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IN THIS ISSUE: A few months ago I got a panicked call from the mother of a very talented 16 year old athlete. The woman was quite alarmed because, “all of a sudden, out of the clear blue” her son wanted to quit his sport. She explained to me, “here’s a kid who is ranked both nationally and internationally, and who’s one of the up and coming talents in his sport and he wants to quit? I just don’t get it. What’s especially confusing to me is that it didn’t seem that long ago that he was excitedly telling me how much he loved the sport and how he had all these really important goals that he wanted to accomplish. Now he claims that he doesn’t care anymore and he wants to try another sport altogether.” The mother then went on to tell me that neither she nor her husband wanted the boy to “throw it all away after all he’s accomplished” and that his coach felt exactly the same way. It would be “such a waste of great talent” if he did. She then asked if I would be willing to work with him to help him get through this “crisis.” Before she hung up, she explained to me that the only thing that she could think about that might be getting him a little down was the string of nagging injuries that he’s had to deal with over the past year or so. For some strange reason she claimed that he kept getting himself hurt.
During my initial phone conversation with this athlete it soon became crystal clear to me that something very important had escaped the parents’ and coaches’ attention. To me, this something was screaming for attention like the pink elephant sitting in the room that no one was talking about as if it weren’t there. It was this something that was almost completely responsible for the athlete’s “sudden” attitude change, not to mention the main cause of his nagging injuries. What could possibly have killed this athlete’s love and motivation for his sport? How could someone so good with that kind of success want to pack it all up? What’s with his history of recurring injuries?
The answer became obvious as we discussed his training history over the past two years. This poor guy had been training and competing virtually non-stop for almost two and a half years! The longest break from training that he had taken during this time period was three days, and that was just ONCE! THREE WHOLE DAYS!!!!! What a slacker! This kid hadn’t ever had a week off from the sport since he first began it. EVER!!!! Not only that, but he was almost training continuously, seven days a week, 52 weeks a year. Is there something wrong with this picture?
It’s no wonder that he wanted to quit. Nor is it surprising that he had stopped having fun training and competing. It’s also no mystery why he continued to struggle with recurring injuries. And if you want to figure out why his goals no longer had any staying power for him, you don’t have to look too far. The desire to quit, absence of fun, recurring injuries and an inability to find meaning in once meaningful goals are all classic symptoms of BURNOUT! This athlete was emotionally and physically fried! He was as overcooked and dried out as my brother-in-law’s Thanksgiving Day turkey and let me tell you, that sucker was so well-done it was virtually inedible! This athlete had become a victim of the “more is better” training philosophy so common in sports here in the good old U.S. of A. In other words, if you’re having some success training three days a week, 6 months a year, imagine how much more success you’ll be able to achieve training 7 days a week, 12 months a year, non-stop! I don’t know about you, but I can hear the Olympic theme playing right now baby! Let’s gets some quality practice time standing on the top podium step raising that right fist in a gold medal victory salute! We are going to the Olympics. I can see us on a box of Wheaties now!
Unfortunately there was one very small oversight on the parents and coaches part. One tiny little glitch that escaped everyone’s attention. One eensie, weensie, minor detail: The kid was a living, breathing, feeling organism who actually needed some rest woven into his training and competition routine. Imagine that!
In this issue of the Mental Toughness Newsletter we will revisit the topic of burnout, including its causes and what can be done to combat it. Who would ever have thought that working so hard could be so very bad for you? Why, the idea is simply un-American!
ATHLETE’S LOCKER – “Are you burnt out?”
PARENTS CORNER - “The relationship between fun and burnout”
COACHES’ OFFICE – “Beating burnout”
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES – “Sharpen your axe”
“Are you burnt out?”
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.
WARNING SIGNS OF BURN-OUT
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.
CAUSES OF BURN-OUT
NOT ENOUGH REST – The main cause of burnout is very simple and basic: NOT ENOUGH REST. When you over-work physically and do not allow your body and mind an adequate chance to “chill” and recover, then you will be embarking down the road to burn out. If you have any desire to reach your athletic goals, then rest has to become part of your regular training regime. Allowing your body and mind a chance to recharge will keep your motivation and energy to train high. It will keep you fresh and excited about your sport and goals. It will allow your body to physically recover so that you stay strong and healthy. Rest should never be something that you occasionally do. It must be built in to your weekly and monthly workouts. It is not separate from training. It is an integral part of training.
TOO MUCH PRESSURE - Another element that fuels burnout is too much competitive pressure. There’s no question that competition is good for you and will make you a better athlete. The same can be said for having to deal with the pressure that comes with this competition. However, if you are constantly under extreme competitive pressure from either yourself, your coaches or parents, if you never get a chance to relax and let down, then sooner or later that pressure will drain the enjoyment out of your sport and you will begin to burn out. Too much pressure makes what you’re doing too serious. When things get too serious for you, you will lose your perspective and stop having fun. Once the fun leaves your sport it will take your desire and intensity with it and when that happens, you are well on your way to being cooked.
TYING YOUR SELF-WORTH TO YOUR PERFORMANCE- Related to #2, one mental mistake athletes (coaches and parents) frequently make is to tie their self-worth to their athletic performances. That is, if you perform well, you’re a worthwhile person and if you fail, then you are worthless. When you put your ego on the line like this you not only set yourself up to fail, but you also make it more likely that you will eventually burn out. If your ego is at stake every time you step on the court, field or track, then chances are good that the intense pressure experienced from doing this will ultimately erode your enjoyment of the sport, wreck your performance and lead you to burning out.
If you want to avoid burnout as an athlete, then you have to understand the need for balance in your sport. You can’t simply put yourself on automatic and train hard all the time, 24/7. Operating on this “more is better” principle will eventually wear you down both physically and mentally. What this means is that you need to slow down a little in your pursuit of your goals by adding regular periods of rest or time completely away from training. Driving yourself non-stop as if you’re under a time deadline will not get you to your goals any faster. In fact, pushing yourself in this way will actually slow you down in your pursuit of your dreams. If you’re out of balance you will be more likely to injure yourself and this will really throw off your training schedule. Don’t ever think that you can’t afford to take time off to rest. The fact of the matter is that you can’t afford NOT to take time off.
Remember, if you want to become a champion and avoid burnout, sometimes LESS IS MORE. The rule of thumb is very simple here: GO SLOWER, ARRIVE SOONER.
“Understanding the relationship between FUN and BURNOUT”
Concerned parents frequently ask me how they would know if their child-athlete was in danger of burning out. This is a timely question to ask in our sports-crazed society today where there’s so much pressure to excel and kids are asked at younger and younger ages to get too serious about their sport. For example, if 8 year old Johnny really wants to play on the “elite” travel soccer team then he must commit to practicing with the team multiple times a week, year round. Not only that but to be a member of this team, the family has to agree to not take week long vacations during the really “important” times of the season. If Johnny or his parents balk at this extreme and ridiculous time commitment, then the coaches will politely inform the family that there are plenty of other little boys lined up behind Johnny who would be more than happy to take his place.
Related to this is the illusion perpetrated by many coaches that in order to be really successful, the athlete needs to specialize in one sport as early as possible. This coaching school of thought clings to the belief that the athlete who does so will get a leg up on his competition, progress faster and achieve more in the sport than the athlete who continues to participate in multiple sports. So, for example, if you want your 6 year old to earn a college scholarship to play baseball, he had better start playing ball RIGHT NOW and not “waste” precious time distracting himself playing other, “less important” sports.
The problem with all of this early specialization is simple: BURNOUT. Too much, too soon, at too high a level of competitive pressure throws young athletes way out of balance both physically and emotionally. Making a sport this important when your children are so young will ultimately stifle their joy and enthusiasm for the sport, interfere with their performance and eventually lead them to drop out. As one example, the negative effect of this kind of early specialization can be seen today in the US’s lack of dominance on an international scale in professional tennis.
The US dominated pro tennis through the 70’s and 80’s but our grasp of this sport has significantly slipped since then. One reason for the drop off is that our children have been encouraged to play serious, competitive tennis at younger and younger ages. We send them off when they’re preadolescents to special tennis schools where they eat, sleep and live tennis year round. By the time a child is 14, he/she is a veteran of the national and international tennis circuits. In many ways he/she is tired and burnt out from all the intensity, pressure and over-focus on the sport. As a consequence, he/she loses his/her motivation in the game and either quits prematurely or continues to play, but at a much less competitive level.
As an interesting aside, Stan Smith, was ranked among the top ten American tennis players 11 times between 1967 and 1980 including number 1 four of those years. He was on the world’s top ten list 6 times in a row and was ranked number one in 1971 and 1972. With doubles partner Bob Lutz, they became one of the most dominant doubles teams during this time period. Curiously enough, Smith didn’t get serious about tennis until he was in high school!
This same kind of pressured, “too serious” approach can be seen with upwardly mobile, highly competitive parents in relation to their children’s schooling. These parents want their young children to be at the best preschool centers (where you have to apply early and each “applicant” has to go through a battery of tests as part of the “admissions” process to “weed out” the less “competent”) so that they can then qualify for the best kindergarten programs, which, in turn will set them up for the best elementary schools, the best middle schools and of course the best high schools, leading naturally to the best colleges. Once a family steps onto this overly competitive, totally absurd treadmill, the brunt of the pressure falls on the child. Our obsession with being the best has warped our perspective and is seriously squeezing the word FUN from our children’s lives and play.
The fact of the matter is that sports, above all else, should be just for fun. They are designed for children to play and as an important vehicle for them to learn and master new physical and social skills. Sports are not primarily designed to determine who “the best” is or to prepare a child for a college scholarship or a professional career. This abortion of sports is a product of the adults involved, not the kids. When children are left to their own devices to play sports, their play is both enjoyable and rewarding. However, when adults impose their competitive structure on this child’s play, when kids are organized into “A” and “B” teams with tryouts to determine who gets placed where and who gets cut, when the more talented get all the playing time and the less skilled sit the bench, when adult coaches and parents get overly involved in the outcome of the competitions to the extremes of yelling at each other and the kids and even getting into physical fights, when kids are screamed at and emotionally berated for making mistakes or losing, then the whole nature of the game changes for the child. The fun drains away and it becomes a source of heartache for the child. It’s in this environment that burnout will take root and flourish.
If you would like a very simple litmus test for determining whether your child is a candidate for burnout, it revolves around the word “fun.” Simply put, there are three stages in the development of an athlete: The first two are healthy and will keep your child happy and excited about the sport, the third leads directly to unhappiness and burnout:
The first stage is called the FUN/FUN stage. This is the stage when your children are first introduced to their sport and they can’t get enough of it. If left to their own devices, they’d play it 24/7. The activity is totally a blast, they love hanging out with their friends who play and they don’t experience competitive or performance pressures of any kind. Most well run recreational sports programs are like this. It’s the FUN in this stage which initially attracts children to the sport to begin with and it’s the FUN that serves as the glue that will keep the child-athlete attached to the sport over the long haul.
The second stage in the development of an athlete is called the SERIOUS/FUN stage. This is when the athlete may first join a real competitive team and begin working with a more knowledgeable coach on proper technique and strategy. This is the stage where competitive pressures are first introduced and the athlete has to learn to manage both winning and losing. It’s at this point that the athlete may have also developed some personal goals that he/she feels committed to pursuing and achieving in relation to the sport. While the activity still remains extremely fun, the athlete is willing to invest some significant time, energy and hard work towards the pursuit of these goals. In other words, he/she is very serious about the sport, while at the same time maintaining his/her passion for it.
This second, SERIOUS/FUN stage is the stage of optimal learning and peak performance. In fact, this is the only stage where an athlete will be capable of truly achieving his/her athletic dreams. This is as true for the Olympic caliber competitor as much as it is for the 13 year old club soccer player or swimmer. It’s the fine blend of serious and fun that allows an athlete to be successful without any adverse consequences. As a parent, this is the stage that you want to try to keep your children in throughout their time in the sport. It’s within this stage that they will continue to grow and develop both as athletes and human beings. Out of this SERIOUS/FUN stage will come the development of a healthy athletic identity, a solid sense of self-esteem and numerous other beneficial life-skills.
The third stage, when the athlete becomes a high risk to burnout is what I call the SERIOUS/SERIOUS stage. This is the phase in your child’s involvement in the sport when the fun, passion and anticipation gradually disappear and are replaced by unhappiness, hate and dread. In this stage there is much too much pressure put on the athlete. It’s also in this phase that the athlete begins to seriously question why he/she is practicing and competing anymore. Previous goals and dreams no longer hold their motivational power and the athlete spends his/her practice time hating the activity and just going through the motions. It’s during this phase that the athlete is much more vulnerable to developing performance problems and is most likely to become a dropout statistic.
Outside attempts at “motivation” and excessive pressure from parents and coaches do not help the athlete to get back on track in this phase because the athlete has lost his/her way from the inside. He/she no longer has a purpose in training and competing in the sport. It has lost its meaning for the athlete. Despite the fact that this individual may be experiencing significant success, the athlete still wants to quit because he/she has lost both the fun and his/her “big enough why” (compelling reason to train).
How do kids get to this burnout stage? One of the major reasons for our kids burning out has to do with all the adults involved in their sport. Specifically I’m referring to you as the parent and the coaches. If there’s too much pressure coming from you, too much focus on winning, excelling, and beating others, if there’s anger and disrespect sent their way whenever they fail, if there’s humiliation waiting for them after a particularly poor performance, if their coaches are continually negative and demeaning, if they are physically overworked on a consistent basis, then sooner or later these experiences will gradually accumulate and completely drain the fun out of the sport replacing it with hatred. When this happens, burnout will follow.
At this stage, your best bet as a parent is to somehow help your children recapture the fun that was once theirs (if this is possible) or else to very supportively and lovingly help them find another sport to get involved with. This means that you may have to actually give them permission to quit! This means that you may have to give up on your dreams! By no means should you ever resort to bribing, coercing, or trying to convince your child-athlete to continue in the sport when he/she is locked in this phase. Even if a son or daughter has tremendous talent and ability, you must still allow him/her the freedom to leave the sport if he/she so chooses. Forcing a child to stay in the sport because of all of your investments of time, money and energy, or because you don’t want him/her to “throw away his/her potential and regret it later” are in your best interests, not your child’s. If you do choose to force your son or daughter to stay for these reasons despite very clear and consistent messages from him/her to the contrary, then ultimately you’ll end up doing a lot of emotional damage to them, not to mention to your relationship with them.
Paradoxically, if you truly listen to your child when she complains of being tired and wanting to try another sport, if you trust her experience and honor her feelings, if you give her the room to try other sports, then you may find that she chooses to return to the original sport on her own terms. If this happens she will be coming back for the best of reasons: because SHE WANTS TO!
I recently worked with a nationally ranked gymnast who was in this exact situation. He was unhappy doing gymnastics, tired of the intensity and pressure and wanted to take a break or perhaps even quit to find another sport. He had been going at his sport very intensely for almost three years without any real significant break. He was exhausted. He was in the SERIOUS/SERIOUS phase with his sport. His parents and coaches were against him quitting because of all his talent, what he’d accomplished and the tremendous potential that he had. However, I convinced his parents to allow him to call the shots and to give him the freedom to choose for himself. He ended up taking 3-4 months off, realized that he missed the sport tremendously and then made the decision all by himself to return. When he came back he was happier, more motivated and better focused than he had been in years!
Want happy kids? Then as the adult, your job is to help keep your children’s sports in perspective. Do all you can to insure that they remain FUN for your kids. Be on the alert for situations where your child stops having fun. Remember, it’s the SERIOUS/FUN stage that leads to the development of happy winners.
Burnout is not just caused by overtraining and inadequate rest as most people would expect. There are many other factors that contribute to the development of this condition in athletes and many of these have little to do with the athlete directly. Instead, these factors that potentially fuel burnout are very often related to you, the coach. In fact, if you do your job correctly, you can significantly cut down on the number of athletes who succumb to burnout. Let’s briefly examine some of the other coach-related causes of burnout and then discuss what steps you as the coach can take to help your athletes beat burnout.
CAUSES OF BURNOUT
1) Overtraining and inadequate rest
2) Not enough physical/mental challenge to the athlete
3) Excessive negative feedback/no positive feedback
4) Relationship problems with the coach
5) Relationship problems with teammates
6) Loss of meaningful goals
7) Loss of enjoyment/fun
8) Unclear feedback from coach
9) Repetitive/boring disorganized practices
10) Negative, uncaring coach
WHAT YOU CAN DO AS A COACH
It’s stating the obvious to say that your role as a coach is an extremely powerful and influential one. Your behavior and how you interact with your athletes has a profound effect on how and what they learn about the sport as well as life, and on how they perform under pressure. Every interaction that you have with your athletes whether verbal or nonverbal, in practice or at competitions significantly impacts their attitude, belief in themselves, how they relate with their teammates, level of self-confidence, as well as their love for the sport. Most coaches are not really aware of the power that they wield in dramatically shaping these aspects of their athletes’ experience.
When you maintain an awareness of this power, you can constructively mold your athletes’ experiences so that you minimize their chances of burnout and maximize the chances that they will become passionate about the sport and make a commitment to excellence. Follow these guidelines to beat burnout:
#1 MODEL ENTHUSIASM – Your most powerful teaching tool as a coach is how you conduct yourself. If you love the game and you’re enthusiastic about coaching it, then your enthusiasm and passion for the game will be catchy. People always seem to learn better from teachers who are clearly enthusiastic about their subject. When you “walk the talk” in this way you will motivate your athletes and keep the sport fun and exciting. On the other hand, if coaching doesn’t excite you and you regularly have trouble getting up for practices, soon your athletes will be feeling and acting exactly the way that you are.
#2 KEEP YOURSELF BALANCED - Burnout is a product of “all work and no play.” If you are overworked as a coach and have not established a healthy balance in your own life, then you are more likely to inadvertently encourage your athletes to do the same. Do you have your sport in perspective? Do you regularly take time off to recharge your batteries? Have you made your family and friends a priority? If you have your life and your coaching in balance, then you will be better able to help your athletes to do the same.
#3 MAKE REST AN IMPORTANT PART OF TRAINING - You need to educate your players about the importance of taking time off as an integral part of the training process. Help them understand that in order to do their best and achieve maximum success, they need to take time off on a regular basis to allow their minds and bodies to rest. As the team leader you need to encourage these “training vacations” and build them into your season. What this entails is teaching them that sometimes, LESS IS MORE!
#4 CHALLENGE YOUR ATHLETES TO STEP OUTSIDE OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE – When any learner is in an environment where he is not being challenged, where things are too easy and predictable, then sooner or later he/she will begin to get bored. This boredom will then lead to apathy and the apathy, to burnout and dropout. As a coach, one of your primary jobs is to regularly encourage your athletes to “GET COMFORTABLE BEING UNCOMFORTABLE.” In other words, you have to consistently put them in situations where they are forced to step outside of their comfort zones. This is like pushing someone to do that which they don’t think they can. By putting an athlete in this position, he/she will soon learn that those limiting beliefs are false. Your challenges here are not just physical. (Keep in mind, though that too much of the physical “getting comfortable being uncomfortable” can lead to burnout). They also involve mental and emotional challenges, i.e. helping your athletes get comfortable learning new skills, strategies and positions; encouraging your athletes to compete against tougher and tougher opponents, etc. With these kinds of regular challenges your athletes will continue to learn and improve. This will keep them feeling good about themselves and happy, two conditions that will always beat burnout.
#5 CATCH YOUR ATHLETES DOING THINGS RIGHT - If burnout is fed by excessive negativity from the coach, then passion and enthusiasm is fed by the opposite, consistent positive feedback. You need to regularly catch your athletes doing things right. You need to “call them out for it” in front of the team. You need to liberally use praise. When it’s deserved and genuine, you can NEVER do too much of it. Giving positive feedback to your athletes when they do things well will NOT make them weak or soft! On the contrary! When you catch your athletes doing things well in this way you build their self-confidence and make them stronger! When athletes feel that they are improving, that they are doing things right, it heightens their excitement, builds confidence and fuels their passion for the sport.
#6 CUT DOWN ON YELLING – You don’t need to excessively yell to be an effective coach. Your message doesn’t go in better just because you raise the volume of your voice. You can lead and motivate very effectively without having to yell all the time. This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever raise your voice. There is always a right time and place for more volume. However, if your coaching interventions are most always stuck on the maximum volume setting, then you will start to turn your athletes off. Not that you will ever know this directly from your players because most will be far too intimidated to give you honest feedback. The fact of the matter is that continual yelling from the coach kills an athlete’s enjoyment of the sport.
#7 PRESSURE YOUR ATHLETES TO EXCEL, NOT TO WIN – Excessive outcome pressure fuels burnout. Coaches who coach the outcome, i.e. needing to win/beat a particular opponent, tend to crank up the pressure gauge into the red zone for their athletes. When you are in an environment where there is continual and excessive pressure, your fun will begin to diminish, your performance will drop off and you will gradually begin to burnout. It’s fine for you to challenge your athletes to execute to the best of their abilities. It’s also fine for you to encourage your players to commit to excellence. However, it’s another thing entirely when you continually expect your athletes to win and you refuse to accept anything short of this. Coach the process coach, NOT the outcome. Keep your athletes focused on the things that they can directly control and they will be peak performers for you.
#8 KEEP THE SPORT FUN – One of your biggest challenges as a coach is trying to figure out how to keep the sport fun for your athletes while continuing to keep them working hard and focused on the right things. Fun has to become an integral part of your coaching. Those coaches who know how to keep the sport enjoyable are always the most successful. Challenge that creative side of you to come up with new and different ways of doing things so that goal-directed fun is an integral part of your training. Remember, having fun does not mean that your athletes are goofing off or not working hard.
#9 CARE ABOUT YOUR ATHLETES – If you don’t care about your players as individuals, if you are disrespectful to them in practice and games, if you communicate to them that their value to you is only in the quality of their performance, then you will have gone a long way towards killing their enjoyment of the sport and hastening them down the path to burnout. Successful coaches genuinely care about their athletes and are able to communicate this caring to them in their daily interactions. This is not a coaching technique. This is simply taking the time to get to know your athletes as individuals, being interested in their lives and problems and showing a genuine concern for them.
#10 VARY YOUR PRACTICES – Boredom and predictably leads to apathy and apathy feeds burnout. What this means is that you need to regularly change what you do in practice so as to provide your athletes with variety. What’s that cliché? Variety is the spice of life. Spice up your practices by being unpredictable and doing different drills and exercises. If you have your athletes always doing the same things in practice over and over again without any variety, you will soon lose them. Along these same lines, take some time to go to coaching clinics, read books and further your knowledge of the sport. Don’t think that you have all the answers, all of the time. There are always innovative techniques being introduced into your sport all of the time. Being a true student of the game will feed your creativity and help you keep your practices fresh.
#11 PROVIDE CLEAR FEEDBACK – One complaint I regularly hear from unhappy athletes is that the coach “only tells me that I’m doing something wrong and almost never tells me what I need to do to change it.” While this may seem like a very minor thing, being able to provide your athletes with clear, concrete feedback is absolutely essential to both their happiness and improvement, not to mention your coaching success. Simply put, don’t just tell your athletes that they are doing something wrong. Help them understand what they need to do to correct it. Athletes who fail to get this kind of clear feedback can’t possibly improve. Their resultant frustration at not being able to correct problems feeds their discouragement and fuels burnout.
#12 MONITOR RELATIONSHIPS BETWEEN YOUR PLAYERS – Relationship problems with teammates are another component that fuel burnout. Scape-goating, ostracism, cruelty and the like have no constructive place on a winning team and it’s up to you to insure that these kinds of team-busting behaviors don’t go on. As the coach you need to keep a finger on the pulse of the team in this way and if you become aware of these destructive behaviors, then it’s imperative that you put a quick end to them. Educate your players about which behaviors are unacceptable on the team and which are not and make it everyone’s responsibility to help police this. Keep in mind that if you turn your back on these team-busting behaviors because they happen “in the locker room,” then you are not doing your job and it will ultimately show up in your team’s performance problems.
#13 KEEP YOUR ATHLETES FOCUSED ON THE TEAM/INDIVIDUAL MISSION – Burnout is usually fed by a loss of purpose. That is, the athlete loses touch with any meaningful goals and as a result, begins to question why he is practicing and training hard. It’s your job as a coach to help your athletes stay connected on a daily basis to why they’re doing what they are doing. If you can get your athletes to buy into a personally meaningful team or individual mission, their “big enough why,” at the outset of the season, then there is less likelihood that they’ll lose their way along the way. To take this a step further, help them connect what they are doing today to their “big enough why” and you will keep them motivated and focused in training.
DR. G’S TEACHING TALES
“Sharpen your Axe” (reprinted from 2001)
Once upon a time, a very strong and skilled woodcutter came to a timber merchant and asked for a job. Because the merchant was short on good help he readily hired the woodcutter and promised to pay him well. As further incentive the merchant agreed to pay the woodsman an additional bonus for every tree he cut down over 15 in a days’ time. Because the job promised to pay quite well and the working conditions were excellent, the woodcutter was quite motivated to do his very best.
The merchant provided the woodsman with a brand new axe and the woodcutter immediately set off on foot to the area where he was to begin working. Feeling strong, excited and enthusiastic, the woodsman eagerly went to work on that first day. In an awesome display of skill and strength the woodcutter cut down and prepared 19 trees for his new boss. At the end of the day, the merchant was as delighted as the woodcutter.
“Congratulations” his new boss said, “If you keep on at this pace you will make us both a great deal of money and we shall have a very successful partnership!” Feeling even more motivated by his boss’s words, the woodcutter came to work the very next day even more focused and determined. But try as hard as he could, he only cut down 17 trees, 2 off the first day’s pace! Disappointed but no less determined, he went out the next day fired up to make up the difference. However, on this third day he could only cut down and prepared 15 trees! On the fourth day the woodsman put out what he thought to be a gargantuan effort, trying as hard as he possibly could, but by the end of the day he had only felled 14 trees. This discouraging and confusing pattern continued. Day after day, and trying harder and harder, he kept bringing back less and less trees.
“I must be losing my strength” the woodcutter mistakenly thought. He could come up with no other logical explanation for his steadily diminishing production. He went to his new boss and apologized profusely saying that he could not understand what was really going wrong.
The boss looked at him and then at his axe. He then asked the woodsman, “When was the last time you sharpened your axe my friend?”
“Sharpen my axe?” the woodcutter repeated puzzled. I have not sharpened my axe at all since I have begun. I have had no time to sharpen my axe because I have been much too busy trying to cut down as many of your trees as possible!”
Remember, rest is part of your training as an athlete and part of your work as a coach. If you don’t take time to “sharpen your axe,” to rest your mind and body giving them time to recharge, then you will become increasing less efficient and DULL. Keep in mind that many times the fastest way to get where you really want to go is very often the slowest. GO SLOWER, ARRIVE SOONER!