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Learning from sport burnout and overtraining
Learning from sport burnout and overtraining

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2 The role of emotional labour

Consider those occasions when you, as a sports athlete or coach, are in an inappropriate mood. For example, you are meant to be positive, full of energy and smiling but the way you feel does not match this. When this happens one option you have is to fake the appropriate behaviour.

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Figure 2 Do you feel you often have to put on a certain persona in your coaching or athlete role?

One psychologist, Hochshild (1983), in a seminal study titled ‘The Managed Heart’ examined how flight attendants manage their emotions in their work. She found that there are two strategies that people use – ‘surface acting’ and ‘deep acting’ – to achieve the appropriate emotional display: a process she called emotional labour. These ideas are interesting because emotional labour is closely associated with emotional exhaustion and burnout in sport (Larner et al., 2017). It is also a point of difference between coach and athlete burnout since coaches are always interacting with and managing their emotions: it is a job in which people skills are the focus of their work.

The following activity explores the two emotional labour strategies you might use in your work with other people in sport.

Activity 2 Emotional labour as ‘acting’

Timing: Allow about 10 minutes

The two strategies of emotional labour are explained in the video that follows. The first strategy is surface acting: putting on a faked emotional display, for instance by smiling, appearing enthusiastic or using a calm voice. Second is deep acting: altering your felt emotions in order to produce the appropriate authentic emotional display. Of the two, the first – surface acting – has been shown to require more cognitive effort since attention and effort are required to ensure that the true emotions do not leak out (Richards and Gross, 2000).

Watch this video in which the Australian researchers Johnson and Nguyen explain emotional labour and surface/deep acting with reference to the health care sector.

How could you explain ‘deep acting’ to a coach or colleague using the term ‘empathy’ (sharing the feelings of others)?

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The best way to illustrate how you could explain ‘deep acting’ to a coach or colleague using the term ‘empathy’ is by looking at some of the sentences you might use. For example, you might say:

‘Deep acting is when you feel empathy towards the situation or perspective of a participant or fellow coach and draw on that feeling in what you might display back to them.’

or you might say,

‘Being empathetic helps convey a more authentic emotional response as a coach’, or similar.

You now know that it is often surface acting that makes working with people in sport potentially emotionally draining. This is perhaps more likely in coach burnout than in athlete burnout. It is surface acting which draws most heavily on your mental resources and, over a prolonged period, may contribute to fatigue, stress and burnout.