Burnout has always been a problem in Strength & Conditioning, but it is just now becoming an actual topic of conversation. Strength & Conditioning is a profession of long hours, low/moderate pay, high stress, and heavy emotional involvement. It is also a profession filled of prideful people leading to the long hours being a badge of honor. I have heard several coaches who brag about being at work 12 hours a day for 6-7 days a week. We have also heard coaches who preach that people should not complain about the hours because this career is a privilege. However, what we do not hear very often is coaches discussing how they maintained a career as a strength coach all the way to retirement. Longevity is simply not part of this career.
The absence of longevity is usually accredited to the low salaries across the profession. While this is partly true, psychological burnout has caused many great coaches to leave the profession too soon. There was a great thread in the NSCA College Coaches Facebook group that discussed burnout and that is what got my wheels spinning. I believe that preventing burnout comes down to doing 4 things; taking care of your health, having a social network outside of strength & conditioning, finding a hobby, and taking time to unplug.
Practice What You Preach
As professionals that focus on the physical and mental development of athletes, we often forget about the physical and mental health of ourselves. There are a ton of strength coaches in collegiate athletics that are down right out of shape. Far too often, we forget about the conditioning aspect of strength & conditioning. That is because when work starts to take up our entire day and the stress builds up, we forget to eat healthy, we do not have time for a full workout, and we definitely do not make time to do cardio. You take these issues and add in the standard 6 cups of coffee strength coaches usually consume and the physical effects that stress has the body and you are in trouble. Another side effect of this profession is poor sleep habits. Due to early morning workouts or late night games/travel, strength coaches are usually sleep deprived. Sleep deprivation leads to poor recovery from workouts, bad hormone health, a weak immune system, and decrease cognitive function. Unfortunately, coffee cannot always fix this problem. Aside from a regimented sleep routine, I always recommend taking something like melatonin or ZMA that will help improve quality of sleep even if the duration of sleep cannot always be there.
In order to sustain a healthy career, we must maintain our physical health by having a healthy diet, staying on a good workout program consisting of strength training and some form of cardio, and maximizing our sleep quality. It comes down to the old phrase; we cannot take care of others unless we take care of ourselves first.
Broaden Your Social Network
Networking is the foundation of the strength and conditioning profession. It is how you get jobs and grow professionally as a coach and a programmer. However, in order to grow as a human, you should try to develop a network of professionals outside of strength & conditioning. This will provide you with fresh opinions, new topics of conversation, and a new realm of thoughts and ideas. For example, one of my best friends here at Maryland works in finance. He is a former athlete and a good workout partner, but our conversations rarely consist of all the ways to get bigger, faster, or stronger. We talk a lot about personal finance, which has helped me ensure that my modest salary goes as far as possible. We also talk a lot about stress management, successful mindsets, and staff management. These are all topics discussed amongst strength coaches, but getting the opinion of a financial analyst introduces me to new ideas that work in his profession.
My former boss always told me that his biggest asset was being friends with a lot of businessmen. I never quite understand this until I found myself in the same situation. Expanding your social network outside of strength and conditioning professional leads to refreshing ideas and wealth of knowledge.
Find a Hobby Outside of the Weight Room
I was on the phone with one of my former interns today and we were discussing this burnout solution. He asked me, “What if my hobby is lifting weights?” He is definitely not alone, but I believe that is important to find a hobby that is separate from work. This does not mean that it cannot be a physically active hobby. For example, I know a lot of strength coaches that do some form of martial art as their hobby. This is a perfect option because it is a hard physical workout, it is a great stress relief, and it is a hobby that allows you to meet a lot of people outside of the athletic department. I did Muay Thai when I was Graduate Assistant and I met some incredible athletes at that gym that had very different backgrounds than my collegiate student-athletes. Also, punching and kicking a heavy bag or other people as a hobby really gets rid of stress quickly.
I also know a lot of strength coaches that fish and hunt as their hobby. Again, this is a great physical activity that takes you outside of the weight room and allows you to escape the daily rigor of strength and conditioning. Another option, which I have recently gotten involved with, is woodworking. When I first moved to Maryland, I wanted to build something for my new apartment so I went to Home Depot and got the materials to make a standing desk. The desktop is made of pine boards, and the legs are black steel plumbing pipe. While the final result looks good, it was the process that made me fall in love with woodworking. Putting on some music, cutting, sanding, and staining wood made for some very relaxing nights that helped ease the stress of the job.
Again, I love the strength coaches who love to lift weights and master the craft. However, in order to prevent burnout and enhance mental health, I believe that having a hobby outside of the weight room is very important.
There are numerous books out there that talk about the increase and influence of technology. I could go on and on about my thoughts on using too much technology. And yes, I do understand how ironic it is that this post in on a blog that will be shared on various social media platforms. However, it is important to unplug whenever you can. You do not always have to be listening to a podcast, looking at social media, reading blogs and articles, or watching YouTube videos. It is perfectly fine to just relax when you have time.
My fiancé and I went for a long hike today with our puppy, and our only communication was with each other and nature. We took a few pictures (see below), but did not use our cell phones for anything else. We did not check email, we did not text or call anyone, and we did not discuss work. We simply took time to be human beings and unplug from the daily grind. Unplugging is the most important thing to do for mental health, and there are also a lot of physical benefits, especially when discussing sleep quality.
Keep the Flame Burning Bright
There is a ton of research out there regarding burnout prevention strategies. The 4 above are ones that I have made an active effort to do, and they have helped a lot. Being a Strength & Conditioning Coach means long hours, low pay, and a lot of emotional energy. Due to a blue-collar culture, these job traits have always been treated as a badge of honor. However, as we make an active effort to improve the sustainability of this career, we must share this knowledge right along side of all the physiological information we currently share. This career has great potential if young coaches can keep their flame burning bright all the way into retirement.