Athletes and writers are not so different as it turns out.
I was listening to a podcast recently that featured a college swimmer from my alma mater, Trinity College. He spoke of a critical and life-changing moment in his swimming career.
It was in the middle of a season and he had been racing fairly well. But he showed up for practice one day and just could not get himself to jump in the water. He stood there, with his toes on the edge of the pool, and stared, hoping that the urge to dive in would hit him after a few moments.
But it didn't. He simply could not imagine himself getting in the water, churning out lap after lap, arm rotation after arm rotation, leg kick after leg kick, turn after turn. As he stood there, frozen, he was thinking, "This might be the end of my college swim career."
His coach approached him, "I know what's going on here. I've seen this before. You're burnt out. You don't need to say anything, don't make any decisions right now. Just go back to your dorm, take a few days off, rest, and see if you can get your head straight. Let's meet in my office in a few days and see how you're doing."
Mind you this was back in the early 90s when not many coaches would recognize the need for a mental health break from a sport. And even if they did, would they have encouraged it as this one did?
I probably wouldn't tell you this story if it didn't have a happy ending...This swimmer got his mojo back and returned to his team a few days later, rejuvenated and motivated. I also wouldn't have shared it if it didn't have a great lesson in it for us writers. This swimmer's experience truly resonated with me as I have my own story of no longer being able to dive in.
I was on a writing roll for a while. I was not only pumping out a bunch of content for my job, but also on the weekends. I was scheduling blocks of time to write a piece for one of my three ongoing blogs - Reflexology, Writing Tips, and My Butt. (It's okay to be curious about that last one - go check it out - it's funny and informational!!)
After months and months of cruising along like this and feeling accomplished every time I hit "publish blog," I hit a brick wall. Of course, I kept up my work commitment and creating content for business clients.
But beyond that, I fell silent. I actually didn't realize how quiet I had been until I just looked back now at the pub date of my two most recent blogs. Prior to the one I just published five days ago, I had not written since February 27th. Wow, where did I go?
Unfortunately, I didn't have a coach who was witnessing what was going on and could alert more to the signs of what I now can see so clearly myself - I was seriously burnt out. Of course, I had convinced myself I just didn't have the time to write as regularly as I had been doing. There was laundry to do, phone calls to make, all-weekend long basketball tournaments in faraway places, birthdays, anniversaries, and graduations, etc. etc.
When I'm honest with myself, though, was I really any busier than normal? Was there really not an hour or two to carve out to write? Now, I see what was going on.
Every day, seven days a week, I was jumping back into a page (=pool), writing word after word (=laps), trying to think of new idea after new idea (=arm and leg rotations), and sending them out to the world, only to have to start all over again (=underwater turns).
Like my swimming compadre, I was exhausted. I had burnout. It wasn't that I didn't have the time. I no longer had the self-motivation, the desire, or the energy. At some moments, I did even think, "This might be the end of my blog-writing career." And I had kinda done it to myself!
Next time, I want to recognize the signs--be my own coach so to speak. So, I did some research on burnout. Hopefully, the following information helps all of us--whether you're a writer, an athlete, or working at something else--identify the signs so we can take some off before our exhaustion becomes so crippling, we have no other alternative but to quit.
Five Stages of Burnout
1. The Honeymoon Phase
This is where we all start, or at least I did with my writing goals. Full of energy and optimism. Loving the writing flow and feeling uber-satisfied with my productivity and creativity. I had a nice long stretch of this stage. But then...
2. Onset of Stress
It's not like I was completely stressed out about writing, but it wasn't quite as fun. It seemed burdensome at times. It wasn't flowing as easily, I lost focus more easily, and sometimes I just couldn't complete what I was doing. The worst scenario was that I would keep myself up at night thinking about needing to finish my writing.
3. Chronic Stress
I should have known something was up when I would look at my calendar and see a scheduled writing block and feel pressure, not excitement. I just didn't care to write or didn't have a topic that I cared to write about. I kept changing the time, date, or both of when I was supposed to write until it got so late in the day or weekend that I would reschedule it for the following week, already dreading when that time block would pop up in my calendar again in a few days. That's not good!
4. Burnout Swimmer guy and I know what this feels like--you're not functioning as you normally would--I wasn't enjoying writing or writing at all, and he wasn't even dipping his toe in the water. It also starts to haunt you--like why aren't I writing, why don't I want to write, when will I want to write again? Sometimes this stage can come with headaches, stomach aches, and other physical signs of the stress taking a toll on not just your mind, but your body as well. Sometimes others start noticing you're acting differently...This happened to me. A reflexology client pointed out that it had been a while since she had received a newsletter from me. And she asked how that was going as well as another blog she follows. I was stumped and speechless. I had no answer for her, no words, which if you know me is very unusual.
5. Habitual Burnout
If you're like me, you probably thought the last stage of burnout would be the Burnout Phase, but it's not. It can get worse. "If left untreated, burnout can become a part of your everyday life and eventually lead to anxiety or depression. You can also begin to experience chronic mental and physical fatigue that prevents you from working. Your job status (and probably relationships) may be put in jeopardy if you continue on this path."
I'm very glad that I didn't push myself any harder to write than I had already. I'm really glad I listened to that podcast and was able to put a name to how I was feeling and what I was experiencing.
You know how I know I am ready to write again? I've been thinking about writing this blog all week and was eager to get to it today. I can't wait to push the Publish button and share it with you. And I'm already thinking of the next blog I'm going to write next weekend. Burnout is on the back burner for now and I feel much more equipped to handle it in the future.