It'll hit after you make serious gains in the gym. You'll probably be in, or on your way to, the best shape of your life. That's when you just won't feel like doing it anymore.
It's called burnout - or the loss of drive, passion, and interest in training and competing. And it can be just as serious as any soft tissue or bone injury.
Burnout is linked to our stress response, which, in turn, is explained by a theory called "fight or flight." When faced with manageable levels of stress we "fight" (e.g., push the bar up for 10 more reps, continue to attend grueling two-a-day practices, or run brutal track workouts). But if stress levels become overwhelming, the "flight" trigger kicks in, urging us to flee from the cause of our stress and lose the desire to train and compete.
Unpacking “fight or flight” reveals why burnout is so common amongst elite athletes. Making continual gains in fitness requires constantly adding training stress over days, months, and years. This would be fine if we knew what our breaking point was - when we shift from fight to flight - but we don't. Push too hard and the drive to get better can quickly fade.
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Old-school thinking on burnout advises athletes to take an extended break from their sport. While this can be effective in some instances, 1) sometimes it isn't an option (e.g., an Olympic hopeful six months out from a qualifier event), and 2) many athletes lose connection with their sport and never return.
The good news? Much like for serious physical injuries, cutting-edge research has given rise to a new and innovative approach for "treating" burnout that may not require extended time off and has the potential to actually strengthen an athlete's bond with his or her sport.
I’m going to call the protocol “Give Back, Get Back.”
The Behavioral Science
Give Back, Get Back (modeled after a concept known as Tend and Befriend in academia) is based on the research of renowned psychology professors Shelley Taylor and Adam Grant. The basic premise is that when burnout strikes, rather than moving away from your sport, you may actually need to move closer to it, albeit in a way that is different from training and competing. Specifically, Grant’s bestselling book, Give and Take, suggests that "giving back” to one's sport could be the perfect antidote to burnout. Giving back can take many forms, including coaching, mentoring, or simply posting training advice in an online forum. Giving back is effective because helping others activates reward and pleasure centers in the brain, which works to re-associate positivity with one's sport. This can result in a renewed energy and motivation for training and competing.
An additional benefit of giving back is that it takes what is often an inherently selfish pursuit, like training, and balances it with our innate desire to find meaning and fulfillment by assisting others. Thus, you can use giving back prior to burnout as a preventative measure. Not to mention, giving back makes the world (and your sport) a better place.