Coaches' Corner: Avoiding Burnout

Tideway from Putney Bridge (Photo: © B. Kitch)
Frankly, I think avoiding burnout in rowing is pretty simple–don't expect to get burnt-out and you might find that you'll do just fine. Like lots of things in life, the more people talk about a concept or phenomenon, the more likely it is that it will come to fruition. I think 'burnout' is a prime example of the power of suggestion at work.

Look at some of the all-time greats in rowing, like Steve Redgrave, Elisabeta Lipa and Drew Ginn. Ginn, for example, has gone through about as much as anyone can go through in terms of adversity, battling serious, career-threatening injuries again and again, and yet he continues to not only row at a high level but also produce podium results (as has his Beijing pair partner, Duncan Free). We can also look to other sports, such as running, which is much more intense in terms of the toll it takes on the body over the long-term (given the impact to the lower limbs). One of the world's most famous runners, Haile Gebrselassie, who grew up running 10 kilometers to school and back daily as a young child, has continued to have tremendous success in the marathon at the age of 38. Although he is continually asked by the media when he is going to retire, and actually announced his retirement in 2010 after the New York City Marathon, he reneged on that announcement only a few short days later.

Of course, it is normal to be overwhelmed and exhausted at times, both mentally and physically, especially in the midst of a difficult training block, or in the moments right before or after a major peak. However, instead of expecting to be burnt-out at some point, simply allow yourself to step back and take a break. That is, give yourself a breather when this happens, but don't be so quick to pull the trigger and call it 'burnout.' The feeling of being overwhelmed is natural–it is a product of the necessary training in what is certainly a demanding endurance sport, which features peaks and valleys in intensity. The danger lies in the mental perception of being overwhelmed–once you tell yourself that you have reached the semi-permanent state of 'burnout,' you'll have trouble changing your outlook, and perhaps end a career in rowing prematurely because of it. How often does someone finish a collegiate rowing career, only to never take another stroke on the erg or on the water ever again, save the random alumni row once every few years? I don't think collegiate swimmers or runners stay out of the pool or off the roads as much as rowers stay away from the erg and boat. Because aerobic endurance and technical skill/savvy are huge factors in rowing, it is important that elite athletes stay in it for the long haul if they are going to reach their best. The commonly held belief is that it takes something in the range of 10,000 hours of practice to attain a level of expertise in a given exercise.

How common is the phrase, "I'm burnt-out from my high school rowing career, and I've lost the passion," or the ever popular, "It isn't fun anymore," when someone decides to 'hang up the spikes?' If you find yourself saying this, I would venture to bet that you probably never had the passion. Whose job is it to make it fun? In the simplest of terms, rowing is a racing sport. It is fun to challenge yourself and to race others. The nature of the sport itself doesn't change–the difference is that the level gets higher, the training gets harder and the competition gets better as you progress. As a result, it becomes harder to win, and harder to have success.

I understand the idea that heavy training loads in a highly demanding and competitive environment without perceived success can wear down one's psyche, but I don't see how it can lead to a permanent state of burnout. It's as though there is a perception that we each have a finite amount of energy to be spent on a given sport, like a light bulb. What's in order, when this happens, is a chat with a coach and a re-evaluation of progress, focusing on the positive, and addressing any problem areas with practical, potential solutions.

If we look at rowing compared to other sports, it becomes clear that, especially in the United States, rowing is not among those sports pursued the longest. By the time gymnasts, soccer players, tennis players or swimmers get to college, they have probably been involved in their sport for something in the range of 10-12 years. By the time the most experienced rowers in the United States get to college, they typically have less than half of that experience in their chosen sport. And while rowing is certainly intense in terms of year round training and racing, it is common for top-prospect Division I athletes in sports like swimming and soccer to train twice a day year round, and to play on club teams as well as high school teams. Obviously, the phenomenon of burnout is not unique to rowing, but it is alarming how prevalent it is given the relative length of the average career in the sport among young Americans. Simply removing the potential roadblock of 'expected burnout' will not solve the problem entirely, but I believe it could have a substantial impact. The problem of burnout can further be avoided by structuring an informed and balanced training plan. If coaches constantly push athletes too hard, it will expedite the 'burnout' process.

It is every individual's prerogative to do something with his or her life for a finite period of time, but just call it what it is–say that you don't want to do it anymore. I think that, in many ways, burnout is a construct of our increasingly cautious society. We are constantly living in fear of asking too much of people, or pushing them too hard. Yes, it is important to be wary of pushing young children too hard in year round sports before they can make the decision for themselves about their desire to participate, but, with high school age and older I think we need to take off the 'kid gloves' and let these teenagers and young adults participate in sports as intensely as they wish.

People often find what they are looking for, and if they are constantly checking their figurative pulse to see if they are burnt-out yet, they will most likely discover that they are–like many aspects of sport, and of life, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

-Justin and the RR Team

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