In recent years, burnout seems to have become a buzz word of sorts. As a society, burnout is something people are more apt to identify for themselves but also more capable of recognizing it in others. There are certain signs of burnout that feel commonplace and familiar. Schaufeli and Buunk (2003) outlined five categories of systems with burnout: affective (hostility), cognitive (cynicism), physical (exhaustion), behavioral (impaired performance), or motivational (disillusionment). These signs resemble a grumpy middle schooler on a Monday morning before home period, so be careful before you diagnose yourself and others. Keep in mind, burnout is going to vary from person to person and will present itself differently across cultures. Traditional definitions of burnout may only reference the experiences of certain populations.
What I’m interested in is the progression of things. The moment before the moment.
It seems logical that there would be degrees of burnout. Severe burnout may be paralyzing or depressive for some while others may feel lesser effects. Smith’s Cognitive-Affective Model of Athlete Burnout (1986) suggests burnout is the product of chronic stress. It manifests itself through the relationship between situational factors, cognitive appraisal of the interaction between the person and situation, physiological responses, and behavioral responses. For example, someone who is burnt-out from work may identify related responsibilities and commitments as exhausting or unattractive. Hunched shoulders, tired body, these are some physiological responses we might be able to identify at various levels of burnout. Again, it’s going to depend on the person.
One specific sport psychology theory of burnout I want to highlight is the Entrapment-Based Perspective. Athletes may no longer enjoy their sport but are too invested to quit or perceive no alternatives. This can limit their decision making when they begin to identify themselves as only one thing. These athletes perceive the cost of their time and energy as high with little to no reward as a result. The structure of their sport may leave athletes feeling like they don’t have control of their choices or the outcomes. All of these considerations ultimately lead to one thing.
I’ve been feeling it lately, burnout, and somewhat surprisingly. You would think that with a new semester at Springfield I would be immediately excited and intrinsically motivated for the work to come. Instead, I find myself questioning my place in the program and if any of it actually matters. Admittedly, my entire identity has become wrapped in the idea of being a doctoral student. My thoughts are dominated by what’s due, what I have to prepare, and how I’m going to make the time to get it done. I feel like I’m beholden to my schedule and the requirements of my program. Sounds like burnout to me.
At this point, I can’t quit, I’ve only just begun. With three to four years of school ahead of me, it’s difficult to put into perspective the HOW and the WHY of what I’m doing. I love teaching, service, and learning, but do I really need a PhD to align myself with those values in my work? These feelings aren’t prevailing and more often, I find the thoughts to come and go like everything else my mind can conjure.
Maybe this is just part of the process. Maybe the shine was always going to wear off and I just didn’t expect it to happen so fast. I’m not afraid of the work. I know I’m capable. I’ve just always been someone who has relied so heavily on purpose for motivation. Maybe that purpose was meant to change. Maybe that sense of purpose is something I’ll come to discover and re-define again and again as I work to understand myself. Below is something I wrote at the height of my Ironman training this summer. The process isn’t always pretty. The HOW and WHY might not be clear. What I’m learning is that these things were always meant to change like sunset to sunrise. Burnout can make the future seem dark and uncertain. The hours before dawn breaks through to start a new day. But with time, not only comes new light, but new understanding and awareness. Right now feels like the moment before the moment.
Mellano, K. (2020, October 1). Burnout [Slides]. Brightspace.
Smith, R. E. (1986). Toward a Cognitive-Affective Model of Athletic Burnout. Journal of Sport Psychology, 8(1), 36–50.