State of Origin football is one of my all-time favourite Australian sporting events with many displays of mental toughness and mateship.  However, many players involved in State of Origin perform incredible feats of strength and courage one night and then days, even weeks later, they struggle to maintain that same level of commitment in their club matches.  Whilst the absence of hype, atmosphere, and adrenalin rush that comes from playing representative football when returning to their club can often play a role in this drop in performance; emotional, mental and physical fatigue plays a big part.

Are there too many demands on athletes with both representative and club responsibilities?

The idea of juggling demanding periods of high stress and pressure is not exclusive to rugby league or State of Origin, with many athletes from different sports experiencing similar demands and corporate high achievers also bearing the same burdens.

How do we identify and combat burnout in high achievers both in and out of sport?

Burnout is characterised by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced performance and feelings of accomplishment, as well as a loss of passion and enjoyment in a sport or activity/work that was once considered to be really important.  It occurs when individuals persistently feel unable to cope with the high demands placed on them, causing them to withdraw from activities that they previously enjoyed.  It is more common amongst high achievers because of their tendency to push themselves to achieve and to complete tasks, often at the expense of their health and social lives.

Burnout is characterised by the following signs, experienced consistently over a period of time:

•    Persistent negative mood;
•    Mood changes;
•    Difficulty meeting obligations in both personal and sporting/work domains;
•    Physical fatigue and disturbed sleep;
•    Feeling disappointed, anxious and frustrated;
•    Low motivation and energy;
•    Trouble concentrating;
•    Loss of enjoyment and desire to play;
•    Substance abuse;
•    Changing values and beliefs;
•    Increased anxiety;
•    Difficulty in social situations, including inability to relate to others in their usual manner, being rude and abrupt (in a way that is out of character); and

•    Social withdrawal.

Some of the characteristics to look out for that can place individuals at risk of experiencing burnout include:

•    Physical factors such as injury, fatigue, over-training, or inconsistent performance;

•    Demands of sport/workplace including demands on time and other requirements such as extensive travel;
•    Social factors such as parental pressure, inconsistent or negative feedback from coach/boss/parents, reduced social life, bad relationship with team members/colleagues, or limited social support; and

•    Psychological factors including unrealistic or unmet expectations, perceived lack of improvement, pressures to win, high anxiety, perfectionism, fear of failure, low self-esteem, or high need to please others.

An increased awareness of the aforementioned points can assist with timely intervention.  There are several strategies that can be used to prevent burnout and also reduce the consequences of burnout for both athletes with high training and competition demands and high achievers in the workplace or at home.

First, monitoring stress and maintaining a recovery-stress balance can help.  It is a lot easier to prepare for a finite period of stress with a recovery period to look forward to afterwards than it is to keep performing under pressure indefinitely.  For example, State of Origin occurs over a discrete period of time and Origin players will often get time off club training during this period to help with recovery.

Physical recovery also assists with mental recovery.  In the case of a corporate high achiever, this may involve an increase in exercise (e.g., imposing a forced break at lunch time for physical activity).  Another effective strategy is to make sure that the channels of communication between athletes, coaches/bosses, parents, and other professionals remain open and accessible to increase social support and develop a team approach to managing stress.  Setting achievable and measureable short-term goals can also reduce feelings of being overwhelmed and enhance feelings of control, which helps to prevent burnout.

The next strategy is integrating some balance into the high achieving life.  Take regular relaxation breaks.  Spend time away from sport/work on a regular basis.  Weekends away between working weeks or spending time engaging in a different activity to sport/work will give your brain a break from the intensity of your normal schedule.  Practicing psychological skills such as imagery, relaxation, and positive self-talk can also help, as can keeping a positive attitude and using psychological strategies such as performance reviews and debriefs to deal with post-performance emotions and to ‘finish’ a competition/task.

Mental Notes Consulting has a number of programs available for high achievers encouraging a proactive approach to avoid burnout.  Our favourite is our Faster Higher Stronger workshop series!  Ask us all about it by emailing us on info@mentalnotesconsulting.com.au.

Book an appointment with our Queensland-based sport psychologists in Brisbane at Queensland Sports Medicine Centre or on the Gold Coast at Allsports Physiotherapy & Sports Medicine!