Burnout in gymnastics is something many gymnasts face, however there isn't a ton of information about this subject in the gymnastics world.
How do you know if your gymnast is experiencing burnout or just needs a break? That's a question gymnastics parents ask me often.
In this article we'll talk about some of the signs of burnout in gymnastics.
It's important to recognize that gymnastics is a year-long sport. While competition season doesn't last the entire year, gymnasts aren't done when competition season is over. They continue to go into the gym and train for the following season. In fact, there is always more to learn in gymnastics, whether it's new routines or new skills and drills.
In addition, gymnasts often start their training young. It's not uncommon for 5 and 6 year olds to be competing already. Many have already spent years of their lives training in the gym. So by the time that gymnast is 12 or 13, she's spent the majority of her life training year after year for gymnastics.
What is Burnout?
According to Gould and Whitley (2009), burnout is:
"a physical, emotional, and social withdrawal from a formerly enjoyable sport activity. This withdrawal is characterized by emotional and physical exhaustion, reduced sense of accomplishments, and sport devaluation. Moreover, burnout occurs as a result of chronic stress (a perceived or actual imbalance between what is expected of an athlete physically, psychologically, and socially and his or her response capabilities) and motivational orientations and changes in the athlete."
Based on this definition, there are some specific signs of burnout.
Here are the signs of burnout in gymnastics. Take a look and see if your gymnast identifies with any of them:
1. Emotional and Physical Exhaustion
Your gymnast is excessively tired or lethargic. She might act emotionally "drained." She might be unable to perform other activities outside of the gym because she is too tired. Overall she just seems to lack energy and might lack interest and trust.
2. A Reduced Sense of Accomplishment
Your gymnast is consistently evaluating herself in a negative way. She is performing below her own standards. She might not feel like a good gymnast. Nothing feels like a "win" to her anymore. She feels a sense of failure, low self-esteem, and possibly depression. You can see this in her decreased level of performance.
3. Detached Attitude Towards Gymnastics
This might pertain to your gymnast if she is taking a sort of "whatever" approach to gymnastics. She might not have any regard for doing well in gymnastics. Maybe it seems like she doesn't try or even care anymore. She gives up easily. She might even be resentful towards gymnastics. And finally, she might be questioning the value of gymnastics in her life.
Why does burnout in gymnastics happen?
It's important to understand why burnout might happen so that you can figure out how to best get through it. It's also important for gymnastics coaches to recognize the symptoms of burnout and to understand what they might do that attributes to feelings of burnout in their gymnasts.
These are just some of the various models that have been developed to help understand burnout and I've explained them in a way that relates to gymnastics.
Burnout is often considered a reaction to chronic stress. For example, your gymnast might be overtraining. Overtraining is when there is an imbalance between her training and the amount of recovery she can take. This can commonly happen to gymnasts, especially when training for big competitions.
To know if your gymnast's burnout is a result of overtraining, you can give your gymnast a rest and see if her fatigue improves. If not, this is considered overtraining syndrome. It is when your gymnast's adaptive mechanisms fail to cope with chronic training stress.
It is quite common for gymnastics coaches to overlook recovery in their gymnasts. They might carefully plan training and even taper training loads as competition season approaches, but often fail to build in proper recovery.
2. Stress Outside of Gymnastics
Gymnasts who are experiencing life stressors often cannot respond as well to stress within the gym. They are less able to handle more intense training because it signifies an extra psychological load that they don't have the resources to handle. Life stressors might happen at home, in school, with friends, bullying from their peers, or with any other situations happening outside of the gym.
3. Lack of Psychological Resources to Handle Stress in Gymnastics
A gymnast with low self-esteem, lack of confidence, or high expectations/pressure will often buckle under the stress of gymnastics. When your gymnast perceives demands put on her that she cannot keep up with or meet effectively, she might lose her coping skills and perceive everything more intensely.
4. She Identifies Only With Being A Gymnast
Gymnastics is an intense sport and most competitive gymnasts identify with being a gymnast. Gymnasts often spend all their time with other gymnasts and don't have the same opportunities as other children to develop an identity outside of the gym. Thus, when your gymnast isn't as successful as she'd like to be, which is something she heavily focuses on because her identity is tied into being a gymnast, she can perceive that as stress.
5. Your Gymnast Feels Trapped Into Doing Gymnastics
Some gymnasts might feel pressure to continue to do gymnastics because of the significant amount of time and money invested into the sport. Or maybe parents or coaches tell them how good they are or how much potential they have, and they perceive that as them having to continue to do gymnastics. Whenever your gymnast has a perceived lack of control in her decision to continue doing gymnastics, this can cause stress which can lead to burnout.
6. Being Injured Over and Over
The comeback from an injury is not only taxing on the physical body, but also on your gymnast's emotional well-being. Having multiple injuries and needing to navigate the injury journey over and over can create stress in your gymnast which can ultimately contribute to feelings of burnout.
Ways to Help Your Gymnast If You Suspect She's Experiencing Burnout
1. Give your gymnast a break
If you suspect your gymnast may be experiencing burnout, be sure to give her a break. Take a week off for a family vacation, skip some meets, train less days each week. Also, be sure to make at least one day of the week an "off" day where your gymnast has to do something other than gymnastics (and nothing related to it). For example, make Sunday a day for doing fun family activities that don't involve gymnastics such as going to Church, having brunch, or family hiking through the local park.
2. Take off the pressure
Make sure you, as her parent, are not adding extra pressure or stress to your gymnast's life. Stop asking about gymnastics so much. Stop talking about outcome goals (what score she will get or which skills she will learn). Be supportive without pushing.
3. Monitor stress levels or sources of stress
While you don't need to push into your gymnast's life completely, you should have a pulse on the sorts of stressors your gymnast is feeling. Does she need help in school, more rest, more optimal nutrition to fuel her body, or less extracurricular activities? Are there things going on at home that are adding to her stress (family arguments, sibling rivalry, moving to a new house, new job for a parent, etc)? If things feel too stressful, it's time to help your gymnast manage these stressors better.
4. Encourage open-communication with your gymnast
When she comes to talk to you, listen with a non-judgmental ear so that she will be more likely to speak to you in the future. Don't assume you know what's she's telling you or what she needs. Really listen to what she is saying (and not what you think she's saying). Remind her that you are there to be her support system and that you don't need to "fix" her problems for her - you can just listen.
5. Make sure she is in the best environment for her
Are her coaches the right fit? Do they support her? Are they encouraging?
Or do they shut down communication or yell at their gymnasts? Do they expect perfection? Do they push your gymnast too far?
These are all important things to consider, especially if you suspect your gymnast is going through burnout. If she is in an unsupportive environment, she might barely be surviving.
At the end of the day, you need to do what you think is best for your gymnast. If you're unsure if she's going through burnout or just needs a break, it's often a good idea to give her a mini break from the gym. Take a week or two off and see if her spirits rise. See how she feels or what she says about it. If she's hesitant to go back or you can feel her dread then it might be wise to keep her out longer.
Some gymnasts might quit gymnastics and then realize in a few months that they really miss it or want to do it. This is totally acceptable even though you might worry about your gymnast having "missed" training. Your gymnast will most likely bounce back easily if this is the case. It's better to take the break and have to spend a few weeks catching up than push your gymnast to her breaking point.
If you or your gymnast needs support, in addition to the resources below I also offer one-on-one coaching sessions via Zoom.
- Resources: Get gymnastics downloads to help your gymnast work on her mental skills in gymnastics
- Mental Health Training for Gymnasts: Help your gymnast learn about her brain and the fight-flight-or-freeze response.
- Free Facebook Group for Moms of Gymnasts: Join this group to chat with other gymnastics moms and get tips for how to help your gymnast navigate through the mental ups and downs of gymnastics