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There’s no avoiding it any longer: I have burned out.
Burn out is not the same as overtraining, although it has direct and indirect relations with the “underperformance syndromes”. The burn out syndrome is a psychological state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion. I like Maslach and Leiter’s description of it as “an erosion of the human soul”. I feel my soul has been eroded.
There are several studies concerned with the relationships between the harsh demands inherent to high performance athletics, the stress created by extremely high external and internal expectations and a number of personal variables. The third item is really what matters, since harsh demands and high expectations will not change: they are part of the game.
What makes an elite athlete prone to burn out? According to many studies, an exaggerated reliance on athletic achievement for the construction and maintenance of self-esteem. That leads many authors to suggest that a more balanced life, with different sources of reward not directly related to sports, should be important to prevent it.
I believe there is a missing link in all the studies I’ve examined. If self-esteem and identity are the cornerstones of all explanations concerning the burnout syndrome, anything that severely undermines them can lead to such a state. Sources of self-esteem erosion are not necessarily related to internal demands of training or competition. In fact, from my experience as an athlete, it rarely is.
Today, however, it sank in that all the alarming symptoms I have been experiencing these last weeks (and possibly months) are nicely explained by the models proposed by these studies. Except that the sources of my self-esteem erosion are not internal to the sport. They are obviously reinforced by internal factors, but their origin is found in my family, early childhood and adolescent history. Like so many other athletes (and people in general), of course.
These factors are kept under fragile control by most people. They emerge according to contextual determinants no one can predict.
The other issue that I haven’t read sufficiently about is how one type of external stressor can severely contribute to self-esteem erosion. This is bullying. I have no knowledge of any comparative study about bullying in different sports, gender bias, or any other element of sport bullying. All I know is that in a politically explosive environment such as the one prevailing in powerlifting, where 40 plus international federations fight for supremacy, bullying can reach a level of violence that may undermine anyone’s resilience.
Not one or two elite athletes abandoned the sport due to bullying. Dozens did.
The main target of sports bullying is the athlete’s self esteem.
In the light of the studies I have just examined, it makes perfect sense: if sufficiently bullied, an athlete will eventually burn out. The conscious goal of bullying is to “get rid” of specific, bullied, athletes. In technical terms, bullying is about producing severe enough burn out that the athlete can no longer compete.
Not easy. Probably doable.
I need to find out how.
Bellow are a couple of links to studies I found useful in my search for a solution.
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