We’re just watching today’s bowl games and hearing the news of Urban Meyer’s retirement from his responsibilities as head coach at the University of Florida. Speculation by the commentators during the break between bowl games focused on his reported health problems, but also turned towards the idea of burnout. The information scrolling across the bottom of the screen now suggests that the reason is largely related to a recent diagnosis of heart problems. But, the topic of burnout in coaches remains an interesting one to talk about.
Most people are probably well aware of the fact that burnout occurs in athletes – it tends to result from overtraining physically, perceiving high pressure for success, and perceiving an imbalance between costs and rewards. But many people might not realize that burnout also occurs in a variety of professions that are similar in these regards. It occurs with frequency in professions including teaching, nursing, athletic training, and coaching.
So, how do coaches experience “overtraining physically, perceiving high pressure for success, and perceiving an imbalance between costs and rewards”. Overtraining physically might be the least obvious of these. But, it ties into the other two contributors to burnout. When you experience high pressure for success and an imbalance between costs and rewards, you tend to not sleep very much or very well. You work harder and harder to try to be successful and you are mentally challenged without relief as you try to problem-solve your way to success. Anyone who has experienced this can surely relate to the fact that this tends to negatively impact your sleep. The lack of sleep then results in your body undergoing a constant state of fatigue which ultimately results in an experience that is similar to the physical overtraining that is felt by athletes.
The perceived high pressure for success is probably obvious for coaches. This may be especially true if we are talking about collegiate or professional coaches, but it is also true for high school and club coaches. At almost any level, a coach whose team doesn’t meet expectations is at risk for being fired. Clearly, this will have an impact on the coach and on his or her family, making this a high stakes venture. Coaches feel this pressure daily from all sources including other members of the coaching staff, the athletic department, the media, the players, the players’ families, the fans, and the alumni (for collegiate coaches). They also, of course, feel this pressure from themselves. Coaches tend to be high achievers who have high expectations for their team/athletes and for themselves. This high pressure for success is a top contributor to the likelihood of experiencing burnout.
A last factor is the perceived imbalance between costs and rewards. The focus here is on the word “perceived”. It doesn’t have to be a real imbalance, but merely a perception of an imbalance. What possible costs could there be to being a coach? I think the list is probably huge, but certainly it would include time away from family, lack of privacy, lack of free time, constant interruptions, a long list of responsibilities, scouting, recruiting, management issues with players, issues with management, and fundraising. But, what about the rewards? Well, remember that we’re talking about perceptions here. And, for coaches who become burned out, there is likely to be a point at which the perceived rewards have dwindled to a point at which they are outweighed by the perceived costs. The perceived rewards include the joy of working with young people (the athletes), the joy of competition, the love of the game, the notoriety of being a coach, and (at some levels) the salary. The interesting concept here is really the idea of perception. With the exception of salary, all of the costs and rewards are subjective which means that as soon as the stress of coaching becomes too great, it is really easy to begin to perceive that the costs outweigh the rewards. And, that is when a coach will be on a slippery slope towards burnout.
So, again, the current information suggests that Coach Meyer has been diagnosed with a heart problem, and obviously the seriousness of this is such that he and his family recognize the need for him to leave the stressful environment of collegiate football coaching. This is obviously a shame for all fans of college football. But, it is valuable to use this opportunity to talk about burnout and to point out that it occurs in athletes and in a variety of professions, and that burnout has probably resulted in the loss from sport of numerous athletes and coaches who would have contributed to our enjoyment of sport.