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

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3 Case study: Andy (athletics coach)

Understanding the emotional labour process is one thing. In contrast, recognising deep or surface acting in coaches can be difficult since they are unlikely to disclose what they really think about the athletes they deal with. However, as you will see from the abstract in Box 1, one group of researchers set out to investigate the emotions underlying coaches’ experiences of burnout.

Box 1 Understanding the underlying emotions of coach burnout: a narrative approach


This … study … investigate[d] coaches’ subjective experiences of burnout in order to shed light on the emotional nature of this syndrome. Five full-time paid coaches (two women and three men) experiencing burnout participated in an in-depth individual interview as part of a larger 13-week intervention study. A content analysis of the interview data resulted in the construction of five non-fictional short stories highlighting the emotions underlying the coaches’ experiences of burnout. The coaches described a variety of emotions including anxiety, anger, apathy and dejection, which had negative implications upon their well-being and coaching practice. Emotions were linked to the three dimensions of burnout. … Findings support calls for intervention research to help coaches manage their emotions and prevent burnout.

(McNeill et al., 2017)

This next activity challenges you to spot the signs of surface acting in the case study of athletics coach Andy, taken from McNeill et al.’s (2017) in-depth interviews.

Activity 3 Recognising signs of surface acting – athletic coach Andy

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Read through Andy’s account of his burnout and identify which sentence(s) reveal a connection with surface acting.

My first year I was employed, I was the head coach of Club X. It was a highly successful year for the club, for budgets, athletes, national teams, records, medals. … Administratively though, it crushed me because I took on everything.

It was a feeling of uncontrollable, continuous white noise in the brain. I couldn’t turn the brain off, I couldn’t detach, and it just turned into a downward cycle of continuing levels of stress. I drank a few more beers every week, I didn’t sleep well, I put on almost 20 lb. And when the club told me they wouldn’t match the salary I was at, and I knew [I] was done. And for a good year, I didn’t know if I was ever going to come back. But coaching ultimately was where I wanted to be. And when I coach, I go 0 to 100, I empty the gas tank. …

… The large portion of my stress comes down to the number of roles I have. I wear three major hats, sometimes four or five or six, depending on the weekend. … That means there’s six different groups of people at a time who need my attention. So it feels a lot like I’m juggling. But I’m pretty good at sheltering [my emotions]. I take the viewpoint of ‘they don’t need to know’.

My athletes have a job to do and when they show up at the track, I expect them to leave their stress, their lives, … their dates, their jobs, and give me [a few] hours of focus and time that they need to achieve their goals. So I don’t want to be a negative part of that and I demand the same from myself. But my girlfriend might say that I can get a bit closed in. I don’t see it as much, it’s more, ‘I don’t need to talk about it; I’m good’.

Do I think I can continue this pace forever? Definitely not, but right now I have age and health and a bunch of things on my side. So I’m going to grind it out and do everything I can to be successful for myself and my athletes’ careers. … I need to make sacrifices. … If I wanted to be a recreational coach, I’d find a different job and coach 6 hours a week, but this is what I signed up to do.

(Andy in McNeill et al., 2017)
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One of the key signals is when he says ‘I’m pretty good at sheltering [my emotions]’. He then goes on to say ‘I take the viewpoint of ‘they don’t need to know’’, and ‘I don’t want to be a negative part of that [focus within sessions] and I demand the same from myself’.

In the study, the researchers concluded:

This is indicative of Andy’s engagement in ‘surface acting’ with his athletes, where he consciously changed his outward expression to meet the ‘display rules’ (i.e. the rules that govern when and how overt emotional expressions occur in specific situations) he felt necessary to comply with. As such, it may speak to how Andy felt constrained by … norms for emotional management in coaching ...

(McNeill et al., 2017, p. 192)

Emotional labour is draining, and this is something that coaches rather than athletes experience. You have seen how athletes often stop caring about their sport when experiencing burnout, and the same applies to coaches. Next you will consider: what else do coaches stop caring about when they get burned out?