What is a Coach?
We’ll start this blog by delving into what a coach is, the oxford dictionary describes a coach as ‘a person who trains a person or team in sport’. But, we can hone in a little more on the subtleties, for this we’ll split the camp right down the middle and offer a definition of participation coaches and high-performance coaches. Lyle1 highlighted that participation coaching is characterized by loose membership, transient participation and a focus on positive affective outcomes i.e. fun and enjoyment! As a counter to this Lyle1 suggested high-performance coaching is characterized by focusing on long term planning, monitoring, building relationships with athletes and higher levels of commitment. It goes without saying that there is a cross-over between both aspects and most coaches will encompass a blend of these characteristics.
In essence all coaches are performers, educators, administrators, leaders, planners, motivators, negotiators, managers, and listeners, but they are also people2.
It is this “people” aspect we want to focus on today, the coach is not a robot, they are not immune to everyday stressors and like athletes and many professionals they can get burnt out.
What is Burn Out?
Burnout is a psychological syndrome of emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and reduced personal accomplishment that can occur with individuals that work with other people in some capacity3.
As coaches we work with other people, this is pretty obvious! The time we invest into the athletes we work with consists of any host of problems from psychological to physical, tactical to technical and everything in between. In our roles we may also deal with stakeholders, budget constraints, possibly be self-employed and a range of unique and not so unique facets that makes our jobs wonderfully challenging and highly stressful.
Emotional exhaustion essentially means we are no longer able to expend our emotional resources on issues that arise during our work. Depersonalization highlights the fact that we may develop negative and cynical attitudes of feelings to our clients and colleagues. Reduced personal accomplishment ties in to our decreased satisfaction with our roles often judging our work negatively, feeling unhappy and dissatisfied.
This all sounds familiar. Why, as it has been prevalent for as long as people have worked! But it has also been highlighted in terms of overtraining syndrome with athletes, something as coaches we should all be aware of. Yet, the unfortunate fact is that we cannot identifying the same pattern of burnout occurring in our own roles!
The Reasons for Burnout
It is worth highlighting here that these are only a snapshot of possible explanations and rationales for a coach to experience burnout. As humans we are unique, what causes stress, especially chronic stress, for one may be easily brushed off for another.
Drawing on the work by Olusoga & Kentta4 into burnout and recovery in high-performance sports coaches we can gain clear insight into the reasons for coach burnout in their specific sample. These include internal and external expectation, role overload, work-home interference, isolation and fear of showing vulnerability, uncertainty and media scrutiny. These stressors have been discussed in a multitude of studies5,6 showing us that there is in fact overlap in the broader reasons why coaches experience burnout. It is, therefore, worthwhile to go into a little more detail on each of these subsections.
Internal and External Expectation
As coaches we set and are set expectations that we adhere to. Often this is no different to the expectations we set with the athletes. Challenging and healthy expectations are good, it’s what drives performance. This issue arises when these expectations become too much for one individual to deal with (again this is highly individual dependant) and pressure starts to mount. This pressure may be budgeting related, it may involve not hitting certain targets with your programme among a host of other issues.
Role clarity is a key issue for environments to stipulate. It is often the case that the coach is all things to all people, a physical trainer, a physiologist, a psychologist, an accountant, a travel agent … the list goes on and on! This is what makes our job unique and challenging and often why we love it, but, if you are not liaising with your support staff or are juggling to many roles burnout will occur.
Having a balance is key with everything. Balancing training stress, for example, is helpful to prevent overtraining in athletes. For coaches we need a balance between work and home. This balance can get out of whack for a host of reasons even those mentioned above! Often coaches take their work home with them be that actual work or mental work thinking through scenarios or challenges that were faced during the day.
Coaching is a funny profession; the general public doesn’t think it’s a real job and the athlete thinks it’s your only job! This can often lead to isolation. When coaches have no one to bounce ideas off or chat through various scenarios which may have came up at work it leads to a form of social isolation in that they feel no one understands the challenges they face.
Vulnerability and Uncertainty
The above point on isolation often lends itself to coaches not being able to express vulnerability. One of the most powerful things coaches can say is I don’t know. Showing this vulnerability is only human. You simply cannot be all and know all. When we experience this vulnerability and isolation and decide to plough on regardless uncertainty in our actions is sure to come up.
Media scrutiny is tough. The media does not know what goes on behind closed doors with an athlete but reports regardless. An athlete you work with may be experiencing personal issues and simply arriving at the competition is a win whereas the media reports the 17th place finish as a disappointment that was probably due to the coach!
As mentioned previously there is a host of other reasons as to why burnout can happen but hopefully the above struck some cords. Part two of this blog post will deal with the consequences to you the coach and the athletes you work with along with some suggestions in combating and recovering from burnout in coaching.
In the meantime, always remember a problem shared is a problem halved!
1.Lyle, J. (2002). Sports coaching concepts: A framework for coachesʼ behaviour. London: Routledge.
2.Giges B, Petitpas AJ and Vernacchia RA. Helping coaches meet their own needs: challenges for the sport psychology consultant. Sport Psychol 2004; 18: 430–444.
3.Maslach, C., Jackson, S. E., Leiter, M. P., Schaufeli, W. B., & Schwab, R. L. (1986). Maslach burnout inventory (Vol. 21, pp. 3463-3464). Palo Alto, CA: Consulting psychologists press.
4.Olusoga, P., & Kenttä, G. (2017). Desperate to quit: A narrative analysis of burnout and recovery in high-performance sports coaching. The Sport Psychologist, 31(3), 237-248.
5.Olusoga, P., Maynard, I., Butt, J., & Hays, K. (2014). Coaching under pressure: mental skills training for sports coaches. Sport and exercise psychology review, 10(3), 31-44.
6.Thelwell, R. C., Weston, N. J., Greenlees, I. A., & Hutchings, N. V. (2008). Stressors in elite sport: A coach perspective. Journal of sports sciences, 26(9), 905-918.