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Treatment and Prevention of Overtraining and Burnout

This is an excerpt from Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 8th Edition With HKPropel Access by Robert S. Weinberg & Daniel S. Gould.

The goal in studying overtraining, staleness, and burnout is to learn how to develop programs and strategies that help sport personnel prevent these conditions or at least treat them effectively. Several investigators have developed and tested interventions designed to prevent burnout in athletes. Dubuc-Charbonneau and Durand-Bush (2015), for example, assessed the impact of feel-based self-regulation intervention on eight university athletes who had exhibited high burnout scores. Both survey and interview results showed that as the intervention progressed, participants reported significantly less stress and burnout and increased well-being and self-regulation scores. Moen and Wells (2016) developed a 12-week attentional training program aimed at increasing mindfulness by teaching athletes to better focus and sustain attention as well as shift attention. When Norwegian junior athletes who were assigned to either an intervention or control group were compared, findings revealed that the intervention group significantly decreased burnout scores and increased mindfulness compared with the control group. Birrer (2019) published a case study outlining how he treated nonfunctional overtraining syndrome in a competitive rower. The author helped that athlete by using a holistic approach that involved cognitive behavior therapy and mindfulness training. Specifically, moods were monitored over a 10-week period and relaxation was used to reduce anxiety while the meaning of stressors was explored. Alternative responses to stressors and self-destructive behaviors were derived. Psychoeducation and autogenic training sessions helped the rower enhance his awareness of biopsychological processes. While more research is certainly needed, these results suggest that psychological skills training can help prevent burnout in athletes.

Several strategies, based on research, have been developed to help prevent or reduce the probability of burnout in sport and exercise settings. We summarize each of these strategies.

Monitor Critical States in Athletes
Factors such as stress levels, stress sources (on and off the field), training volumes, and recovery activities have all been shown to be involved in overtraining and burnout. Although more research is needed to determine exactly how these factors are involved, it is clear that they can be important signs that athletes are becoming overtrained or burned out. Personal trainers, coaches, sports medicine specialists, and athletes themselves must monitor such states so that athletes in the early stages of overtraining and burnout can be identified and helped. In fact, a study of more than 900 collegiate soccer coaches found that these coaches used regular meetings with athletes and their staffs, consistent communication between team leaders and coaches, athletic training staff input, physiological testing (e.g., heart rate monitors), athlete self-report systems, and their own personal judgments or gut feelings to identify early signs of burnout in their players (Kroshus & DeFreese, 2017).

Develop Holistic Periodization Plans
Coaches and fitness professionals are often involved in helping athletes construct periodization schedules that often involve yearly physical training and competition plans. Periodization plans typically include periods of more intense training and competition that specify workload volume and intensity followed by rest and recovery. These periodization plans must be viewed holistically and not only specify physical training loads, parameters, and rest schedules but other factors such as psychological stress, nutrition, and sleep. Relative to psychological considerations, Blumenstein and Orbach (2020) provided specific guidelines for guiding psychological preparation within the preparation, competition, and recovery phases of the periodization process and discussed how psychological skills such as relaxation, self-talk, imagery, and concentration can be woven into athletes’ training and competition plans.

When professionals constructively analyze their feelings and communicate them to others, burnout is less likely and is less severe if it does occur. Coaches, athletes, officials, certified athletic trainers, and physical education teachers should be encouraged to express their feelings of frustration, anxiety, and disappointment and to seek out social support from colleagues and friends. In fact, social support networks should be developed so they can be tapped when necessary. Self-awareness and preparation early on might prevent burnout later.

Foster an Autonomy-Supportive Coaching Style
Evidence has shown that type of coaching style is related to athlete burnout. Specifically, the use of controlling coaching styles has been shown to be more likely to lead to burnout, whereas the use of autonomy-supportive coaching styles has been shown to be less likely to lead to burnout (Isoard-Gautheur et al., 2013). Paying attention to the coaching style athletes experience, then, can help us predict who might be more likely to burn out.

Set Short-Term Goals for Competition and Practice
Setting short-term goals and incentives for reaching them provides feedback that the athlete is on the right course and enhances long-term motivation. Meeting short-term goals is a success, which can enhance self-concept. Toward the end of the season it is particularly important to include fun goals. Most of an athlete’s time is taken up by practice rather than competition, so fun goals should be incorporated there. For example, if a team has been working really hard, the coach could say that the goal of practice is to simply have fun. She might let a soccer team play basketball or relax the game so that there are no rules. These activities provide a break and reduce monotony. Similarly, exercisers trying to maintain a regular program of physical activity need short-term goals to keep them motivated and provide them with feedback concerning their progress in meeting their long-term goals.

Take Relaxation Breaks
It is essential for mental and physical well-being to take time off from jobs and other stresses. The business world has vacations, holidays, and weekends away from work. But in competitive sport and the fitness industry, many people work under continuous pressure almost year-round. The myth that more is better is still afloat when it comes to practice and workouts. Time off is seen as falling behind your opposition. Yet the weekly grind of practice and competitions produces mental and physical fatigue. In truth, cutting back on training loads and intensities as a way to treat or prevent burnout is associated with increases in positive mental health. The key here is to develop balance in life.

Learn Self-Regulation Skills
Developing psychological skills such as relaxation, imagery, goal setting, and positive self-talk can ward off much of the stress that leads to burnout. For example, setting realistic goals can help athletes manage time for balancing professional and personal lives. People who overtrain in sport or exercise usually do so at the expense of their family and personal lives. By setting realistic goals, you have time for both sport and exercise and other responsibilities, which will help you avoid the burnout syndrome.

Keep a Positive Outlook
It is easy for officials to let news or social media commentary and criticism from coaches, spectators, and players get them down. Even when they officiate a great game, the losing coach may be upset and blame them. The antidote for officials is to focus on what they do well. A positive focus means working on the things you can control in order to get better and not dwelling on unwarranted criticism. One way to accomplish this is to seek people who provide social support (e.g., other colleagues).

Manage Postcompetition Emotions
Although many coaches and athletes know to control pregame anxiety and tension, few consider what happens after competition. The final buzzer does not necessarily stop the intense psychological feelings aroused by the competition. Emotions often intensify and erupt into postgame quarrels, fights, drinking binges, and other destructive behaviors. On the other hand, some athletes become depressed, despondent, and withdrawn after losing or performing poorly. Henschen (1998) suggested some ways for coaches to handle postcompetition stress in athletes:

  • Provide a supportive atmosphere immediately after the contest.
  • Concentrate on your players’ emotions, not your own.
  • Try to be with your team (not on the radio or television) after a contest.
  • Provide an unemotional, realistic assessment of each athlete’s performance.
  • Talk to all team members, even those who did not play.
  • Once athletes have dressed, have a group activity for the team (e.g., postgame meal, swimming, bowling, movie).
  • Keep athletes away from well-meaning but demanding peers and parents.
  • Do not allow team members to gloat over success or be depressed over a loss.
  • Begin preparation for the next opponent at the very next practice.

Stay in Good Physical Condition
Your body and mind have a reciprocal relationship: each affects the other. Chronic stress usually takes a toll on your body, so it’s critical that you take good care of yourself through diet and exercise. Eating improperly, gaining weight, or losing too much weight only contributes to low self-esteem and self-worth and feeds into the burnout syndrome. When you feel particularly stressed, make a special attempt to stay in good physical condition to help your mental state stay strong.

More Excerpts From Foundations of Sport and Exercise Psychology 8th Edition With HKPropel Access