Is it lack of motivation or burnout?

My thoughts on motivation, stress and burnout in athletes. I share information to help you identify what could be going on, how to potentially prevent burnout, and what to do if / when it happens.

By Noa Deutsch 11 min read
Is it lack of motivation or burnout?

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Is it lack of motivation or burnout?

I have been working on this article for a while now and as someone who has experienced burnout several times, both as an athlete and professionally, the whole topic hits close to home and I found it a bit hard to articulate my thoughts on ‘paper’. If you want, you can actually read this article in reverse - Starting at the end with the take home messages (AKA my brain dump on this topic) and then work your way back to the start of the article.


Motivation Introduction

Motivation is defined as the direction and intensity of effort and it is what drives people to do things, with the end result being the satisfaction they feel. According to self-determination theory, the nature of motivation can be either intrinsic or extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is internal - Doing things for their inherent satisfaction. Participation is for the love of the sport, the joy of competition, to learn new skills, have fun and improve performance. Intrinsic motivation has three components:

  1. Competence - A sense of mastery, feeling confident and competent. The focus is the process and personal performance goals, less on outcome goals
  2. Autonomy - Every athlete should have a say in their performance and coaches need to listen to their athletes.
  3. Relatedness - Engaging with others who share the same interests, like team mates, training buddies, etc.

Extrinsic motivation is external - Driven by rewards that generally come from other people in the form of praise, awards, money and and of course, we can’t forget those social media likes, comments and Strava kudos.

Of course, things are never black and white and motivation is not just intrinsic or extrinsic - It is multidimensional and can be somewhat seen as a sliding scale… Most of us will experience both to varying degrees and they go hand in hand in the world of sports performance. Problems typically start when the scale tips a bit too much towards extrinsic motivation.


Stress Introduction

Oxford tells us that stress is "pressure or worry caused by problems in somebody's life or by having too much to do." The body responds to stress physically, mentally and emotionally.

Stress is not necessarily a bad thing - As athletes we know that there needs to be a certain level of stress (load) above our current capacity in order to create adaptation. The problems start when stress is always present and it is not manageable anymore. ie. when it becomes chronic.

Stress is caused by many things and it is can be individual. External factors can include: Demanding job with lots of deadlines and an environment that lacks boundaries, difficult life at home (finance, relationships, family), school load, other things like global events, natural disasters, etc and health issues for you or someone you care for.

Physical symptoms of stress may include: Headaches, muscle pain, GI issues, chest pain, fatigue, changes in sex drive.

Mental symptoms of stress include: Anxiety, restlessness, lack of motivation and focus, feeling overwhelmed, irritability and sadness or depression.

It is often a combination of a few things, because as the saying goes: ‘when it rains, it pours’.

If you're experiencing any of these, you need to take action before things escalate further into burnout territory. Being in a reactive state, self pity and other negative emotions do not help with this, so outside support and having resources and coping mechanisms makes a big, positive difference.


Burnout Introduction

The term “burnout” was first mentioned in the mid 1970’s by German psychologist Herbert Freudenberger , who specialized in understanding and treatment of stress, chronic fatigue and substance abuse. Burnout was described (in the context of the workplace) as becoming exhausted by making excessive demands on energy, strength, or resources.

Oxford defines burnout as "the state of being extremely tired or ill, either physically or mentally, because you have worked too hard."

In the context of sport, burnout is a chronic state where athletes are emotionally and physically exhausted from the demands associated with their sport. There is a reduced sense of accomplishment in terms of sports abilities and achievements and negative attitudes toward sport and being involved in it.

What Causes Burnout?

Generally speaking, burnout happens when you are under too much stress for long periods of time. It stems from both stress and motivation-related processes, which is why factors that that place an athlete at risk for motivation related issues and/or excessive stress are relevant in the development of burnout.

The thing is, stress is stress…. Your body does not have the ability to separate stress from different sources, so it does not know where stress is coming from. Is it from work? training / racing? relationships? family? Finances?

If you do not have healthy coping mechanisms in place to deal with stress, experiencing burnout is more likely. If you are unsure what is causing you stress, working with a mental health care professional is highly recommended.

Burnout, stress and motivation are obviously interconnected, but stress is not necessarily a bad thing… It is important to remember that burnout is a chronic state of complete exhaustion - it takes time to get to that point. It feels mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting by extended or excessive stress (often both). It feels overwhelming, hopeless and like you are simply going through the motions, due to inability to meet the demands of life. It might also feel like you are resentful and you just want to give up. This certainly goes beyond sport and can have an effect on overall health (depression, anxiety, etc).

Recreational athletes, in my opinion, may be just as much at risk, or even more at risk as they also balance jobs in addition to training, therefore potentially running a greater risk of burnout.

So what leads to burnout? We can start by breaking it down into internal factors and external factors. The internal factors include perfectionism, high expectations and / or loss of love for sport. External factors include physical exhaustion, excessive time commitments and even injury.

Those with unrealistically high expectations of themselves, who are concerned about making mistakes and constantly striving for perfection are more prone. Added factors are the unpredictable nature of competitive sport (yes, even at the recreational level) and potentially not having the coping mechanisms in place to handle the challenges that can eventually lead to excessive stress and if left ignored, burnout.

Reasons why athletes can experience burnout:

  • Overtraining or not taking appropriate breaks
  • Over-eagerness in signing up for races
  • Not getting enough sleep
  • Having a perfectionistic, ‘Type A’ personality
  • Having difficulties asking for help
  • Neglecting other hobbies or interests
  • Not seeing the progress they are after
  • Not achieving race goals
  • Losing their why (some of my thoughts on that here).
  • Not feeling valued

What does burnout look like?

Keep in mind that burnout can look different for each person and it does not develop overnight.

Physical symptoms may include:

  • Chronic fatigue (even after proper rest)
  • Decreased energy levels and exhaustion
  • Increased instances of illness and injuries
  • Headaches, muscle pain, etc
  • Inconsistent and/or decreased performances
  • Insomnia / sleep disturbances

Behavioral symptoms may include:

  • Lack of enjoyment from training, racing & other things that typically bring joy
  • Inability to concentrate
  • Making excuses for poor performance
  • Missing many training sessions and/or events

Emotional symptoms may include:

  • Wanting to withdraw and quit
  • Decreased confidence and feeling lack of accomplishment
  • Anxiety, anger, Irritability, negativity and mood swings
  • Feeling of hopelessness, feeling overwhelmed, detached & trapped
  • Reduced sense of accomplishment
  • Feel like you're unable to meet the demands of your life

As you can see, there is overlap in symptoms between stress and burnout…


What can you do about it all?

The first step is to identify your stressors - We all have them! What are the things that trigger your stress? How do you tend to respond when things go wrong? What your individual patterns? Once you know your triggers and patterns, you can start managing things more effectively.

Do you have a stressful line of work? are you currently experiencing other life stressors or transitions, like job changes, moving, relationship breakups, growing family? You might want to acknowledge that these things are stressful and adding training on top of that might be too much…

If you're dealing with chronic stress, seeking help and making lifestyle changes is vital before it leads to burnout.

Monitoring can potentially help using something like The Athlete Burnout questionnaire, which has been designed specifically for this purpose (although its validly has been questioned in research).


If you lack motivation to train

It happens to all of us from time to time. We just don’t feel like heading out for a training session… If that happens, often time the best thing is to modify the workout (swap a hard session for an easy one or make it shorter) or just start and see how you are feeling after 10-20 minutes. There is a good chance you’ll feel better once you get moving, but if that is not the case, modify as needed.

Sometimes its a one off thing and easy to simply shrug off and get on with it. But if you start noticing it happening more often… That could be a red flag. Here are things you can do if you lack motivation to train on a more consistent basis (ie. over a period of a few weeks):

Take a break and/or adjust the schedule - Perhaps it is simply time for a rest week? Or a short break, depending where you are within your season? Perhaps the schedule needs to be adjusted temporarily due to circumstance? We all have times when we lack motivation and sometimes a break or a reduced schedule can be what we need to recharge and get reminded why we do what we do to begin with.

Support network - If you have a coach, talk to them - open communication is important. Make adjustments to the plan as needed. If you don’t have a coach, perhaps it is time to set up a consultation with one? Spend time with family and friends and you can also explore therapy, as needed. Having a support network sets you up for success - no one can do everything by themselves.

Try something new - If you are having a hard time with the goals you have set for yourself in your sport, perhaps you can take a sideways step and try something a bit different? Perhaps learning a new skill could help? If you are a triathlete, perhaps you want to add some gravel racing to the schedule? Or a stand alone open water swim event? Its still relevant to your main sport, but it is also different enough to be new, exciting and will require mastering new skills, helping with motivation. You can also simply mix in a few new workouts or place a bit more emphasis working on the technical aspect of the sport.


If you are experiencing burnout

If you're experiencing burnout, don’t expect to just snap out of it and please don’t let others tell you that you can do so either. It takes time, patience and kindness.

The first step is the most important one: Reach out for help from friends, family and ideally professional help like counselling or therapy. Cognitive behavioral therapy is extremely helpful, mindfulness and developing a kinder mindset. Learning to be less self critical, celebrating success, opportunity to reflect and improve after failure instead of beating yourself up.

Take time off. I know that is the last thing you want to do, but there is usually no way around it… Take a break to recharge and regroup. The longer you put off taking a break, it is more likely it is that the break will need to be longer. This might not just be a break from training, it might need to be a break from work too, depending on what is happening.

Take care of your overall health - proper nutrition, getting enough sleep and practice breathing techniques, meditation, etc. Exercise is typically important too, but there is a fine line between gentle exercise and training that can create additional stress that might be too much.

Eliminate unnecessary commitments and make sure you are not taking on too much. Set solid boundaries - You can’t say yes to everything (definitely a personal struggle for me).


Take home messages

A bit of a brain dump on this topic (in no particular order)

  • Do not get overconsumed by your sport. There are more things in life… Most of us are paying to play. Have fun, enjoy the process. Even at high levels, where athletes are paid to play, the process of training and competing should be enjoyable and rewarding
  • Take well timed breaks throughout the season. Weeks, not a day or two. Do nothing! You do that in work… You should do that in sport. Disconnect to connect better kind of thinking.
  • If you are an athlete working with a coach, you should be a part of the process: Ask questions, make suggestions, communicate when you feel like you are doing too much, too little. No plan should be too rigid - You are a human, not a robot and one size fits all never actually fits anyone properly.
  • Perfectionism could be the enemy of performance development. Sadly, a lot of people who have perfectionism tendencies will perceive lack of motivation as a problem, like they are just being lazy, and they will try and fix it by pushing harder instead of allowing themselves some down time.
  • Monitor things appropriately - Monitor training load, hours, other things outside training, focus on integrating recovery strategies that work for you and your individual needs
  • More is not better. Its just more.
  • Lack of motivation is your sign to pay closer attention. Your body is smart - It will give you warning signs in the hopes that you will pay attention and listen… But if you just continue to ignore it, time after time, that is when it will just shut it down. Trust me, I’ve been there! Its not pretty and the longer you go down the rabbit hole, the longer it will take to climb out of it, likely accompanied by a few too many wrong turns and dead ends.
  • Stress alone does not cause burnout. Stress that is ongoing, without proper support and resources causes burnout. Negative mindset as a result feeling like you are not good at something and /or like you dont even care anymore can cause people to quite a career, change sports, abandon relationships, etc instead of seeking support. Without support and resources, there is a very good chance the same issues will be repeated down the road.
  • Stop glorifying doing too much, having it, trying to be perfect, or the best at everything. Its not amazing, its not cool and it certainly not something to strive towards as it is not attainable, and even if it is, it is unlikely to be sustainable

References / Additional Reading

  1. Graña, M., De Francisco, C., & Arce, C. (2021). The Relationship between Motivation and Burnout in Athletes and the Mediating Role of Engagement. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18 (9), 4884. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph18094884
  2. Olsson, L. F., Grugan, M. C., Martin, J. N., & Madigan, D. J. (2022). Perfectionism and Burnout in Athletes: The Mediating Role of Perceived Stress, Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 16(1), 55-74. https://doi.org/10.1123/jcsp.2021-0030
  3. Madigan, D. J., Gustafsson, H., Hill, A. P., Mellano, K. T., Pacewicz, C. E., Raedeke, T. D., & Smith, A. L. (2022). Perspectives on the Future of Burnout in Sport, Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 16(1), 75-88. https://doi.org/10.1123/jcsp.2021-0045
  4. The BASES Expert Statement on Burnout in Sport - https://www.bases.org.uk/imgs/tses___issue_61_autumn_19_expert_statement_online__pages_579.pdf
  5. Adam Grant - https://adamgrant.net

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