy pair, the better positioned you will be to protect yourself against turf burns and mental burnout.

So take a knee and join us as we answer some lingering questions about these two very important issues in a candid two-part series. Doctor's orders. This part of the series covers the facts on mental burnout and tips on burnout prevention and recovery.

Mental Burnout Facts

“We have a sort of stigma that being in a difficult mental place is not acceptable. We should ‘pull ourselves up by the bootstraps’ and ‘fight through it,’…that if someone’s physically hurt, we’re OK with letting them take the time they need to come back, but if someone’s in a difficult time mentally, we’re not OK with [that].”
-Landon Donovan 2013

1. The real scorch trials. Burnout is the antithesis of flow and can affect any athlete. The physical scars of injury are usually evident but the effects of acute and chronic stress can be harder to see. Once the exclusive territory of elite athletes, excessive specialization and congested scheduling demands have led to burnout concerns in athletes of all ages and levels. A recent study of youth soccer players showed symptoms of mental burnout in 25% while another study of ACC college athletes found 50% were affected.

2. The terrible triad. Every athlete may be unique, but burnout has three distinctive core symptoms:

- Reduced performance. Before a player even recognizes their problem, their athletic output and mental focus decline. Flow is disengaged and the seeds of dissatisfaction are sown.

- Mental and physical exhaustion. Unexplained fatigue and a sense of “staleness” are often the first warning signs of burnout. This is the tipping point for many and essential to recognize.

- Devaluation of performance and participation. Once the syndrome takes hold, athletes become increasingly self-critical and question their motives and purpose. Compulsive, perfectionist behavior- all hallmarks of many great athletes, only worsens this decline.

3. Emotional forensics. Although the exact causes for athlete burnout can be complex, most cases boil down to three fundamental issues.

- Expectation. Unreasonable demands are placed on many talented athletes. Overtraining and under-recovery eventually fail to satisfy. The player can start a downward spiral of error, loss of confidence, and failure.

- Entrapment. Athletes can feel pressured to keep a scholarship, salary, endorsement, or their starting position, making them feel a prisoner of their team, fans, or sport. This leads to loss of enthusiasm and can cause depression.

- Empowerment. Loss of control is a recurrent cause of burnout as players feel like they are working for others (parents, team, fans, etc.), and have lost their right to choose. This crashes motivation and hurts performance.

4. Breaking Bad. Burnout is a potentially dangerous condition that can lead to reckless behavior and permanent emotional injury.

- Resentment. When a person feels entrapped they can develop deep seated feelings of anger and bitterness that may be difficult to resolve.

- Rebellion. Early in burnout syndrome, players can begin acting out and reckless behavior becomes common. 

- Withdrawal. When the athlete is paralyzed by their burnout symptoms, performance becomes impossible. Unfortunately, this will occur late in the syndrome and is hard to reverse. Many quit their sport altogether and can face more global mental distress.

Photos by Sam Maller

5. Better; Not Different. In a world that happily shovels ever increasing demands on our elite young athletes, successful treatment starts with early diagnosis and intervention. The problem is that our culture rewards sacrifice and punishes those perceived as weak.

- Guilt-free counseling. Open and candid communication is critical to keep players motivated and engaged

- The big sleep. Recovering from burnout does not mean just lightening up training and game schedules. That just prolongs the inevitable and entrenches the problem. A burned out athlete needs physical rest, proper sleep, improved nutrition, and mental stimulation to get their groove back. Innovative use of meditation, mindfulness, and positive imaging can also help players mitigate and resolve symptoms.

- The contract. To really get a player back from the brink, all the stakeholders need to buy-in and cooperate or else sabotage is inevitable and failure assured. Restoring an athlete’s sense of control and value requires time and commitment from everyone involved to have any shot at success. Tegaderm isn’t going to fix this kind of burn.

Dr. Raymond Rocco Monto is a contributing writer for focused on soccer training techniques and mental and physical exercises to help better your game.

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