It seems paradoxical writing an article on burnout amid something like COVID, I know. Like most of you, however, the downtime provided during quarantine allowed for quite a bit of thorough introspection. Nevertheless, life and work have (slowly) started to presume here recently and with that, reaching that point of burnout will again be inevitable.
Burnout, which is very much a real thing, isn’t something relegated strictly to coaching, or any single profession. Burnout can occur with hobbies, friendships, relationships and even just general ebbs and flows of life. There are several things that can and should be practiced as ritual to reduce the likelihood, or frequency of experiencing burnout. In this article, I’d like to cover some strategies I’ve learned along my way, and how we need to at the least be mindful of our own health- physically, mentally, and emotionally/spiritually. But first, let’s examine some basic psychology surrounding the subject, and also some of the potential social-environmental influences.
Psychology of Burnout
DISCLAIMER: I am in no way a psychologist, so please interpret accordingly- this is just from the perspective and experience of a strength coach who works long ass hours.
Life is cyclical, and only becomes more so as you grow/mature. Relationships begin to bevy out, work becomes very structured and rigid, friendships tend to come and go with increasing obligations. It’s almost as if life becomes engineered for us to go on autopilot. In the coaching world, routines/habits/schedules are at the crux of what we do. As such, this microcosm of redundancy can start to weigh heavy after a while… this is what blows my mind about people who willingly work jobs they hate. I absolutely LOVE my work and people/athletes I coach, and still reach points of exhaustion and wanting to punch everyone in the face. I just couldn’t imagine ever doing something I hated.
When we slip into the autopilot mode everything becomes perceived as task and/or chore work. We become irritated by little shit like having to answer emails, sending someone a program, or having to interactively coach our athletes. This not only obviously drives down productivity and effectiveness, but also begins to suffocate our creative thinking. We don’t feel like we need to work through movement solutions because we opt to accept mediocre movements in lieu of having to use energy to correct them. Sure, for some coaches this is just their norm and they suck at their work. But I truly believe this is something all coaches, including great coaches experience.
I know for certain I’ve been guilty of this and have worked deliberately to perturb the onset. I think the biggest point for me is not allowing my creative thinking to become suppressed or compartmentalized because of laziness. The innovation and growth berthed from complex problem solving and critical thinking are what make coaching the greatest job in the world. While feeling physically and mentally strained at times should be expected, I feel it’s imperative to try to preserve the volition and creativity flow irrespective of state feelings.
I strongly believe that complacency ultimately breeds content. When we start to lower the bar of standard or expectation, it changes our paradigm for what’s required (input) to achieve an acceptable outcome. If we accept mediocre results, it will consequentially lead us to believe that mediocre work ethic will suffice. A part of distancing ourselves from burnout, is to stay sharp on our own standards and expectations. Sure, we may still not want to go home after a 13-hour day and dive into neuroanatomy. But if we maintain a high standard, we will be more likely to maintain a high(er) work ethic (standard + ethic = drive).
Sociology of Burnout
ANOTHER DISCLAIMER: You guessed it, I’m not a licensed sociologist, so, take this for what it’s worth.
You’ve probably heard the saying- “you’re the product of the five people you spend the most time with.” I have no clue what the “science” is to back that, but to me, it seems like a pretty reasonable thing to give some credence to. Anyhow, while burnout is very much a real thing, I also believe that in many cases it can be perpetuated- and even more common, nurtured. When coaches deliberately seek out to avoid burnout at all costs, they tend to foster a soft and effectively lazy work environment. Whether this is a scapegoating strategy to bypass hard work or genuinely just a fragile mindset, this can not only perpetuate burnout but also be severely damaging to growth. Referencing back to my points on standards and expectations above, when burnout is used in pseudo fear mongering fashion it can affect coaches by allowing them to believe they are overworked when they really aren’t even close.
There’s an absolute validity to being strategic and establishing barriers and boundaries to be mindful of overworking and overstressing. However, time management, strong communication pathways, and objectivity are all skills that need to be refined for solid structure to be in place. Thorough protocols and open communication lines between coaches and up the chain with management should be encouraged so that all parties are on the same page. This way the expectations are clear on both ends, and it isn’t needed to be discussed out of context or excessively.
Variables of Burnout
We have a remarkably large number of stressors in our life; this is another one of those that tends to increase linearly with age. But although we have numerous things that stress us, they all affect us in the same ways. Relationship stress ultimately bleeds into professional stress, and of course vice versa. Feeling isolated and alienated from friends/family can start to erode us mentally and impair work function. The point being, you can’t separate your stress, so it’s vital to manage all aspects of your life. In fact, physiologically, the common way to describe this is “all stressors go to the same pool.” Which is to say, whether emotional, physical, psychological or other, the outcome effects of stress all manifest in the same or similar ways. Stress and anxiety are not inherently bad, in fact they are vital for our growth. However, if unmanaged for long enough, these effects can often become deleterious and in some cases irreversible.
It’s important to understand that different stressors effect people differently. While we all understand and have experienced bouts of high stress, not all of us have the same pecking order of stressors. For example, where one person may have a lower perceived threshold for emotional stress (i.e. unmitigated relationship problems), another may have a lower physical stress threshold. Where one person may be in absolute devastation over a divorce or breakup, others may feel that same level of devastation over losing a pet. Remember, it’s all relative.
No matter the stressor or how the individual views/responds to external stress, it’s important that there is some sort of strategy in place. For all intents and purposes, we want to emphasize the preventative aspect; it’s always easier to plan how to avoid falling in a hole than figuring out how to climb back out of one. With that, I wanted to leave you with a few basic strategies I’ve utilized throughout my professional career. Hopefully, these resonate and provide some help.
1.) Be very efficient and opportunistic with time.
Time management is a skill, not a trait, that must be practiced and developed like anything else. Being efficient with time will allow you to maximize your energy, focus, and efforts with greater return. With this, I look to reverse engineer a lot of my calendar for planning. By identifying short term and long term goals, I can work backwards to navigate when I can push and tolerate high stress periods. Then, I can plug in where I need to have concerted down time or step back from things for a little bit. This is done on both a weekly (micro) and yearly (macro) scale.
A key here is that this relies on you being honest with yourself and knowing your tendencies. You must set yourself up for success. Be realistic and logical with yourself on goal setting and planning. If you’re someone who’s easily distracted, find ways to carve out some isolation time throughout your week to focus. If you fail to structure the approach here, you will inevitably be led by impulse and emotion. Whereas structuring your week to promote balance and productivity will give you a left and right flank to work between.
2.) Strong communication pathways.
Communication must be open, direct, and honest with your employers, co-workers and loved ones. By suppressing feelings of high stress, anxiety, depression, etc. we make it difficult if not impossible for others to assist. Which typically results in us imploding after enough time passes and our threshold has been breached. Be very direct from the start, to include being transparent with goals and expectations. If these are established from the jump, it is much easier to sustain the mutual partnership from that point forward.
Equally, when you’re in the shit, let people know! There’s nothing to be embarrassed or ashamed of- nobody is immune to being defeated by life. Sometimes just having someone to voice your frustrations/anxieties to can be a relief in and of itself. But I encourage you to find two people and keep them very close for as long as you can. The first person is the one you can confide in and be fully transparent with. The second person is the one who will unequivocally tell you how it is, irrespective of how you may feel. These people are immeasurably important to have in your life.
3.) Be very committed to your boundaries.
In case nobody’s told you yet- it’s 100% ok to be selfish with your time. I suppose this is the one area that I really do flourish… nobody will mistake me for a social butterfly. But nevertheless, my stance in being anti-social isn’t necessarily willingly elective, nor just a byproduct of “being introverted” but rather, a commitment to where my energy and attention go. Case in point, you will have some strife and upset people throughout your life, but in my opinion, it’s just something that comes with the territory. I cannot breach the boundaries I’ve set for myself, no matter how trivial it may seem, because I know the toll it will take on my life elsewhere. You shouldn’t feel guilty or reluctant to spend your time where you feel it’s needed.
The opposite case can be true as well, in which we become overly myopic with work time or constantly running around. This was the case with Nicole a few years back, when she was at a point of complete exhaustion balancing 4 jobs, life, lifting, and our development with Rude-Rock. Nevertheless, we effectively mandated that she designate 2 hours/wk. that were exclusive to her. Whether it be spent reading on the beach, napping with the pups, or out with a friend, it was 100% her time and 100% her discretion.
In either case, whichever end of the spectrum you see yourself on at the moment, look to see where you are flourishing, and where you are struggling. Make a definitive stance on what matters to you then adjust where your time is being spent accordingly. Most importantly, do so unapologetically- your time is your time.