Training (Wednesday): Coaching Swim and Burnout
The past several weeks have been super crazy, especially with midterms slamming my schedule with the same frequency as New England snow storms. Because of midterms (and being sick), 1RPM was put on a back-burner. But, I'm back! And this week, I wanted to talk about my time as a swim coach and how it applies to one of the biggest mental health epidemics.
Honestly, I've never thought I would be coaching kids younger than the age 12. I've always felt a bit awkward with kids and if something went wrong, I didn't quite know what to do. I wanted to help others learn to swim and enjoy the sport as much as I did. So, I took a shot in the dark and asked a former swim coach of mine about an open position on his team. Here, I am 6 months later, and I'm enjoying every minute of it. I'm always learning something new with every practice and no two practices are the same. Today, I wanted to talk about one of the most interesting observations I've made as a coach.
How "fun" affects performance
I'm not really talking about turning drills and sets into games, although it can be effective to keep their attention. I'm focusing on enjoying going to practice and swimming. With younger kids, it's a lot easier because they're so eager to come to practice, to the point that they're up and running early in the morning for Sunday morning practice. It's a place they get to see their friends, play in the water and just be themselves. It's a change of scenery from the hours spent at school and at home.
Of course, there are days where they're so wound up and antsy that it's near impossible to do something productive without incorporating more fun elements, such as a cannonball competition to win bragging rights. But as a coach, it's important to recognize that and be able to accommodate any changes that need to be made.
When you go up the age brackets, you start to see longer sets, longer practices, and a whole lot more work. Usually, the older kids practice 5-6 times a weeks, sometimes swimming more than once a day if they're also on a high school team. While this is the expectation, there are many young swimmers that begin to lose interest, stop enjoying the sport and, in some cases, begin experiencing depression and anxiety if they continue to experience distress from the sport.
At this point they've reached a state called Burnout
It's very common to see early burnout in sports like swimming, where kids join a swim team at a young age, and over the years, practices may seem to blend together, it becomes just another item on their daily to-do list. They can stop enjoying the sport, losing the motivation to go to practice, or even to meets, and see it more like a job that they're forced to do. Sometimes, they're riddled with injuries, both mental and physical. By the time they reach the end of high school and college, they're done with the sport.
Burnout doesn't just affect swimmers. It effects everyone. We've been taught from an early age that we have to work hard and work more to achieve something, whether be it good grades, getting on the podium, or getting a job, regardless of the state you're in. If you don't allow yourself to take a step back from the work, switch things up, or enjoy the work that you're doing, you'll run yourself into the ground.
It's even more important as coaches, teachers, friends, and family to not only teach this to the kids and people we mentor, but to also practice this ourselves. I've experienced burnout, and so have many other people. It is an epidemic that affects not only our physical health, but our mental health. By taking the time to take care of ourselves, we can teach others that it's also okay for them to do the same thing.
How can we minimize burnout?
Going back my coaching experience, having fun is about adding variety. Remember how swim practice is about the change of scenery and hanging out with friends for many kids? Life itself is more interesting when it's changing and evolving. So, it's just as important to keep practices dynamic, providing the opportunity to switch things up. Maybe instead of giving a long set, turn it into a game of jeopardy or a competition. They'll still have to do some work, but it's a change from the typical sets of 50s and 100s. Even just switching up those long sets, either breaking them up or combing them into longer intervals, can help add variety to practice. For swim teams, this could be providing opportunities to bond as a team out of the water, and incorporating rest days and breaks from the sport. Some kids are involved in other clubs and sports, and they should be encouraged to participate in other activities that they enjoy doing.
You can't eliminate burnout entirely, but the rates of burnout, particularly in youth-centered sports such as swimming, can be minimized. Having fun isn't just about games or fooling around, doing nothing productive. It boils down to variety and providing the opportunity to take a break from the work they've grown used to.
For those of you who aren't on a swim team, or even participating in sports, there're still ways to add variety to your routine, whether be it your work or daily life. It could be as simple as changing your work commute or mode of transportation.
Triathletes might shrug this off because we already do 3 sports, possibly along with strength training. But even multi-sport athletes can experience burnout with their long, multi-session training days. Incorporating off-season breaks and in-season rest weeks, allows athletes to recover and spend time on other activities. Within training, they can switch up their routines with other sports such as skiing, trail running, hiking, mountain biking, or aqua jogging.
Let's not forget to have enough time to recover and decompress on a daily basis. Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep and kids require up to 10 hours of sleep, depending on age. In addition to sleep, there should be some time set aside for decompression from work and training (essentially "Me Time", which could mean lots of different things to different people).
What to do if you're experiencing burnout?
Best and simplest way to treat burnout is to take time off. You've been under a chronic state of stress, to the point where your mind and body need more time to recover. Take the time for yourself, whether be it sleep, meditate, do other hobbies, or spend time on your relationships. If you experience more severe symptoms of burnout (such as depression and anxiety) or you can't seem to recover, reach out to a mental health professional.
Burnout isn't a buzzword. It is a serious condition that has serious mental and physical health implications. It needs to be addressed and treated. We need to educate others about burnout and how we can work on minimizing the rates of burnout. After all, what's the point of working (or working hard) if your face is in the ground and you can't see what you're doing?
For more information about burnout and symptoms of burnout visit this article from Psychology Today
and this article about athlete-specific burnout from the National Athletic Trainer's Association.
If you or someone you know requires immediate crisis aid, call 1(800)273-TALK (8255) or 911.
Other resources for mental health help include your primary care doctor, mental health centers, and local community centers.