5 Case study: Molly (figure skating)
In Activity 5, you will try to spot the new ideas you have been introduced to – detachment and depersonalisation – in figure skating coach Molly’s account of her own burnout, taken from another of McNeill et al.’s (2017) in-depth interviews.
Activity 5 Recognising signs of depersonalisation – figure skating coach Molly
Read through Molly’s account of her burnout and identify which sentence(s) reveal links with depersonalisation and a cynical attitude to athletes or people.
The last six months have been hell. … I have been physically exhausted. When I’m burned out, I get apathetic and look at the kid [athlete] and say, ‘My god, you’re probably not going to ever get to the next level of skating. What’s the point, why are you here?’ Like ‘I’m just an expensive babysitter for you’ … And then it starts to creep into the work I do with the kids who really do want to be there. … And that’s the worst thing, when I start turning into that ...
And it’s harder to see the big picture when I’m angry or overstressed. I fixate on one thing at the expense of a well-rounded training session, or carry over that sense of apathy or detachment, and … a week [goes] by and I’ve accomplished nothing. Or I feel like no matter what exercise I give the kids, it’s the wrong one, and I lose faith in my abilities as a coach. ... And it’s extreme, in one week I can touch on all these different places, there’s mountains and then crashes. And I hope that the kids don’t pick up on it, but they’re not stupid. I’m sure they can tell when I’m having a bad day and I’m yelling at them to get their arms up and stretch their legs … sometimes I get too harsh and I get too negative …
I’m always an emotional person … but now it’s more ‘quick to anger’. I’ll snap at my students when I don’t want to, I’ll snap at my partner which I should never do. Or else I’m very apathetic. I feel nothing or I feel like nothing matters anyway so why bother trying? And I think if I didn’t detach myself, then I would feel things negatively even more. So at least if I shut down or say, ‘Screw it, it doesn’t matter anyway’ then I don’t have to feel those things.
But then it gets me to a certain point where I snap out of it and think ‘I’m not supposed to be this person, I’m supposed to be successful, high-achieving’. So I’ll throw myself into work and start the whole cycle again. And it’s hard to turn work off; coaching is my daily life in the sense that it’s difficult to separate.
The researchers interpreted Molly as describing a form of cognitive and emotional distancing akin to depersonalisation. This was shown through a negative, indifferent attitude towards her athletes (i.e. ‘My god, you’re probably not going to ever get to the next level of skating. What’s the point, why are you here?’). This was interpreted as a coping response in the face of growing exhaustion (McNeill et al., 2017).
Most tellingly, Molly describes why she detaches herself, which connects to the self-defence ideas of Maslach: ‘I think if I didn’t detach myself, then I would feel things negatively even more’.
This is a further insight into job burnout amongst coaches and how this experience differs to athlete burnout. The ideas of the emotional labour processes and depersonalisation and detachment apply to most workplaces in which there is close work with, and care of, people.