Sunday, March 4, 2007

For the Sake of the Sport: The Psychological Aspects of Athlete Burn-Out

Many young professional athletes face a tough life ahead of them: not as a result of the difficulty of their respective sports, but because of the looming threat of athlete burn-out. Players such as Michelle Wie (pictured left)—seventeen years old and already participating in professional golf tournaments—and Andrew Bynum (pictured below, to the right)—nineteen years old and currently the youngest NBA team member—are in serious jeopardy of losing their passion for sport simply because they jumped head-first into the highest (and most serious) level of compeitition too soon. Although I understand that one who is talented enough to be able to play with the professionals should be allowed to do so, I beg that athlete to reconsider his or her choice to compete so fiercely, as they may later find that the pressures of high-stake sports can cause them to be entirely disenchanted with a game they once loved.

Burn-out, as defined by mental and physical health guide Selfhelp Magazine, is a phenomenon in which an athlete loses interest or motivation in their sport, and "[drops/quits] their activity." It can occur for several reasons, according to Mind Tools (a site dedicated to the enhancement of everyday life): for example, an overly demanding coach, radically intense stress for great lengths of time, or setting too many goals too high. The results of these triggers are two-fold: physically, the athlete will experience "intense fatigue," "vulnerability to viral infection," and immune system deficiencies. Mentally, however, the damage is much worse—feelings of a "loss of a sense of purpose and energy," a "growing tendency to think negatively," and "incorrect belief that [they] are accomplishing less." These psychological factors also have an effect on the athlete's personal life; players can show an increasing detachment from personal relationships and stress or conflict that stems from this can add to the hardship of burn-out, causing a vicious cycle.

As the minimum age threshold for professional athletes gets younger, I believe the risk of burn-out gets elevated. For example, the youngest NBA players' ages have been slowly declining over the past decades, so not surprisingly the rate of turnover has been rising in response. The table to the left, with data collected by in October of 2006, shows all of the participants in the NBA and their corresponding years of experience as a professional basketballer. More than half of the men in the NBA are rookies, or have one, two, or three years of experience. I believe this is mostly due to the fact that adolescents are generally more susceptible to the stressors of life (because they have fewer experiences which allow them to handle high pressure situations), and young professional athletes are especially vulnerable because of their incredibly publicized lives. The high hopes as a result of too much publicity can be overwhelming for an adolescent, whereas if they were given a little while more to mature, they may be able to better cope with those expectations. Although I realize that the select few athletes who are deserving of this attention must be more mature than others their age in some way (probably just physically), the fact still stands that they do not have the mental maturity level to know how to properly handle the stress and publicity in a healthy manner. As a result of this lack of knowledge, youthful athletes will be more likely to buckle under the pressure, and will therefore be more likely to burn out before an older, more stable adult would.

This phenomenon can be avoided by taking simple, general steps. According to Mind Tools, the first step is "learn stress management skills." If a player does not deal with stress well, they cannot survive the intense level of play on which professional sports thrive. Second, setting personal goals that are achievable is important for self-esteem and motivation. A lot of burn-outs are caused by unrealistic goal setting, which is followed by failure to achieve those goals, and a sense of lack of control that can be a factor of burn-out. Third, "get the support of your friends and family in reducing stress." If a coach only has an eye for winning, they may go to great lengths at the expense of the athlete in order to achieve that goal. This can lead to unhealthy workouts and even higher expectations and stress levels. The most important idea to remember, however, is that sports are supposed to be fun. If no one had fun playing sports, then sports would not exist! It is hard to remember this fact when speaking of professional games, as this is the athlete's livelihood; however, those who make it to that level of play are most likely those who love the sport the most. To avoid burn-out, one must enjoy what they do, even if the intensity is very high. If a player loses sight of this fact, and turns professional for other reasons (money, publicity, etc.), they will burn out quickly. Unfortunately, it seems as though many adolescent professional athletes today are turning professional for those other reasons, and I fear their respective sports will lose great young players at a faster rate than they should.

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