by Tim Curry, MS ACSM-RCEP

We’ve all had that feeling of accomplishment from completing something difficult. There’s a sense of joy and delight when we overcome a challenge, but what happens when an activity that you used to love becomes less fun? As coaches, it’s our job to provide a safe and fun environment where our student-athletes can thrive. Performance is a big part of our sport, but when it becomes the sole focus, it can lead to burnout for athletes of all ages and abilities.

Work vs. Play

You may be asking yourself, “why would we talk about work in an article about preventing burnout?” Categorizing an experience in sport is a great approach to begin understanding what may lead to burnout and how to prevent it, especially in performance-focused athletes. Let’s start with the basics:

  • Work - An activity that is done for some external reward, which in the academic world is known as an exotelic activity (i.e. the end is outside of you).

  • Play - An activity that is done for intrinsic reasons or reward (aka autotelic) AND provides a contrasting experience to work activities.

In sports, we could consider work as training sessions that are specifically designed to create performance enhancements. This is the opposite of play, where the athlete is simply riding for the pure enjoyment of it. Now, you may have noticed that these two terms seem pretty broad so let's expand the definition of work:

  • Dutiful work - Work that is done because it must be performed and is necessary. You might find the task is being done begrudgingly or that the motive behind the goal is simply to complete it. 

  • Enjoyable work - Work that is necessary to do, but is also personally meaningful and therefore even enjoyable to do. The reason for the activity is still the external end goal (ex. Earn money, get faster to win races), but you don’t mind doing the activity.

Many of you have probably experienced these two types of work, either at your job or in your own sport. It’s not uncommon for motivation to fluctuate during training. There are often days when rides or tasks are completed because they are necessary to reach a performance goal, but the athlete is glad when it is over. On other days, the training is still necessary, but perhaps it’s working on a skill the athlete is really excited about, making the process more enjoyable. While these terms are rooted in sport philosophy they establish an understanding that we can use to help prevent burnout. 

How Can We Prevent Burnout?

Burnout is typically viewed as a spectrum of issues that ultimately lead to discontinuing an activity for an unspecified duration. Usually, athletes approaching this state begin feeling mental effects as training in their sport shifts from primarily play and enjoyable work to more dutiful work. They’re also likely to experience fatigue, lack of motivation and interest, and many other symptoms. Importantly, this often occurs over time rather than all at once. The earlier this transition from play to work is caught the more likely burnout can be avoided. 

As a coach, it’s important to actively consider, plan, and evaluate the relationship your athletes have with their training. There are many times training is enjoyable work. The athlete might need to complete a hard training session to improve, but they enjoy doing so regardless of its difficulty. Coaches help young athletes navigate the sport in a healthy manner, so it’s also very important that we plan for sessions that are purely focused on play. Play activities help athletes in many ways, both psychologically and physically. They can help athletes stay in touch with what drew them to the sport in the first place, and identify what they find enjoyable about it. Physically, it can also provide a lower-workload day which can allow them to better recover, though this isn’t always the case. Regardless of our actions as coaches, there will always be days that become dutiful work due to fatigue, a bad day at school/work, etc. When these days occur you should always discuss how the athlete is feeling both mentally and physically to determine whether there is a specific concern that needs to be addressed. 

When Training Becomes Only Dutiful Work

The danger zone for any athlete is when training becomes only dutiful work. During my own time as a mountain bike racer, I experienced this shift just before burning out, though I failed to notice the signs. Early in my racing career, I thoroughly enjoyed riding and training. However, when I began a year of attempting to gain enough USAC license points to move to a pro license, things began to shift. My focus became achieving the performance necessary to qualify for the pro license. I had a drastic increase in training days, shifting enjoyable work to dutiful work. This ultimately meant that one year later when I upgraded to a pro license, I wasn’t enjoying being on a bike at all, had no idea why I continued to train hard, and generally hated the sport. Shortly after this point, I burned out of the sport and basically didn’t touch a mountain bike for nearly three years after. 

The difficulty for many athletes is that the timespan this shift can occur over is long enough that they don’t fully realize what’s happening until it’s too late. The overwhelming focus on their external, performance-oriented goal is enough to keep them going even as things become unpleasant. They may continue until they either reach a point they can no longer push through or, as in my case, achieve the goal and find their motivation level plummets after. 

Preventing Burnout

Now that we understand the risks and signs to watch out for, what can you do as a coach to help safeguard your athletes from reaching this state? Here are some simple tips to start off with:

  • Intrinsic rather than extrinsic goals - Many athletes develop goals focused on specific results in a competitive event. While this can often seem logical, it also means there are many variables for the athlete’s success that are outside of their control. They may be in the best shape compared to the rest of the group but can break a chain on their bike and get a DNF, through no fault of their own. It’s important to actively work with athletes to help shift their goals from an extrinsic focus to an intrinsic one within their control. 

    • For example - “My goal is to finish top 5 in the state championship” is a clear extrinsic goal where the achievement is at least partially out of their control. Instead, this can be broken up into multiple intrinsic goals that they can achieve to arrive at the state championship race where they can perform competitively for a top 5 spot. These may include:

      • “I want to improve my downhill cornering skills to achieve an OTB-201 cornering level no later than one month prior to the state championship.”

      • “I want to be able to climb the Hard Guy trail in 45 minutes no later than two weeks prior to the state championship.”

  • Watch, listen, and ask - Pay attention to the behaviors of each athlete and listen to them to help assess their mood and mindset. If you notice shifts in attitude, such as consistent negativity, or that they are chronically fatigued, or other signs that the training is now dutiful work, talk to them. Assess the situation and help them make adjustments accordingly. 

  • Build in time for play - Not every day needs or should be a training day with a rigid structure. Provide space and encouragement for them to go out and play for a day. This could be simply going out for a ride with friends without a heart rate monitor or watch, just to enjoy the ride. It could also include participating in an activity completely outside of their sport for a mental break. This might include trying frisbee golf for a few hours as a recovery activity, rather than completing a one-hour recovery ride!

With some basic knowledge and effort, we can help prevent burnout from occurring in athletes of all ages, especially youth athletes.

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