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What Exactly Is Burnout?

You need to understand that burnout can grind your competitive career to a halt, just like an injury can.

By: Ryan Mackie

An In-Depth Explanation Into The Different Complex Areas Involved

My Study Into The Effects Of Burnout In Bodybuilding

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

Before I explain how I conducted my study into burnout in bodybuilders, it is first important to understand what burnout really means and how it effects an individual. Burnout is a term that is frequently used within sports settings; however, many people fail to understand that burnout is a complex phenomenon, with detrimental effects. Many people say after a prolonged series of hard training sessions, "Man, I'm really burned out from training." What they really mean is that they are "overtrained". Burnout is much worse. Below is a well accepted definition of burnout.

"Burnout is defined as a psychological, emotional and physical withdrawal from a formerly pursued and enjoyable sport as a result of excessive stress which acts on the athlete over time" (Smith, 1986).

From Smith's definition we are aware that burnout is multi-dimensional and it can create a huge negative impact on a once positive competitive bodybuilder, eventually causing them to quit competing.

Researchers Maslach and Jackson (1981) identified that burnout could be split into three phases. These are Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization and a Decreased Sense of Personal Accomplishment. These can be explained as follows:

  1. Emotional Exhaustion assesses the individual's feelings of being emotionally over extended by their activity.
  2. Depersonalization measures an individual's impersonal and lack of personal feeling responses towards others with whom they share close contact.
  3. Decreased Sense of Personal Accomplishment measures how individuals view negatively their success and achievement.
I would like to emphasize that these phases affect the bodybuilder differently and at varied times. It has been found that burnout is not static, but that the three phases interact progressively as the level of burnout increases. These three emotions when experienced are signs of the diverse stages of burnout's cycle.

Depersonalization is felt during the initial onset of burnout and is viewed as the low level stage. During this time the athlete becomes progressively withdrawn from their family and friends due to negative feelings concerning their sporting situation and the mental and physical distress it is causing. Burnout intensity increases over a period of time, resulting in the athlete decreasing their sense of personal accomplishment. This leaves the individual feeling that their achievements were not worth the sacrifices. Eventually, this leads to Emotional Exhaustion, which is the most advanced phase of burnout as the athlete feels completely exhausted by the situation and the demands of their sport. An athlete can become burned out in all three components at the same time. When this occurs they might withdraw from their chosen sport, sometimes permanently, in an attempt to release themselves from all their negative emotions.

Burnout Candidates

Sport psychologist Smith (1986) has profiled a likely candidate for burnout. He stated that athletes in highly competitive and individual sports, such as tennis, skating and gymnastics, are expected to experience burnout with a higher frequency. He continued to explain that the reason for this was due to the sports being very demanding in terms of the athlete's time and effort. The repetitive nature of training can produce boredom and the solo nature of the sport reduces the level of social support received from peers. From this burnout profile you can see how bodybuilding is a sport that can potentially result in burnt out competitors. In the major sports, tennis for example, Jennifer Capriati quite famously burned out and stopped playing tennis for quite some time. She also eventually came back and experienced great success. This demonstrates that although burnout has huge negative effects, they can ultimately be overcome.

The Differences Between The Main Negative Stresses

Competitive bodybuilders like all athletes, experience different types of stresses from training and their sport. Some are good, some bad. Sport psychologists have identified the main negative stresses that affect an athlete are Burnout, Overtraining and Staleness. Although, these are different they actually can have negative effects on the bodybuilder at the same time. I will explain how, and the difference between these bad stressors.

Silva (1990) developed a Negative-Training Stress Response Model. This model focused on the athlete's response to physical training. As you all know training can have both positive and negative effects, such as increase strength and burnout. The negative changes occur when the training stress creates an imbalance between training demands and the individual's capabilities. Silva hypothesized that negative training stress response regresses along a continuum, from staleness to overtraining and finally burnout. These terms are often misinterpreted to mean the same thing, however they are actually quite different. In order to clarify these I will give brief definitions of these responses:

"Staleness is an initial failure of the body's adaptive mechanisms to cope with the psycho-physiological stress created by the training stimuli.

"Overtraining occurs when the athlete while stale, trains at high intensity and with great eagerness to excel" (Silva, 1990).

The accumulation of these negative responses leads the individual to burning out, which increases the chances of them withdrawing from their sport.

Although none of these studies or stress models were developed with bodybuilding in mind, it is easy to see how bodybuilders are potential candidates for encountering these problems. Does the above definitions sound familiar? An athlete continues to train with high intensity, even when they know they need to give their body and mind a short break in order to come back at their best! As bodybuilders we would never do that, would we?

Active Burnout

Another important aspect of burnout is 'Active Burnout'. Researchers Schmidt and Stein (1991) discovered that the withdrawal from a chosen sport is not always the end result of severe burnout. An athlete may continue to participate in their activity, harboring the negative feelings inside of them. The reason for this is due to the athlete feeling that a large investment in their sport has been made, making it harder to quit. Although the mental and physical costs of competing may increase, the athlete tries to perceive the present sacrifices worth while in order to achieve the benefits of future rewards. But those rewards can never be guaranteed. Withdrawal becomes more difficult if the athlete perceives their identity to be within the sport.

I hope that after reading this, you're not feeling gloomy and not thinking that the overall point of this article is essentially negative. I will explain in section three how to overcome and avoid these stresses. Having knowledge in the potential obstacles is important in maintaining your safe and enjoyable journey in competitive bodybuilding.

My Study Into The Effects Of Competitive Bodybuilders And The Results

I conducted a study on the UK's top natural bodybuilders at the ANB's Mr. Britain Competition 1997. The bodybuilders were asked to answer a questionnaire measuring their level of burnout. This questionnaire was developed with the assistance of my college's Sport Psychology professor and based on the widely accepted Maslach Burnout Inventory Questionnaire developed in 1981. This was to give us the most valid and reliable results. The bodybuilders didn't complete the questionnaire on the day of the contest, and were asked to complete it within the few weeks preceding the show. This was to get the best and most honest results possible. The questionnaire had questions that were linked to the three main psychological components of burnout, Emotional Exhaustion, Depersonalization and a Decrease Sense of Personal Accomplishment.

The Results

After analyzing the responses, the results showed that the bodybuilders could be separated into four separate groups of burnout. These groups were Burnout, Not Burned Out (Advanced/Expert Bodybuilder), Not Burned Out (Novice/Intermediate Bodybuilder) and Active Burnout's. Below I will explain more about each group.

  1. 1. Burnout Group
    Bodybuilders in this category scored high on the questionnaire indicating burnout. They also listed comments such as "they feel ill" from competing and also that they perceive "competing as unhealthy".

  2. 2. Not Burned Out (Advanced/Expert Bodybuilder)
    The bodybuilders in this group are those who maintained positive outlooks, those with previous experience of competing at the British Finals, individuals with strong goals and professional ambitions, and people with high levels of social support. This group also included the many winners of the competition classes. These winners recognized their sacrifices and viewed them as temporary, especially as they had just been successful.

  3. 3. Not Burned Out (Novice/Intermediate Bodybuilder)
    These bodybuilders were those with less experience, including junior competitors. They indicated very high levels of motivation, they didn't mind the sacrifices, and many competed regularly with early success in their career. They had goals of high standards, and in addition some commented that competing was not the main focus of their training.

  4. 4. Active Burnouts
    This group contained bodybuilders who scored highly on the questionnaire indicating burnout, but still chose to compete. They stated that they enjoyed competition, and this helped them to sustain burnout. Furthermore, they still have a strong will to achieve success which keeps them going through the tough times.
Results Summary

In conclusion, my results showed the importance of achieving success while being able to sustain the effort needed to compete in the long term. This was shown when the athletes who did not gain the rewards of a good competition placing scored highly on the burnout questionnaire. This was emphasized through their comments on how they felt "ill" and "unhealthy". Also, it was evident that the sacrifices required for a bodybuilding competition are felt more by bodybuilders with more experience and have been through the competition dieting cycle more times. Lesser experienced bodybuilders didn't seem to acknowledge the sacrifices as much. This was probably due to the sport still being new to them and the excitement of competing, in their present perception, easily outweighing the mental and physical costs of competing.

Having previously been a burnout victim and withdrawing from competitions, I feel that with the knowledge I have acquired into this psychological problem, that I won't let it happen again. Knowing the warning signs and the components that lead to burnout are invaluable in monitoring your mental state. Furthermore, by admitting to any negative feelings and knowing how to successfully overcome these emotions is much more beneficial than just temporarily ignoring them. Don't let your emotions get to a negative 'boiling point'. Sort them out early and keep on track with your initial plans and goals.

Go to Section Three!
Strategies to overcome and avoid burnout.

Avoiding And Overcoming Burnout In Bodybuilding: Part 2!
ryanmackie@hotmail.com

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