Burnout: A Look Into The Reality of Swimming Burnout

Feature by Michelle Berman, Swimming World intern

PISCATAWAY, New Jersey, August 27. 6:20 a.m. My alarm clock has gone off, and I'm now rolling around in bed praying for a text that swim practice is canceled.

6:25 a.m. I'm up. No text.

6:40 a.m. I'm out the door, practice awaits.

9:15 a.m. Practice is over, now I can breathe again, if only for a few hours.

10:30 a.m. I'm totally passed out on the couch for what I hope will be a successful nap.

12:30 p.m. My nap alarm is going off and I'm upset because now I have to get up and do the homework I've yet to do.

1:40 p.m. Here we go again. It's time for practice.

4:30 p.m. The day's second practice is over. I can see sleep in my future.

9 p.m. Time for bed.

6:20 a.m. the following morning. The routine begins again.

Something is missing in the above description of this daily routine. Enthusiasm.

The feeling where you wake up and roll over and try to come up with every excuse or reason as to why you can't or won't go to practice, is the worst feeling ever.

"I never felt like it was worth it for me anymore, the more I swam the less I enjoyed it," a swimmer who wishes to remain anonymous said. "It was almost like all I needed was to take a break, but when I did that and came back, everything was just how it had been before."

This athlete is not alone. I am a Division I athlete myself, and I have felt just how this athlete feels. I began trying to find ways to get out of everything, practice, lifting, swim meets, and nearly everything else I could. And, when I finally stopped and realized why I was still swimming, I realized that it was not for what it has used to be for.

Now, I was swimming for other people and not myself. Once I realized that I needed to swim for me and not to please anyone else, and only then, did my desire and love for the sport of swimming come back.

"The sport of swimming became such a love-hate relationship for me that I was beginning to think that all this emotion I was feeling was a sign," the anonymous swimmer said. "A sign that my time had come and gone, but I did some soul searching, and realized that there was no such thing as a sign to make me stop, the sign was to make me stop and remember why I loved to swim."

As Todd Patrick, a professional swimmer who swims for North Baltimore Aquatic Club alongside the great Michael Phelps, puts it:

"The greatest joy should come from the competition you get in practice as well as at meets. However, when that is missing there is something that can plague many swimmers and athletes alike," Patrick said.

That something has become known as burnout.

By definition, burnout can mean different things to different people. But as Dr. Robyn Odegaard, sports psychologist and owner of Champion Performance Development, a company aimed at building business and team leadership skills as well as developmental skills, defines it, "Burnout is anytime someone is held accountable for things that are not within their control, either by themselves, coaches or parents."

Odegaard said that self-reflection and self-awareness are the key goals to avoiding burnout altogether as well as addressing it once it's already come to the surface. As Odegaard put it, being self-reflective is crucial because the athlete is ultimately the only one who will know what he/she is accountable for.

Odegaard's definition of burnout is not the traditional definition that you would hear when you talk to a swimmer or coach. This perspective comes from more of a business side, but is really the way that an athlete would have to approach burnout in order to overcome it.

Patrick made a great point while discussing burnout.

"There are two types of burnout, physical and mental. Both can have equally devastating effects on a career in athletics," Patrick said.

Physical burnout is the type that fewer people may see in other athletes.

"An example would be someone suffering from recurring injury/health problems where they believe it is not worth it anymore to be involved in the sport," Patrick said.

Physical injuries can be daunting and may take a serious toll on an athlete's willingness to continue. The injury itself may take the athlete down a road in which doctors may say that they will never be who they were prior to injury. In that case, burnout is common and many quit.

Mental burnout has often been the more easily identifiable form of burnout. Examples of mental burnout include lack of excitement while at practice, unwillingness to go the extra distance, a feeling of uncertainty in regards to wanting to continue on with their careers, and a constant fear of failure and unworthiness.

Other symptoms include finding reasons why the athletes need to skip practice, feeling as though going to practice again is the last thing in the world the athlete would want to do, and lastly seeing athletes put limits on their success based on the belief that if they have not done it yet, then they are not going to do it at all.

Although burnout is common among all athletes, and regardless of the sport, most athletes will likely go through some form of burnout, it can be avoided or in other cases be kept to a minimum.

Chuck Warner, the former head coach of the Rutgers University women's swimming and diving team, as well as writer of Four Champions: One Gold Medal, an inspirational book following the path of a few young men on their journey through the sport, said that the causes of burnout could be many different things.

"When swimmers start to see a lack of improvement," Warner said. "They begin to question whether the work they are doing is working."

Warner also said that a path that is too consistent in training may lead to an athlete losing the excitement of going to practice and training.

Warner also discussed another side of burnout, and how someone could attempt to avoid it completely before it has the chance to be a problem. Warner stressed the idea of how important training environment change is, and how crucial it can be in the process of avoiding burnout.

For example, Warner said taking your athletes on training trips, allowing them to attend swim camps, or in some cases allowing them to train with a different team altogether for a week or two can greatly help with the idea of a switching up the training environment.

Although avoiding the onset of burnout would be ideal, it often doesn't happen mainly because the things needed to avoid it or lessen its initial damage don't happen. Therefore in many cases, you're put in a scenario where instead of avoiding it you are now attempting to recover, and ultimately put back together what's already been broken. So now we're facing a much bigger challenge. How do we put the athlete back together again?

Patrick gave some advice for an athlete who is currently going through burnout or needs helps coping with it.

"I would tell them first they need to figure out what they want to do with their life. Swim and compete or move on," Patrick said. "But, whatever your decision you have to be with it 100 percent. Anything less won't do. Sports psychologists really help. Sit down with anyone and go through options and talk out what you are thinking."

Odegaard, has worked with sports teams and individual athletes from all kinds of sports. Odegaard made it clear that an athlete going through burnout needs to look at themselves and realize what if anything they are being held accountable for.

The things that athletes are often accountable for are things like goals, both in and out of the pool such as going a certain time or maxing a certain weight for squats in the weight room, as well as getting enough sleep, eating the right food and getting your homework done.

Realizing what, if any, of those things the athlete has not done is the first step in the healing process and is really the only way Odegaard says to pull yourself off a path you don't want to be on. These things listed are only the very beginning of the long list of things that athletes may be held accountable for. Knowing what you are accountable for from your parents, coaches, and yourself is one sure way of moving past burnout.

Burnout can be a daunting and scary affliction, especially when the reasons for burning out are unclear. There are many ways to avoid it, many ways to seek help while going through it, and many ways to help other athletes learn from each others' mistakes.

"Personally, I stay excited about swimming because I love the competition and the self-competition of training," Patrick said. "Trying to better yourself constantly, and watching the progress is the most fun part."

Michelle Berman is a junior swimmer at Rutgers University who is serving as an intern at Swimming World this semester.

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