Mental Health and the Athlete

Mental health has become a major talking point during the COVID pandemic with feelings of despair, lethargy, hopelessness, low drive which is compounded by the prevalence of mental health disorders already present in the community with one in five people suffering from a depressive or anxiety disorder. Athletes are not immune from mental health disorders including depression, anxiety and eating disorders which can be associated with sporting performance, injuries, multiple surgeries, maladaptive perfectionism, retirement with rates of depression and anxiety as high as 45% in elite athletes.

Athlete Burnout

Athletes and individuals who train hard will routinely experience symptoms of tiredness, exhaustion, fatigue, reduced motivation, decreased performance which may or may not be associated with increased injuries and often describe feeling “burned out”. However, overtraining and burnout are two different states where burnout can occur in the absence of excessive training stress. Burnout is conceptualised as a psycho-social syndrome comprised of emotional and physical exhaustion, a reduced sense of accomplishment and sport devaluation.

It is the consequence of chronic stress which can result from high training loads, perfectionism, uncertainty around team selection, perceived performance pressure. It is not a transient condition and shares overlapping symptoms with depression such as concentration difficulties, anhedonia (inability to feel pleasure), sleep disturbance, self-criticism, psycho-motor changes, fatigue/exhaustion however burnout and depression are two independent states.

Burnout is characterised by psychophysiological and behavioural changes such as;

  • Struggling to meet personal and professional demands
  • Physically tired and not able to participate in activities
  • Difficulty communicating
  • A feeling of not being supported by the team (coach/support staff)
  • Ongoing disappointment
  • Mentally exhausted
  • Physically exhausted
  • Feel your own contribution to the team is small and isn’t valued by others in the team
  • Feeling like you have no social support

Personality factors have also been associated with burnout in particular perfectionism either striving for perfectionism or concerns about making mistakes.

Consequences of Burnout

Burnout has been shown to lead to a range of negative consequences like depressive mood, decreased commitment to sport, decreased performance, antisocial behaviour including social distancing and termination from sport. Every individual will experience burnout differently as such treatment of burnout needs to be tailored to the individual. Mindfulness based interventions and cognitive behavioural therapy including stress management techniques like breathing, and exercise and cognitive restructuring to help keep an individual’s mind in the present moment while also addressing any issues around perfectionism may be of benefit. Professional interventions such as involving the athlete with any decision-making processes, rotating the athlete to allow for time off from training and/or competition should also be considerations.

It is important that we are acutely aware at understanding and identifying the mental health issues present in the general and athletic population. Burnout although overlapping in symptoms with depression and often associated with overtraining is its own standalone state which can have consequences on the mental health and performance in athletes and professionals.