Are you burned out? (Part 1)

By Dr. Alan Goldberg

Have you been having particular trouble lately in your sport? Is it hard for you to get as excited and enthusiastic as you once did when you first got hooked on and began participating in your sport? Have you forgotten what it’s like to actually have FUN whenever you train or compete? Have your practices turned into heavy-duty drag-fests which consistently weigh you down? Do you dread going to workout and when you finally force yourself to, you spend far too much time watching the clock and counting down the minutes and seconds until you can go home? Are your performances way off, in a slump or just plain flat? Are you constantly asking yourself during workouts “WHY AM I HERE?” or “WHY AM I PUTTING MYSELF THROUGH ALL OF THIS?” Do you feel like you’re getting sick or injured far more than what might seem normal to you?

If you answer “yes” to the majority of these questions, then chances are really good that you are well on your way to imitating the condition of my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving Day turkey this year: You are one seriously “over cooked,” burnt-out bird. If this is the case, then it’s absolutely critical that you change your relationship with your sport today, in fact RIGHT NOW! If you ignore the warning signs of burnout and continue to push yourself to train, then sooner or later you will find yourself completely out of the sport that you once loved. Your exit will either be fueled physically or mentally. That is, you’ll either be forced to prematurely retire from the sport because of injuries or you’ll leave because you’re completely bored out of your mind.

To insure that you avoid becoming a victim of burnout, let’s briefly review both the warning signs and causes of it.


PHYSICAL FATIGUE – Athletes who are well on the way to becoming burnt out seem to feel tired almost all of the time. They train feeling tired, go to bed exhausted and when they wake up in the morning they don’t feel refreshed. Because they continuously overwork their bodies and never allow themselves to completely recharge, they carry around a base level of exhaustion that consistently interferes with their practices, competitions and day-to-day living. Despite being in great physical shape, the burnt-out athlete consistently complains about a lack of energy and limited endurance whenever he/she trains.

FREQUENT COLDS/ILLNESS – Because the athlete is physically run- down, his/her immune system does not function as well as it could. Because of a lowered resistance, the athlete is that much more vulnerable to catching bacterial and viral infections. As a result, the athlete may go from one cold to another over the course of a season, spending very little time feeling healthy. It’s not unusual for this kind of athlete to then be more susceptible to getting mononucleosis.

CHRONIC INJURIES – Because his/her body is being robbed of an opportunity to physically recover and rest, the burnt out athlete is always more vulnerable to sustaining new injuries and turning old ones into chronic injuries. When you continue to play through an injury or pain, you are far more likely to aggravate the existing injury to the point where it becomes more serious. If you never adequately rest your body, it will never have a chance to fully heal. As you continue to re-injure yourself, the injured part of your body becomes weakened and sets you up to have chronic problems there. For example, if you come back too fast from a bad ankle sprain, you are much more likely to re-sprain that same ankle again. Subsequent sprains will continue to stretch the ligaments out around the ankle, insuring that you will continue to have more problems with it.

LOSS OF FUN – One of the defining characteristics of burnout is a total loss of enjoyment in the activity. If you’re burnt out, you stop having fun in practices and/or games. You lose your enthusiasm and passion for the activity. The sport becomes more of a chore for you and something that you “have to do” rather than something that you really want to do. This is visible in your approach to practice. When you’re burnt out, you are no longer excited about going to train. Instead you feel a sense of dread about having to go and while you’re there you’re focus is on “when will this be over.”

LOSS OF MEANING – The burnt out athlete continually struggles with questions like, “what’s the point?” and “why am I doing this?” He/she has difficulty finding meaning in continuing to practice and play. It’s as if what had initially attracted the athlete to the sport has completely disappeared. We can say that the athlete has lost touch with any personally meaningful goals. As a consequence, apathy sets in and the individual stops caring about what his/her efforts and results. In its extreme form, this apathy is experienced as boredom by the athlete.

DIFFICULTY FOCUSING – The athlete struggling with burn out has difficulty maintaining his/her focus of concentration. In practice this athlete is mentally “all over the place” and as a result, performs at a very low level. The athlete’s concentration is frequently disrupted by persistent thoughts of wanting to be elsewhere doing anything except what he/she is supposed to be doing in the moment.

PERFORMANCE PROBLEMS – It’s not unusual for athletes struggling with burnout to show any number of repetitive performance problems. Swimmers, runners and other endurance sport athletes may hit a patch where they can’t seem to drop any time, and instead go slower. Gymnasts, skaters and divers mysteriously develop one or more incapacitating fears and suddenly can’t execute things that they used to do effortlessly. Baseball and softball players fall into batting, fielding or throwing slumps. On the surface what seems like a basic performance problem is really a symptom of the larger problem of burnout.

BEHAVIORAL PROBLEMS – Sometimes an athlete’s behavioral problems with teammates and/or coaches are nothing more than a symptom of being burnt out. Perhaps the athlete displays a bad attitude, is overly negative or constantly instigating conflicts on the team. These kinds of outward problems frequently mask the athlete’s struggles with burnout. (Next month: Causes of Burn Out)

Dr. Alan Goldberg is a nationally-known expert in the field of applied sport psychology, Dr. Goldberg works with athletes and teams across all sports at every level, from professional and Olympic caliber right down to junior competitors. He is the author of 25 mental toughness training programs and Director of Competitive Advantage. His website is


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