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The effects of overtraining and burnout

The expectations placed on elite athletes greatly impacts their long-term health.

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

"The medical staff was really comfortable and Carey was really comfortable to come back...It's still early in the season, so it's important for us that when he plays, he's got to make sure he's healthy." - Michel Therrien

We always hear about it: athletes upping their training regimens to meet expectations, the necessity for training year-round, that 'more is better.' But is that true? What effect does this mentality have on elite athletes?

Injuries and athlete burnout have become more prominent in recent years as expectations and pressures to perform continue to rise. Let's face it; coaches, scouts, and even fans alike all want to be witness to the best of the best. We want high-powered athletes playing for our team, day-in and day-out. And as we as a society continue to push the limits of the human body in order to achieve ever higher levels of performance, we see elite athletes dealing with injury and burnout at alarming rates.

Now, this isn't to say that elite athletes do not understand the inherent risks associated with pursuing a career in their preferred sport. Rather, I argue that the expectations placed on athletes from a very young age helps to shape their perceptions of what is deemed acceptable in terms of admitting injury/burnout, and how they should address these problems.

When athletes engage in periodized training, they partake in high-volume and high-intensity training followed by tapering and resting periods. When athletes engage in overtraining, they essentially 'max-out' their training for a short period of time. Both training regimens are commonplace and both can produce benefits. However, certain athletes simply should not engage in overtraining exercises as they actually hinder their athletic performance and lead to burnout. Let's take a closer look at Carey Price.

From the first game of the season to October 24 (a span of seven games) Price had a 0.959 save percentage and 1.14 goals against average. Numbers we had almost been spoiled enough to begin to expect from the goaltender.

On October 27th, Montreal takes on Vancouver and the results are dismal.A save percentage of 0.842. Five goals on 28 shots. The next game was in Edmonton, and Price allegedly slipped on a puck during warm-ups. It was evident to many that Price was simply not himself that night, leading to 0.852 SV% and four goals on 27 shots.

Fast forward a few weeks and Price returns, tossing up some good numbers (0.929 SV% and 2 GAA) over 140 minutes of play. News comes in that Price has re-injured his knee and there is currently no solid timeline for his return.

Now I know what you're thinking: Price needs to take some of the blame for potentially coming back too soon. And you're right. But wouldn't you also agree that this is an athlete who faces immense expectations to continue to perform at a level that earned him an Olympic gold medal, a Vezina, and a Hart Trophy last year?

Carey Price down
Photo credit: Bruce Bennett / Getty Images

Studies on elite athletes have shown that many continue to strive for athletic perfection despite burnout levels due to coach pressures, team pressures, and high expectations. Sixty-six percent of varsity-level athletes state they have experienced overtraining, with 50% saying it was a bad experience. In addition, 47% of these athletes had experienced burnout at some point during their career up to that date. High-school-level athletes are no different, indicating that these issues and beliefs regarding injury and burnout are beginning at a young age.

The main issue with athletic burnout or overtraining? The greater potential for injury.

Athletes who are burnt out display physical fatigue, mental exhaustion, and increased anxiety. Each of these symptoms can affect focus and physical ability, hence why some trainers and medical professionals believe that when an individual is experiencing these symptoms, engaging in regular training/playing routines can be detrimental and lead to injury.

Do I know Carey personally? No. Do I know the ins and outs of the current situation? No. But I do believe that when an athlete who faces this level of expectation returns to the ice and quickly re-injures himself that these kinds of topics should at least be explored.

At what point do we agree that the expectations placed on athletes can do more harm than good? At what point do we, as a society, understand that the pressures placed on athletes at a young age stay with them well into their adult years? I like to watch my team win as much as the next fan, but when that means seeing athletes I respect pushing their careers to the point that their concussion symptoms are so bad that they can no longer play with their children, it simply isn't worth it.

I believe in athletic greatness. I believe in reaching towards personal and professional goals. But I vehemently believe in acknowledging the long-term effects of the often unreal expectations placed on athletes today and the fact that a simple 'injury' can lead to so much more.

Kentta, G., Hassmen, P., & Raglin, J.S. (2001). Training practices and overtraining syndrome in Swedish age-group athletes. International Journal of Sports Medicine, 22, 1-6.

Silva, J.M. (1990). An analysis of the training stress syndrome in competitive athletes. Journal of Applied Sport Psychology, 2, 5-20.

Weinberg, R.S., & Gould, D. (2011). Foundations for Sport and Exercise Psychology. (5th). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics