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What Lies Beneath

STORY BY ALAN OLDHAM
IMAGES BY PETER SPURRIER

They just closed their eyes and were satisfied by having a lunatic who was willing to work 24/7. They were experienced and should have known that working so hard was not sustainable over time.”

These are the words of an elite coach in a 2014 Norwegian study on burnout. Yet coach burnout, or “a feeling of being overextended and depleted of one’s emotional and physical resources,” isn’t just something that happens at the elite level.

We can all probably think of at least one coach experiencing or at risk of burnout (and that person might even be you). From strained interpersonal relationships to nagging self-doubt to crushing expectations, the factors that lead to coach burnout are not overly complex at first blush. What we don’t tend to talk about, however, are the underlying reasons behind the stress as well as the toll—emotional and physical—it takes on even the most passionate and inspired coaches.

While mental health is a big part of burnout, here we focus on the causes and effects of coach burnout and what can be done to help coaches rediscover that love for the sport that first compelled them to give back.

Defining Well-Being and Burnout

The Oxford dictionary defines well-being as “the state of being comfortable, healthy, or happy.” While this sounds like a simple concept, it is far from it. We all react to situations differently, so our experience of comfort, health, and/or happiness is somewhat subjective. It is also important to consider that appearance can be deceiving; even the most positively cheerful coach might be putting on a brave face.

“In some ways, coaches remind me of doctors,” said Alex Hutchinson, a writer who focuses on the science of fitness, exercise, and health. “[They are] so focused on making other people well (or fast) that they ignore the most basic rules of wellness in themselves.”

For Hutchinson, those basics include “getting enough sleep, eating well, and—ironically—getting regular exercise. There’s also a logistical challenge: if you’re spending hours and hours watching other people exercise, and planning their every move, there’s often not much time to do your own workout.”

“There’s no doubt that the physical act of coaching can be exhausting—biking alongside athletes, screaming splits, experiencing sky-high levels of vicarious stress, and so on. But the best countermeasure is probably more time in the gym or on the trails, not less.”

However, the stress mounts up, if these issues are not dealt with, they can lead to burnout. 

Although I didn’t get the chance to interview Christina Maslach, who penned the classic definition of burnout, her work since the 1970s in the field of occupational burnout is has been highly influential. Maslach proposes three aspects to burnout: exhaustion; depersonalization, an indifference or cynical attitude toward people someone is supposed to be engaged with; and inefficacy, a sense of reduced personal accomplishment. 

“A work situation with chronic, overwhelming demands that contribute to exhaustion or cynicism is likely to erode one’s sense of effectiveness,” she wrote in a 2001 study. 

What Can Coaches Do?

For anyone seeking advice, the landscape is littered with self-help tips both for coaches experiencing burnout and those hoping to avoid it. It is obviously something on the minds of many. 

OUWBC Head Coach Andy Neldler with an assistant on the River Thames. Photo by Peter Spurrier.

Beyond the blogs and broad-stroke advice columns, there are some more reputable resources available. The United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s recently published “Quality Coaching Framework” document includes some practical information and tips designed to help coaches help themselves. In fact, the sixth and final chapter focuses entirely on coach well-being.

“One of the saddest ironies in sport,” begins the chapter, “is that although coaches strive to provide an enjoyable and healthy experience for their athletes to develop and perform optimally, too often they approach their job in a manner that has the opposite effect on their own well-being.”

For Chris Snyder, director of coach education with the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, well-being comes down to “arming coaches with the abilities to handle any stressors that come their way and be able to react in a positive way that keeps the athlete at the center of execution.”

“What we have found is that if you do these concepts right, you’ll gain more success on the field or in the boat. You have to be able to connect with people. You have to know why you are there. You have to have those athlete-centered outcomes. But then if you don’t take care of yourself as a coach, mentally and physically, the athletes can tell.”

At the heart of it, said Snyder, is the coach’s role in a world that has changed significantly from previous generations. “These are new athletes and new methods of coaching,” he told me. “There is a big difference and athletes are looking for people to inspire them and be role models in a whole new way.”

The picture Snyder paints is one many coaches and athletes can probably identify with. With the rise of data in training and the increased importance of making marginal gains, there is a sense that coaches must be more vigilant than ever as gatekeepers and knowledge filters. They must let just the perfect amount of insight through. No more. No less. No room for mistakes.

While the actual workload may be growing due to the rapid pace of advances in the science of performance, society’s view of a coach’s role has in many ways remained the same. This only leads to greater pressure, argued Snyder, who points to the rapid growth of ultra-organized youth sports in the United State as an example.

“The increased pressures—including the role of social media—that come with popularizing the sport system put more pressure on every level of coaching,” he told me. “Even the traditional pressures in youth sports like parents in the stands are greater than they used to be. The question becomes, how do you as a coach handle these pressures and arm yourself with tools?

“If we are going to keep coaches from dropping out and keep athletes from having less educated coaches, we have to manage this,” continued Snyder. “Part is giving the coaches the tools, but if you can get everyone, from fans and parents to sport administrators, to value the system, you can decrease those pressures.”

Supportive Structures

Whether as volunteers or professionals, most rowing coaches recognize the importance of a good relationship with those in charge of their club or organization. In that 2015 Norwegian study, Marte Bentzen of the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences and her colleagues concluded that “sporting organizations had a great influence on the coaches’ perception of their job and represented a major catalyzing factor within the burnout process.” 

Or to put it another way, a poor working relationship with the boss leads to reduced levels of well-being for the employee.

“We were winning medals at an international level, but we had to deal with a board of volunteer leaders who knew little about sport at that level,” reported one of the coaches in the study. “They interfered in how we did our work and with the responsibilities we were given as coaches. It was very frustrating.”

This situation of being over-managed by a group of leaders without the skill or time required to lead effectively can result in what Bentzen calls “un-autonomous independence.”

“Their leaders did not discuss challenging situations with them or give them direction in their work,” stated the study, concluding that, “managers need to be regularly present and create an adaptive work environment, by offering autonomy support and structure for coaches.”

When it comes to workload, something usually cited as a major cause of burnout, Bentzen’s team found that long hours, while problematic, were not as significant as the reasons coaches felt they had to keep working so hard. These ranged from “not being in control,” to “feeling behind,” to “lack of experience,” to “not perceiving themselves as competent.”

Ultimately, when coaches work without feeling supported, they can lose their sense of purpose. As another coach in the Norwegian study noted, “I felt what I did was meaningless. That is a good word. Why am I doing this? Why do I wear myself out when I could have had an ordinary, 9-to-5 job? I started to question whether this was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I started to doubt it.”

Changing the Culture

Helping coaches to become more resilient in the face of mounting challenges and pressures on all sides is not the only solution to the problem of burnout.

For Jim Denison, a professor at the University of Alberta’s Faculty of Kinesiology, Sport, and Recreation, what’s also required is a shift in how we think about sports culture more broadly. “The historical norms around what effective coaching looks like and what effective coaches should say and do have a legacy of giving power to the coach to be in control,” he told me. “These norms allow the coach to say, ‘Yes, I’m the expert, I know these things,’ but it also creates issues such as marginalization and isolation and sets up the expectation that you as the coach are responsible for your athletes’ learning.”

Central to this idea is the theory that learning is a process of transmission, Denison explained. “This is the old image of a pupil and you are pouring stuff into his or her brain.

“This norm is oppressive to both athletes and coaches,” he continued. “Surveillance is exhausting. As a coach, when you believe that you are in charge of the progress and development of all your athletes and that you are monitoring every aspect of their lives from their sleep hours to their nutrition, to their videoing, that is exhausting.

“It is not a case of saying that data is bad, or video is bad,” Denison added. “It is a question of the intentions that are used. Unfortunately, we are in an age of a data grab or data dump. We need to shift to looking at teams as learning organizations rather than performance organizations.”

Until we can see athletes and coaches as part of the same team on a shared journey of learning and developing, said Denison, all the talk about athlete-centered coaching is nothing but lip service.

“To be truly athlete-centered requires a shift in how you think about the body, knowledge, power, and learning,” he said. “Until you shift the framework, you are only pouring old wine into a new bottle.”

Related to Denison’s call for change is a shift in the language we as coaches use to describe both our sport and the athletes’ bodies. “Language has far-reaching effects in what we consider ethical, practical, and the design of systems,” Denison said. “In an environment where exercise physiology really dominates, that knowledge has a lot of power,” he explained. “Coaches acquire that knowledge, which gives them a sense of power over their athletes to design the training program such that athletes’ bodies get itemized to be thought of as soldiers, animals, or machines.”

Thinking of athletes in abstract terms, according to Denison, only serves to widen the power gap between coach and athlete, placing even more pressure on the coach to be the all-knowing, all-seeing expert. 

“When you say something like ‘He’s got a machine engine,’” said Denison, “it may be an idea that we take for granted in sport, but this kind of language has the cumulative effect of establishing athletes as machines with coaches tinkering with them. Until you get away from these metaphors of machines, animals, and soldiers,” he continued, “you are not going to move beyond the ideology of domination. Domination is never ethical. Even though you might be a nice person, if you don’t change your language, the way you run your practices won’t change. What you do and say have to be linked. New ways of saying things give new possibilities of doing things.”

I asked Denison what metaphor coaches should instead use for an athlete’s body. “Think of the body as a force,” he said. “When you do things to the body, it does things back at you like a force. The relationship is reciprocal.”

Whether metaphor or reality, that sense of respect and shared responsibility goes a long way to ensuring the long-term well-being and sustained engagement of coaches and athletes. “Moving away from the ‘coach-as-expert’ and ‘athlete-as-learner’ to the ‘coach-and-athlete-as-learners’ [and] even to the ‘coach-as-learner’ and ‘athlete-as-expert,’ will make a big difference,” said Denison. “It unloads all the responsibility and burden and expectation for the coach to be the all-knowing expert. And who can live up to that?

“That’s an environment where people can feel it is not such a risk—or even shameful—to be wrong,” he added. “When I ask athletes or coaches how they are doing and they say, ‘I’m fine,’ that isn’t always an honest answer. We have to question why is it such a risk for them to be honest?”

Where to From Here?

At the end of all this, I find myself with many more question than answers—not an unusual situation for me. For the first time in a long while, however, I’m fine with that. And maybe that’s the big lesson here. 

As coaches we can’t always choose who we work for or select the most agreeable athletes—and parents for that matter. For all that, improving coach well-being is not a case of simply pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps. Having the know-how and the tools to handle a bad situation is part of the solution, but even that doesn’t address the underlying conditions.

As I discovered, systemic change is needed across all sports, but coaches can’t do it alone. If we want to make ours an example of how sport can lift people up, then it is up to all of us within the rowing community to create a safe environment for everyone—athletes and coaches—to communicate openly, make mistakes, and never stop learning.

If there’s one thing I’ll carry with in my own coaching from all this digging into coach burnout, it’s to take on a lot less baggage that doesn’t really belong to me in the first place.  

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