How many athletes end their careers prematurely because they are simply burned out and need a break but they can’t see it? Or as is usually the case, they are not given the opportunity to have that break due to the threat of funding cuts or the pressure to perform? Our answer is probably hundreds of thousands. I recently wrote this article for the Crossing the Line blog:
Even when successful outcomes are achieved many elite athletes suffer from post competition let down, politicians from post-election weariness, or students from post exam blues. Having achieved something special we may expect to feel elated, but just as often we feel flat. Any prolonged and intense period of mental effort can trigger neural depletion, commonly known as burnout and if not understood or appropriately managed can lead to depression.
In his autobiography, Olympic swimming champion, Ian Thorpe, surmised, “… depression is high amongst elite athletes, not just because they get burnt-out, but because many are attracted to sport in the first place as a way of regulating how they feel, because exercise is a great mood stabiliser.”
While sport and exercise generally improve mental health and well-being, releasing helpful neurochemicals that moderate and enhance mood, these neurochemicals are a limited resource. In elite athletic populations the demands made on the athlete’s personal reserves can easily be tipped in the wrong direction, resulting in neural depletion and burn-out.
If asked to run for 24 hours nonstop most individuals would say “don’t be ridiculous.” Without sufficient glycogen and water in our muscles most of us would slow to a walk, find a park bench to sit on and in all likelihood fall asleep. A car requires fuel in order to operate so does the human body, it needs to continuously refuel to replace depleted energy stores.
Like the body, the brain also needs energy to function. Higher states of emotional energy, both good and bad, burn more fuel. Excessive mental busyness depletes important neurochemicals that feed the brain and can lead to burnout. While a car revving its engine burns through its petrol faster, a busy mind can also empty our mental tank. This busyness does not have to be negative, we all like to party and flick through our social network pages, but even positive energy can rapidly burn through mental energy stores, leaving us feeling depleted.
Even positive experiences can burn through our mental energy stores.
When serotonin, the neurochemical which helps to produce feelings of calm and aids in melatonin production to regulate sleep, is depleted, burnout and/or depression are a likely consequence. When dopamine, the fun neurochemical that excites us into action and motivates us to do things is depleted, burnout and depression are also possible consequences.
Both serotonin and dopamine are enhanced through physical movement and exercise, but intense exercise or excessive worry are likely to burn through our feel good neurochemicals too fast while at the same time producing an excess of stress chemicals such as too much adrenalin and cortisol.
Poor lifestyle choices and a frenetic head space can tear through our mental energy resources and lead to feelings of agitation and/or despair. When the mental demands placed on a person are greater than their personal resources to meet those demands, not allowing adequate rest and down-time, the mental tank can also become depleted.
A vast amount of the general public love sport and admire athletic talent, hard work and exceptional skills. Supporters love to be inspired by athletes and feel great pride and elation when their favourite athlete/team performs well. Friends, family and supporters often get to live vicariously through the athletic achievements of athletes.
However, public expectations combined with the demands of rigorous training, intense competitions and inevitable injuries, can take their toll on athletes. It doesn’t take much to dip into the athletes mental reserves when they already ride the fine line between optimising performance and tipping the balance into burnout.
Triple Olympic gold medalist, Petria Thomas, wrote about her struggles with depression in her biography ‘Swimming Against The Tide’. Thomas suffered from numerous injuries during her career and depression often accompanied them. Injury was an enduring threat to her swimming career as it is to the careers of many elite athletes.
Thomas commented, “In a sense, swimming is all I felt like I had in my life.” “If I wasn’t swimming I didn’t know what the hell else I was supposed to be doing, so that scared me.”
What Thomas may not have realised is that it isn’t just identity that is compromised through injury or poor performance, but also an athlete’s neurochemistry. Without the appropriate self-knowledge and education on how to refuel limited neurochemistry reserves burnout is an ever looming menace for all athletes.