updated 23rd October 2018Burnout in cycling and other sports. Cycling blog by High performance cycling coach Paddy Doran

This blog will try to explain, What is burnout?, Typical causes of burnout?, How can it be avoided? I have also included links for further reading on the subject.

Burnout, what is it?

If we are to deal with something we need to understand it. Burnout is a term that’s often used in sport
.According to BBC Sport burnout basically means physical or emotional exhaustion caused by long-term stress (BBC Sport)
The condition is  defined by sport psychologists as “physical/emotional exhaustion, sport devaluation, and reduced athletic accomplishment  Educated sports parent

Burnout versus overtraining or over reaching

Burnout is different than overtraining or over reaching. Overtraining is usually an imbalance between workloads, recovery, rest and other life stressors.

Overtraining

While overtraining is best avoided it can be remedied but may take some time if the overtraining has been going on for a long period of time.

Over reaching

Over reaching is a normal consequence of training when athletes train hard for short periods of time. Fatigue is normal but everything usually recovers within a few days with rest and easy training.
WHAT ARE THE CAUSES?   (BBC sport)

Burnout can happen if excessively high expectations are placed on a child by parents or coaches and they are pushed too hard too quickly.

Children who go all out in their sport and neglect other areas of their life, like schoolwork, may also fall foul.

The symptoms can be confusing for parents but being aware of them is important because the severe cases can lead to clinical depression.

Having read the above, It’s very satisfying to see that lots of the riders that I coached over the years are still enjoying their cycling or participating in other sports

As a coach for many years it always saddens me to see a young cyclist packing in their sport years before they are at the best age (20 to 32 years of age) for competitive cycling. The early abandonment of sport can also have negative mental and physical health consequences later in life.

Dropping out of Sport

There are many reasons for dropping out of a particular sport. For example, a cyclist who is not highly driven by competition might take up another sport that they find to be more fun and less hard work.

In this case the important thing is that they are still involved in sport with all the physical mental and social benefits that sport can give.

Burned out

However, some athletes drop out because they are burned out by their sports experience. In this situation they are unlikely to move to another sport. This could mean the beginning of a less active life with all the negative consequence of such a lifestyle.

How Athletes Become Burned Out

Coaching styles implicated

Some research suggests that the leadership style of coaches can have a big influence on causing or avoiding burnout.

Controlling coaching style

It seems that a controlling / autocratic coaching style can be associated with negative self-esteem and burnout in young athletes

Supportive coaching style

A supportive coaching style that allows some autonomy for the young athletes can develop athletes with high self esteem and low levels of burnout.

Coaches views of reasons for burnout

When coaches are asked how they see causes of burnout. They will often describe pressure from parents, or others like friends . Also comparisons being constantly made between the athlete and other athletes. Sometimes the comparison could be from the athlete themselves.

Another reason could be from the athlete seeing the amount of time and money that parents are investing in them. This can lead to the athlete  feeling that the results they are getting don’t justify the investment.

Expensive equipment

I believe this is sometimes a strong factor for creating pressure for the cyclist especially. Its important to say that its often done with the best of intentions by the parent but does sometimes create pressure for the cyclist.

What about the kid with the very expensive bike and equipment who is being well beaten by others on basic equipment. How do they feel? is there a strong case for limitations or standardisation on equipment at the younger ages.

Early Specialisation

Early specialization is defined by an athlete just focusing on one sport at an early age. This deprives a young athlete of the opportunity to try several sports. Trying several sports develops a better all round athlete. There are lots more opportunity for physical, mental, social and tactical development.

Early specialization can lead to athletes burnout

It also deprives them of different sporting experiences meeting more friends and the opportunity of being coached by several coaches. Participating in several sports gives them the opportunity to sample and choose a sport that gives them most enjoyment

Early specialization is certainly not good for all round physical tactical or skill development.

Overuse injuries

It can also lead to overuse injuries as there is more stress on particular parts of the athletes skeleton and muscular system. For example, if its all cycling there will be greater strain on the knees than if taking part in a few other sports with less demands on the cycling muscles. .

Consensus statement

The following is from the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine Early Sport Specialization Consensus Statement

Early sport specialization is not a requirement for success at the highest levels of competition and is believed to be unhealthy physically and mentally for young athletes. It also discourages unstructured free play, which has many benefits.  

Avoiding burnout

  • Keep the emphasis on fun and participation rather than winning
  • Ensure that the athlete is doing the sport for themselves not because parents, coaches or teachers want them to.
  • Allow the athlete to make decisions and have some input into the programme.
  • Encourage participation in several sports for variety and all-round physical and mental development.
  • Try to encourage friendship with other athletes
Roche Bennett and Dan Martin Succeful Irish Pro Cyclists

Three successful Irish Pro cyclists. Daniel Martin Sam Bennett and Nicholas Roche

Best years for cycling success

We have seen Sam Bennet win 3 Giro Ditalia stages this year at the age of 27 years. Most successful racing cyclists are between 24 and 33 years of age.

That’s a lot of years from the usual starting point of around twelve years old. So success at youth level might not matter too much at all if it means burning the cyclist out.

I wonder how many people could say who won particular youth medals except for the cyclists parent or coaches?

Remember, Cycling is a very tough sport and to be successful at it requires a lot of training and suffering. A cyclist is unlikely to apply themselves to the sport if they don’t just love getting out and having fun riding the bike and competing!

For further information on Burnout see these sites

AOSSM Consensus Statement

Educated sports parents

Burnout BBC Sport 

Psychology Oxford

Pressure from parents

How to avoid burnout 

Early specialisation 

Burnout  

Paddy Doran high performance Cycling coach and mentor  Specialist in developing healthy competitive cyclists Testimonials   Contact

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