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Mental Training Tips: Burnout

Editor’s Note: This is part two in a three part series on how to effectively end a season and how to outline off-season training. Part one explains how to analyze a performance. Part two will elaborate on burnout and if an athlete should quit. Part three will explain effective goal setting for performance.

When I started writing these articles for Utah Lacrosse News back in January, the questions and support I have been getting from athletes, parents and coaches have been numerous.  However, from all these performance enhancement questions I was receiving.  I noticed there was an area of questions and statements I was repeatedly getting from the parents I felt it was important to address.  Much of these questions involve issues along the lines of “My son is just not having fun anymore,” or “My daughter just doesn’t getting along with the coaches,” even more common is “It seems they are getting worse even though they should be better.”

These questions and comments are not uncommon with athletes I work with.  In fact, I would say they become more common as the athlete progresses into higher levels of competition and teams.  When I come across this issue when I am working with an athlete, I am upfront and ask a very uncomfortable direct question: “Do you want to quit?”

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Like clockwork, the immediate response is a definitive “No!” which is expected, but after a few seconds of thinking about it, some athletes seem relieved just by the thought of it.  There is no question, in the world of sports; “quitting” is a dirty word.  As no one wants to be labeled as a quitter.  No one wants to carry that perceived mark of shame.  Every sport, and Lacrosse is no different, carries a culture with it and part of that culture is that when the going gets tough, the tough get going.  It is the basis of success in and out of sport.  However, “quitting” isn’t always as bad as people think.  In fact, at times, it is the healthiest thing athletes can do for themselves, as there are times if an athlete continues in their sport, it may become a self-destructive situation.  Considering the aforementioned, it is important to understand that quitting is NEVER a black and white issue.  The decision to either quit or suck it up and continue is complicated, multi-faceted and unique to each individual athlete.

I want to point out when engaging in the following line of questions.  It is important to remember the conclusions/solutions/directions that come from the answers must be Athlete-Centric.  In other words, what an athlete chooses to do, it should be in THEIR best interest.  Not the teams, the coaches, or even the parents. The decision should ultimately be what is BEST for the athlete ONLY.

To better understand where an athlete stands is to TRUTHFULLY answer a few questions:

  1. “Are you having fun?”

    1. This seems to be a principle that athletes, parents and coaches lose perspective on as the perceived stakes of competition increase.

    2. If you are not having fun.  Why?

    3. Just with clarification, many athletes gather a better perspective, and understand whether they are in control of this question.

  2. “What are you learning?”

    1. This will be the question where many issues will start to become clear.

    2. The athlete may realize they are learning maladaptive behaviors, or their confidence and self-esteem are taking a dive.  Again, this question will have varying degree of answers.

  3. “What keeps you coming back?”

    1. This gets right at the heart of their motivation.  It allows them to see that they are in control.

    2. Are they there to get better?

    3. Are they there for the social aspect?

  4. “Is this worth it?”

These questions should not be treated as the finite solution if an athlete should quit or not.  Again, the choice to quit is complex, and individualistic.  However, these questions will open communication, which should help athletes, coaches and parents to understand where the athlete is physically and emotionally.  As it may be discovered that an athlete just may be a little burned out and might just need some rest.  Or the discussion may uncover some other aspects outside of competition that may be affecting their motivation/attitude.   In fact, often times, I find out the athlete is just a little burned out and needs a break to recharge the batteries, so to speak.

Here are 3 signs that an athlete maybe experiencing Burnout:

  1. Lack of Excitement and Motivation –

    1. The athlete should show anticipation to their sport and an eagerness to develop.

    2. Now, obviously not everything about competition should be met with excitement. I have never met an athlete to this day who says “You know, I am really looking forward to 2-A-Days in August!”

    3. However, the general feeling about their experience should be positive in nature.

  2. Lack of Pride in Accomplishments

    1. Does the athlete not get as excited as they once did when they did something great in practice or a game?

    2. Are they beginning to simply “Go through the motions?”

  3. Outward Voice of Tiredness or Frustrations

    1. Sometimes parents and coaches will just not pick up on little hints or expressions that athletes voice: “I just don’t feel good physically today”; “I am not looking forward to today’s practice.” Yes, every athlete in every sport says these, but the concern should be, how often are they saying it?

    2. Even athletes are not aware of their frustrations at times and it’s important for them to be aware of their self-talk.  Cause, if they are voicing a negative demeanor, it may mean a lapse in their confidence and self-esteem.

Once dialogue has been created between an athlete and parents/coaches and it may be best for the athlete to step out of their sport.  It is important to understand the following:

  1. It should not be looked down upon because an athlete quit.  It should be understood that making the decision to leave your sport shows a sign of strength and health.

  2. Quitting should be seen as an opportunity to engage in another activity or pursue another passion that will help the athlete grow as an individual.

  3. Quitting doesn’t necessarily mean forever.  Often times, if an athlete chooses to quit due to burnout, after some time away from the sport, they may actually come back to the sport once they realize why they enjoyed it.

As I previously mentioned, this was an area of interest presented to me by parents, coaches and athletes.  The issue of quitting and burnout in sport is vast and complex.  This article by no means is conclusive and it barely scratches the surface when it comes to this particular topic.  However, I wanted to write this to help athletes, parents, and coaches to open a dialogue and communicate these often difficult issues associated with sport.

Part 1: Mental Training Tips: Analyzing Performance

Jared Ocana, M.S., is a Mental Skills Coach and Adjunct Faculty at Westminster College in the Human Performance and Wellness Department. Besides working with student-athletes at the school in 17 intercollegiate sports, Ocana also provides coaching and training to individual athletes along the Wasatch Front.  To connect with Jared, or have questions or comments, you can reach him at: or (801) 448-6818

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