Burnout is a depressing word. Burnout conjures up feeling of deep discouragement, hopelessness and a since of lost purpose. The pain of giving your life to become great at something, only to get lost along the way and hit a wall, is devastating. A wall that you can’t see over, under or around. A wall that leaves you feeling deeply discouraged, hopeless and lost about why you started this journey.
Note: this post is really about me looking back at my own burnout experience and breaking it down by revisiting my own emotions, mental state and comparing it with other people’s stories. Hopefully I can give you a little window into burnout and help you understand what is going on inside the hearts and minds of players.
Sorry I’ve not written recently, still working on finding the time with my new responsibilities.😉 Enjoy the blog post!
What is burnout? Burnout is a psychological term that refers to long-term exhaustion and diminished interest in a said activity or relationship.
So what causes burnout?
Failure in achieving the expectations and/or identity you are creating for yourself or others create for you.
Many people think burnout only happens to the most intense players, but actually burnout is the reason every kid quits soccer. Burnout can happen to every player at every stage of soccer and to every level of player. Both Landon Donavan on the U.S. National team and 9 year old Johnny who plays recreationally on the Super Ninja Kickers quit soccer because they were “burned out”. So….If you suck, burnout can get you. If you are average, burnout can get you. If you are awesome, burnout can get you. And if the only game you play is life, burnout can still get you. So listen, this applies to you.🙂
So what is burnout? Why does burnout happen? Essentially, whenever someone’s expectations for how they want something to affect their identity is not being met, it can lead to burnout. Failure to succeed in getting a desired result from an activity is an obvious reason for frustration/burnout. It doesn’t matter if you are the worst player and want to be the 2nd worst or the best and want to be the best EVER. Any time the expectation and result don’t match, burnout is a possibility. What about burnout from success? This is more complex as it usually has to do with how other people are heaping unrealistic expectations on you. These unrealistic expectations lead you into confusion about why you are doing this and what you really should expect of yourself. It could also be that you expected success to make you happy and rarely/never does in fact change our state of happiness.
I’ve noticed over the years that burnout is always contrasted with “love”. When players start to experience what they call burnout, it always seems to turn into this desperate search to return to the “love of the game”. Somehow they seem to have lost this magical love for the game that they don’t know exactly how they found it or how they lost it.
When I think of my own sports career and trying to keep the passion alive, I felt like that guy balancing on those chairs on top of a skyscraper. It was very difficult and risky!! If you are successful…you will be praised as this amazing death-defying daredevil and if you fail…the idiot who lost his life for a stupid and pointless thrill. While you might not be risking your life like this guy, every time we step out on the field, you may be risking either a huge boost in fame to your identity or a shamefully damaging blow to your identity.
For those that live and breathe the game, they are truly putting it ALL on the line every time they step out on the field. Harold Abrams was a runner who dedicated much of his life to winning the 100m dash in the Olympics. Before he ran the most importance race of his life he said, “I have 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence.” He was either going to experience a life-changing boost to his identity or a crushing blow to his identity. His life would either be validated forever or forever invalidated by failing to meet the expectations he had set for himself. He would either be a massive success or he would have wasted much of his life chasing an identity that would only turn into a shameful blow against his identity. So obviously he is scared to lose, but he is also scared to win…why? The haunting question is, “IF I do win, will my identity really be secure? Will it actually make me happy? If not, then what?”
Landon Donavan said, “I wanted to come back (from playing in England) because I wanted to play and be happy. I’ve always tried to make decisions that were best for me and best for my family and best for my happiness. I realize that’s not always popular with other people.”
Landon figured out that other people were putting a lot of pressure on him to play or do various things, but all he really wanted was to be happy. Many of us spend our lives in the quest for identity and glory because we truly believe it will make us happy; that’s why we are willing to suffer to get it. What made Landon quit soccer was not the size of the “wall of burnout” he faced; it wasn’t that he got cut from the national team. Landon stopped believing that if he got over this “wall” he would be happy.
Looking back on my own burnout experience, it wasn’t the size of my “wall” either. Yeah, I may have been cut from the youth national team, but that isn’t a reason to get depressed. Plenty of kids that got cut with me went on to have great professional careers. No, I stopped trying to climb the wall, because I stopped believing that happiness was on the other side.
Elizabeth Gilbert has a fascinating Ted Talk titled Success, Failure and the Drive to Keep Creating. In her talk she essentially deals with burnout. As a young writer, she got rejection letter after rejection letter and talks about how devastating it was to her ego. All she ever wanted to do her whole life was to be a writer yet she was stuck waiting tables in a diner. She often got “burned out” and thought she should just quit while she was “behind”. She was failing to meet her own expectations for herself and wanted to quit. But she discovered something that changed everything…while she hated how every rejection letter was a crushing blow to her ego, she kept writing, simply because she loved writing. She said, “I loved writing more than I hated failing.”
Elizabeth, wrote a wildly successful book (10 million copies sold worldwide), but not until she was almost 40. Interestingly, in her talk she discusses how the massive success of her book took her back to that same burned out state of mind she was feeling during her years of failure as a younger writer. The pressure of the inflated expectations laid upon her from the overwhelming success of the new book, made her realize she couldn’t meet the expectations people had set for her. She knew the next book she wrote would probably be a miserable flop. She had to face the reality that her greatest work could be behind her. It’s truly a depressing feeling to think that your greatest work is behind you, and it’s especially hard on your identity. It’s something that makes you just want to quit while you are on top, because your next work will probably detract from your identity.
The reason both massive success and failure lead to burnout is because both can take us away from “love”. The only thing that brought Elizabeth back from her burnout was realizing her ego wasn’t near as important as her love for writing. She just had to accept that her identity was going to take a few painful knocks along the journey. The book she wrote after the best seller bombed, but she still loved writing. She accepted the knocks against her ego and decided to not let it take away from her love of writing, eventually she wrote some more amazing books that were very well received.
That sounds great, but the reality is that failure pushes us into the shameful reality that we just don’t measure up. Success pushes us into the blinding light of fame and high expectations that pins us against unreasonable expectations we are sure to fail. In both cases we can lose our way, in both cases we can start to fall into a trap. We let our ego boast in unrealistic expectations others put on us OR we fall into being ashamed of our failure to meet our own expectations.
There is a part of us that is incredibly insecure (our ego/identity) and it always tends towards either: 1. Being overly boastful in hope of creating an inflated protective covering for the ego to feel safer. 2. Running from the light of high expectations exposing our weaknesses and instead creating a protective covering of low expectations we can exceed easily. In both cases we can only trick ourselves for so long. We are not trying to find the balance between these two, but actually a whole new way of thinking.
Life is not a journey to find identity, but a discovery of love; and, any time the quest for love is replaced with a quest for identity, we are sure to lose our way.
I think we all want to find a home, an identity, a place that we can be at peace in this massive universe. We all need and want to feel truly secure in an identity/home. For those of us so focused on creating an identity for ourselves, we must realize that an identity is simply a place for our ego to call home. As much as we all like to act strong, there isn’t a single one of us who wouldn’t feel insecure (in their identity) if our most important talents or possessions were taken from us. Consequently, we struggle to truly establish a solid identity, because the material we use- ourselves and everything around us- is fundamentally fragile. As human beings we are only a moment away from losing our sight, our mobility, our mind, our family/friends… We like to think we are strong, but the reality is that our very life and all the things we love can be taken from us in a second.
We build homes for our identities on just about anything we can get our hands on, because the more “things” we have the safer we think we are. Yet at our core, we only feel at “home” when we are in a place where we can love and be loved. All of us feel lost when we are far from love.
I’ve been all the way across the world and when I’m with people I love and they love me, I feel totally at home.
On the other hand, I can be in my own house, a house I may have lived in my whole life and I can feel totally lost and alone, if I don’t feel loved.
We think that we will feel safer in our identity if we are successful at meeting THE expectations, but this only gives the illusion of acceptance and safety; it’s still fundamentally fragile. It would be like thinking that by building a bigger straw house you are safer. This may make you feel better off than others, but the REAL problem is not the size, it’s the fact that it’s a straw house…
I struggled with burnout my whole career as a soccer player. I lived for those moments of glory! I found my safety in finding those moments of the risky perfect balance, when I would be the hero! Yet every moment I was the hero, I was haunted with the fear of me failing the next time, when the stakes might be higher.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s struggle with burnout led her to this thought: “I learned that I had to love writing more than I hated failing. As in, I had to love writing more than my own ego. Which is to say, I had to love writing more than I loved myself.“
If I could go back in time and talk to myself as a kid, I’d be straight up with myself. I’d ask myself something like, “Alec, do you love playing soccer?” And then I’d say, “You struggle with burnout, because you love your ego more than soccer. Until you decide to love soccer more than yourself, you don’t really love soccer at all – you love yourself. ” I’d let myself think about that for a minute and then I’d send myself off with this, “Go and learn what this means…be inspired by love (an unselfish love) in ALL things.”
Soccer didn’t teach me what love was, it was more of the revealer of my misunderstanding of love. As you may have learned from reading this blog, most of my good character traits and lessons come from God using Jordan in my life.
Contrary to my presentation, my ego is one of the most fragile things on the planet (marriage has exposed that)… YES, I said it! I’m not ashamed of it and the day you just admit it too, you will feel a whole lot better. Lol. I’ve realized that I’m not going to protect my ego from ever being hurt. Sometimes when I’m trying hard to be a good husband for Jordan, I mess up and she lets me know. I wasn’t really looking forward to getting called out, but it comes with married life. We have to get our ego to accept that there is a risk to every meaningful (interdependent) relationship, whether we have a relationship with soccer or a person. Sometimes you put yourself out there and you get rewarded and sometimes you get shamed. When I asked Jordan to marry me, it was either going to be a painfully shameful moment or a glorious moment. When Landon Donavan steps up to take a PK in the World Cup, he is risking ultimate glory or ultimate shame in the soccer world, this isn’t something they can escape. I have to accept that I might be lifted up as the hero one day and thrown down in shame the next day.
I wonder, how would we and the world be different if glory and identity weren’t the core motivation of life?I wonder, how would the world be different if love (specifically a love that at its core loves outside its own personal good) became the inspiration for life?I wonder, would we take bigger risks and have greater success, if love was the motivation?I wonder, would we find true happiness begins where selfishness ends, if love were the motivation?I wonder, would the world be different if this new generation of leaders were inspired by love in all things?