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Coach's Guide to Understanding Athlete Burnout and Mental Fatigue - by Sarah Daren

From the Coach’s Clipboard Basketball Playbook
"Helping coaches coach better..."

Sarah Daren is a featured writer on the Today Show website and has been a consultant for organizations across a number of industries including athletics, health and wellness, technology and education. When she's not caring for her children or watching the New York Yankees play, Sarah enjoys practicing yoga and reading a good book on the beach.

Sarah Daren
Sarah Daren

Every winter Mizzou and U of I, well-known rivals of the Big 10 conference have a bragging rights game hosted in St. Louis Missouri. The event draws thousands of people to the city. Many more watch from home.

In the 2023 bragging rights game, Illinois took a quick and enduring lead. While Mizzou tried and failed to catch up, one announcer commented, "What else can you expect? Half the team boarded the bus directly after taking a final."

Illinois, by contrast, had been out of school for the better part of a week. That's not to say that finals week made the difference. However, it does call attention to the tight-wire balancing act that student-athletes face. College athletics is a full-time job, and yet the students are there first and foremost for school.

Coaches are often the first line of defense between student-athletes and external stresses. What can coaches do to help their team deal with burnout and mental fatigue? Read on to find out.

The Challenges of Being a Student-Athlete

Student-athletes are forced to juggle two full-time responsibilities. College students routinely put in forty hours just on schoolwork. A recent survey indicated that college athletes spend almost five hours a day on their sport. Totaled, that's 75 hours accounted for-more than half the week.

They play. They work. They sleep, and they have very little time for anything else. Recent court decisions allowing student-athletes to get paid for their time on the court have helped to improve things a little bit. Some athletes can now avoid the need for a job by cashing in on their celebrity.

Still, it's hard for pretty much all of them. Excessive stress can lead to burnout which will impact their performance both on the field and in the classroom. Coaches can help their athletes deal with burnout by first recognizing the signs.

Player fatigue

Reduced Efficiency

One of the clearest signs- particularly for coaches- of stress is reduced efficiency. When players who usually perform well begin to lag on the court, it is probably an indication of some type of external problem.

Social Isolation

Social isolation is admittedly harder to spot in a team setting. The very nature of most sports is to be heavily collaborative. Still, there may be subtle indications that a player is self-isolating. Maybe they are quieter than usual. Maybe their teammates notice that they've changed in social situations.


When players who usually get along well with everyone begin to get moody, it can be an indication that something is wrong in their personal life. A sudden shift in personality often indicates some type of mental health problem-be it burnout, or a different issue.

The Difficulty

Unfortunately, many signs of burnout are unpleasant. They involve players exhibiting traits that are undesirable in a team setting. For coaches, this can pose a difficult problem. Your job, after all, is to foster a fruitful team dynamic. When one of your players is being a stick in the mud, reaching for a disciplinary measure may be your first instinct.

While certain situations may require a firm hand, the wrong type of response can exacerbate burnout. So, how can you approach a player who is struggling without making their problems worse?

Communication is Key

Your first step in dealing with a student struggling with burnout should be to make them feel heard. Give them space to communicate their feelings. Listen actively to what they are saying. Ask thoughtful follow-up questions. Avoid imparting your agenda.

Simply giving them a space to air their feelings without pushback can go a long way toward helping them get over the hump.

Once they have expressed themselves, you can begin workshopping a solution that allows them to manage their stress while remaining an active member of the team.

Prioritizing mental health in all of your athletes is a great way to stop problems before they begin. Teach your team how to recognize the early signs of stress. Athletes are used to paying attention to how their bodies feel. Encourage them to apply that same scrutiny to their mental health.

It's much easier to manage minor stress than it is to recover from full-on burnout.


Athletics is all about persistence. There is something almost mythic about the athlete who can play through the pain and win despite facing adversity. Tiger Woods winning the 2008 U.S. Open on a broken leg. Michael Jordan's famous flu game.

It's the hero's journey.

It's also unhealthy. Coach's get paid to win games, but they are also mentors. Helping your team deal with stress in a healthy way not only enables them to achieve better academic and personal outcomes but it can also improve their play on the court. Students-athletes have to juggle more responsibilities than their peers. Any resources that can help them navigate those challenges will ultimately be for the good of the team.

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