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

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5 Goal setting for athletes experiencing burnout

For those experiencing burnout, unrealistic goals may have a negative impact on progress. For example, think about the way Bergland (ultra-distance athlete) was constantly striving to a rigid training regimen before he found a more sustainable approach.

Activity 4 Applying goal setting principles to burnout

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Watch the video below which takes a general look at goal setting in sport and then answer the questions that follow.

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Video 2
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  1. Look at the following examples of goals set by an imaginary athlete ‘Kyle’ who is trying to reduce burnout. Decide whether each goal (a, b and c) is a process, performance or outcome goal. Which types of goal are more likely to reduce stress?

    • achieve a top 20 national result by September

    • return to within 5 kg of my pre-burnout personal best on the bench press

    • explore psychological strategies to help reduce my worry about fitting into the group.

  2. What is SMARTER? Using SMARTER, try to improve the wording of another of Kyle’s goals:

    d. to improve my engagement and focus with training.

  3. Why do you think it is important to set both short-term and long-term goals?

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  1. a = an outcome goal

    b = a performance goal

    c = a process goal.

    Of these, the use of performance and process goals is more likely to reduce stress.

  2. SMARTER is an acronym which reminds us of key goal setting principles (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, timely, evaluated and rewarded). You may already be familiar with it or the shorter SMART version.

    Kyle’s goal (d) doesn’t adhere to the SMARTER principles. For example, it is not very specific – what aspect of training? The goal would be improved by adding a more specific component such as endurance training, skills work or squad meetings. You could get even more specific by stating which types of session. To make the goal measurable, you and Kyle could add engagement or focus targets such as effort (heart rate), touches of the ball, contribution of ideas or positive body language with others. The target heart rate, number of touches or contributions would need to be realistic (attainable) and relevant to the individual.

    The goal could also be enhanced by setting a realistic time period for its achievement (timely). The goal should be evaluated so that progress can be seen and a reward for achievement may motivate the individual. An adjusted goal might read something like:

    d. to improve visible physical commitment to defence skills sessions and make daily constructive verbal contributions to the group over the next month.

  3. Ultimately, a key goal for many athletes experiencing burnout is a return to more satisfying experiences of their sport. However, for some athletes this ultimate goal can seem too distant. A long-term goal to re-engage with sport needs to be supported by a series of short-term goals that lead toward this. These can be thought of as stepping stones towards the ultimate goal, each of which gives the athlete something to focus on that is tangible. These shorter-term goals can be broken down into smaller sub-goals perhaps linked to daily lifestyle choices.

Burnout reduction can be complex and unpredictable – this can sometimes make goal setting a difficult task and at times goals won’t be achieved. In these situations, it is recommended you focus on the degree of goal attainment rather than absolute attainment. For example, if an individual hasn’t fully achieved a goal you might emphasise the improvement made towards it e.g. focusing on the progress from the starting point.

Goals that are process and performance related are more likely to be valuable for those recovering from burnout. A further aspect of any longer-term goal is to establish the deep-seated purpose of an athlete’s involvement in sport. An athlete with more clarity about purpose is more likely to understand how their own satisfaction and engagement is derived. For example, a craftsperson takes the stress out of focusing on the outcome of their work (i.e. the finished item) by concentrating on their journey and the skills required to make an item. Athletes who are encouraged to develop craftsperson-like goals such as improving their skills are more likely to thrive. Such longer-term questions would often benefit from discussion and support with others.

Next you will study the third of the psychological strategies: social support. Perceptions of social support can be important in helping to manage burnout in athletes.