Athletic Burnout: An Underdiscussed Phenomenon

Written by Kristen Dunsmore

July 3, 2023

5 Tips to Minimize Athlete Burnout:

A few years ago, I began having discomfort in my glute, which ultimately led to experiencing some pretty bad burnout. It got to the point where I even considered quitting altogether. Luckily, the athlete in me wouldn’t allow that, and I’m glad I didn’t listen. At first, I ignored the pain because, you know – stupid meathead, and as much as I preach about taking a step back or modifying when needed, I understand how hard it can be to do. Since I was two months away from Nationals, I continued training as I would have otherwise. I figured I would suck it up and worry about it once Nationals was over. Eight months later, I squatted 70kg at Worlds. What made things worse was feeling lost and no longer having the desire, motivation, or even enjoying training.

I believe that’s how I found myself delving into the rabbit hole of sports psychology research. I wanted to love training again. One of the greatest things that can happen from these negative experiences is the unique opportunity for. I hope to share a part of my experience and personal growth and what I’ve learned from it, and hopefully provide you with simple strategies you can implement in case you or one of your athletes ever experiences burnout.

Burnout is hard to define, and managing it can be even more challenging. Outside of physical exhaustion, there are no apparent signs. Burnout can stem from pressure from coaches, parents, or the athletes themselves – brought on by the competitive desire to meet challenging goals but unable to fulfill them. In my case, I felt burned out as a direct result of the pain I was experiencing. It made it uncomfortable to squat, making going to the gym no longer enjoyable. With that background in mind, I’d like to discuss what burnout is.

Athletic burnout is characterized by three main components: (1):

  1. Emotional and Physical Exhaustion
  2. Reduced Sense of Accomplishment
  3. Sport Devaluation

Emotional and Physical Exhaustion

Exhaustion is one of the main components of athlete burnout. Physical exhaustion, either from overtraining, lack of proper recovery, illness, or injury, can create feelings of emotional exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion can lead to feeling unmotivated, lazy, or mentally tired, ultimately decreasing performance.

Reduced Sense of Accomplishment

The decreased performance results in a reduced sense of accomplishment. The athlete feels they’re no longer meeting the goals or expectations that others put on them (parents, coaches, fans, etc.) or expectations they put on themselves. One of the reasons elite athletes excel in the first place is that they are willing to commit and dedicate their time to intense and sometimes extreme training conditions that most of us are unwilling to commit to. These athletes often consider their sport a large portion of who they are. Burnout then becomes a threat to their identity.

Sport Devaluation

The emotional stress and the level of importance many athletes place on social acceptance can result in them feeling withdrawn, depressed, and unmotivated. The athlete may try to cope with these feelings by developing a cynical and negative attitude towards training for their sport. At this point, the athlete loses their desire and gives up or decides to withdraw from their sport.

The difficulty with athletic burnout is that many athletes may need help understanding what or why they feel the way they do. So, it’s essential to recognize the signs. These include:

  • Chronic decreases in performance
  • Changes in their mood, attitude, or behavior
  • Mental and physical fatigue
  • Apathy and lack of motivation
  • General staleness

The apparent goal is to prevent burnout. Unfortunately, just like avoiding injury or illness is impossible, it’s impossible to avert athletic burnout altogether. However, by understanding what burnout is and what it entails, coaches and athletes can, at the very least, minimize the risk and take the appropriate steps to return to their previous physical and emotional state.

    The following five strategies are often used in sports psychology and performance for many contexts. Still, I will explain these concepts as they apply to dealing with athlete burnout and my personal experience with using these techniques (2):

    Goal Setting

    Goal Setting is the process of progressively challenging performance standards and helps increase the chance of success by influencing the extent to which we perceive a stressful situation. It also gives the athlete an active role in recovery, which can positively impact their emotional response. Having a clear objective can assist the athlete to return to their previous physical and mental state. After my experience at Worlds, I worked with a rehab specialist who 1) assured me that how I felt was okay and that 2) as long as I was committed to the rehab process, my specific goal of competing at the Arnold’s was possible. Although my goal was to compete again, I also told myself that if I didn’t feel ready, I wouldn’t, and that was okay.

    Follow these general principles (3):

    1. Understand the importance of setting the correct type of goals;
    2. Set goals that are challenging but realistic, specific, and measurable
    3. Focus on the degree of, rather than the absolute attainment these goals.

    Self-Talk and Mental Imagery

    Although there seems to be conflicting data on how compelling mental imagery is (4), I think it’s important to discuss it here as it does seem to help at least some individuals struggling with burnout. Mental imagery is a cognitive skill where the athlete recreates a positive experience or experience that provides the subconscious mind with positive memories. Mental imagery can be a great tool to help the athlete ‘experience’ success again.

    Self-talk is the internal conversation we have with ourselves every day. This one was important for me, and I’m sure it is relevant to many people as these actions can be positive or negative, affecting our internal control of mood and performance. When I was dealing with my glute issue, I would go to the gym, but as soon as I got under the bar, my first thought was, “OMG, this is going to hurt so bad!” Guess what, it did! Once, I could change the narrative to something more positive, like, “You know what, yes, I was in pain last time, but I’m going to go in and do what I can today.

    Relaxation Techniques

    When we hear ‘relaxation techniques,’ many automatically think of meditation and yoga. Yes, meditation and yoga are great relaxation techniques, and they also.  of literature to back them up (5, 6), but while it may work forhave quite a bit it might not work for others. I am a big promoter of meditation simply because I’ve found that it helps with my internal self-talking points. This may vary from person to person, but find something that you enjoy and do it. Go for a walk, ride a bike, listen to music, or write (if you’ve noticed, I’ve been more actively writing content, which seems to help me).

    Social Support

    I’m fortunate to be around some of the most intelligent individuals regarding training, programming, rehab, and injury. After World War, I began working with a rehab specialist who understood pain wasn’t just physical and emotional. He also gave me a training program that allowed me to modify my squat in a way that didn’t hurt. I won’t go into detail about what workouts he gave me because everyone is different, but I do think that having an outside ear helped immensely.

    Take a Break from Sport-Specific Training

    After Nationals, I took some time off from powerlifting-focused training and began working on sprint mechanics and track and field workouts. It was a nice break from the monotony of powerlifting workouts. It was also fun and stimulating because, well, I sucked, but I wasn’t doing it for sport, so that didn’t matter. I wish I could have continued with it for longer than the six weeks I did it. For athletes who feel tired from prepping for a meeting or simply post-meet fatigue, I often recommend a week off from any training program and go to the gym and do whatever they feel like doing. Usually, a week or two of this training is plenty for the athlete to get excited about structured programming again.

    Burnout is not depression, but it’s worth noting the similarities and understanding that mishandling may have severe consequences. Both conditions have signs and symptoms overlapping, so it’s essential to know the differences.


    Raedeke, T. D. (1997). Is athlete burnout more than stress? A commitment perspective. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 19, 396-417.

    Arvinen-Barrow, M., & Walker, N. (2013). Imagery In Sports Injury Rehabilitation: Monna Arvinen-Barrow, Damien Clement and Brian Hemmings. In The psychology of sports injury and rehabilitation (pp. 71-85). Routledge.

    Wiese-Bjornstal, D. M., Smith, A. M., Shaffer, S. M., & Morrey, M. A. (1998). An integrated model of response to sports injury: Psychological and sociological dynamics. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 10(1), 46–69.

    Zach, S., Dobersek, U., Filho, E., Inglis, V., & Tenenbaum, G. (2018).  A meta‐analysis of mental imagery effects on post‐injury functional mobility, perceived pain, and self‐efficacy. Psychology of Sport and Exercise,  34,  79– 87.

    Saeed, S. A., Cunningham, K., & Bloch, R. M. (2019). Depression and Anxiety Disorders: Benefits of Exercise, Yoga, and Meditation. American Family Physician, 99(10), 620–627.

    Mohammed, W.A., Pappous, A., & Sharma, D. (2018). Effect of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on increasing pain tolerance and improving the mental health of injured athletes. Frontiers in Psychology,9, 722.

    Statler, T., DuBois A., (2016) Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning: Chapter 8: Psychology of Athletic Preparation and Performance (p161-172). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

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