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

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3 Case study: John Bergland

Evidence suggests (e.g. Mosewich et al., 2013) that self-compassion is a useful intervention to reduce burnout, counterbalancing excessive feelings of guilt at not pushing yourself hard and making you more positive about your achievements. 

A close-up photograph of a runner, showing just his legs and feet.
Figure 4 Some athletes who are particularly self-critical experience guilt about not training or pushing themselves hard

Research evidence on self-compassion is gradually emerging to show that it can be a valuable tool for some, particularly for managing athletes with perfectionistic tendencies. You will explore this in the next activity, in the case of John Bergland, an ultra-distance athlete.

Activity 3 Self-compassion: Bergland’s ‘secret sauce’ for perfectionism

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Read this extract from a Psychology Today article in which Bergland (2018), prompted by his research into perfectionism and self-compassion, describes how a key moment, as well as self-care, changed his life.

Once you have read the article, revisit the case of Jono Kitto (rugby) [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] from Session 5. How similar were Kitto’s strategies towards change, to Bergland’s use of self-compassion?

As a professional athlete, I learned about … perfectionism the hard way. … Being a triathlete, I had zero tolerance for imperfection. Unfortunately, in the late 1990s, when I started getting bored [I] decided to [do] more extreme ultra-endurance events.

I was determined to stick to a robotically-rigid training regimen, I ignored the warning signs of overtraining. This led to a colossal meltdown … injuries and burnout … and ultimately, a major depressive episode.

Fortuitously, during this time period, Alanis Morissette released a song, ‘That I Would Be Good,’ about embracing oneself despite appearing ‘less than’ [perfect]. …, this song was an epiphany for me.

Once the meaning of this song sunk in, I began practicing more self-compassion and let go of my … perfectionism. Notably, this is also the precise moment when my athletic career really began to take off. Once I silenced my inner critic and stopped constantly beating myself up for being less than perfect, joie de vivre and exuberance took over. … I actually started having fun during races. Self-compassion can be a real game-changer. …

Self-acceptance and a carefree spirit were my secret sauce as an ultra-endurance athlete. More specifically, mastering the art of talking to myself … allowed me to compete in absurdly gruelling ultra-distance races.

As an athlete, learning to practice more self-compassion improved both my mental health and sports performance by reducing maladaptive perfectionism. This anecdotal evidence … corroborates the latest empirical evidence by Ferrari et al. (2018) …

(Bergland, 2018)
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Both Bergland and Kitto remember inspirational people or moments which helped change their mindset in managing their perfectionism-related burnout. For Kitto, it was the Michael Jordan quote which demonstrated Jordan had made plenty of mistakes in his career but not been defined by them. This is the quote he spoke about:

I've missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I've lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I've been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I've failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.

(Jordan, n.d.)

Kitto mentions in his interview about accepting mistakes, that ‘there is a sense of grace in that’ and that he now recognises ‘the good that we [as players] are adding to the field’. It certainly sounds like there were very strong similarities between the strategies he used and those of self-compassion. Bergland’s full engagement with the strategy of self-compassion and his enthusiastic description of it as his ‘secret sauce’ certainly adds anecdotal evidence to its value.

If you wish to explore the self-compassion strategy further, The agony of defeat: How Olympians can deal with failure (Kowalksi and Ferguson, 2018) is a useful article, with numerous onward web links to research. (The information in this article will not be quizzed.)

Part of the challenge for perfectionists and others with burnout is the type of goals they set themselves. You will look at this next.