- 'The rates of burnout in sport were already alarming before the lockdown and could affect up to 15 per cent of athletes,' says dr Anna Ussorowska. Photo: Arek Smykowski/UG.
She recently defended her doctoral thesis on burnout in competitive sport in young basketball players. For years she trained basketball professionally herself. Daily, she fulfils her role as a psychologist of the women's national team of Poland in football and handball. She also works in the sports championship school of Marcin Gortat. We talk to dr Anna Ussorowska, a graduate of psychology at the University of Gdańsk, about her work as a sports psychologist and the risks involved in the career of a sportsman. The reviewers of her doctoral dissertation said that she is currently one of the most outstanding sports psychologists of the young generation in Poland.
- The profession of sport psychologist has recently been gaining popularity. Supporting athletes in pursuing their goals and achieving championships seems to be the main challenge of this job. Please tell us more about its nature.
- The work of a sports psychologist is very complex. We help athletes to take what they do during training and execute it in game conditions, maintaining performance despite time or score pressure. We develop mental skills and equip athletes with specific tools to increase their effectiveness not only on the pitch but also off of it. What is important, the psychologist accompanies the athlete not only during the competition but also supports them in difficult moments such as injury, defeat or career-ending. Children, teenagers and adult athletes benefit from the sports psychologist's care. We also work with coaches, parents, physiotherapists, nutritionists, managers or sports club managers. It is important to us that the communication and the way the athlete's immediate environment works is consistent. We all have a common goal - the comprehensive development of the athlete.
- What are your key principles when working with athletes? What competencies and qualities are most useful here?
- When working with sportsmen and sportswomen, it is very important to have a good academic background, as well as certain soft skills which allow you to put this knowledge into practice. One of these skills is attentive listening. Each athlete is a unique story for me, and active listening enables me to get to know them better, not only the character themselves but also the way they perceive reality. I also pay attention to flexibility. I make sure to adapt the knowledge, content or methods to the age and needs of the athletes, as well as the place and time. I also try to adapt the language to the people I work with. The language understood by coaches or athletes is different from that used in academic work. Knowledge of the sports environment and understanding of a given sport certainly makes the work easier and more effective. The players very quickly verify and feel if someone is not reliable in what they do.
'Some things are easier to explain in graphic form, reinforcing the message,' says dr A. Ussorowska.
- An injury, a loss, a sudden career turnaround or career termination - these are probably just the tip of the iceberg of difficult situations you encounter every day. Do you work with other professionals at such times?
- As psychologists, we participate in supervision, i.e. meetings with very experienced people, where we talk about specific situations and how to solve them. Supervisions allow us to better deal with difficult emotions and help the players even more effectively. We also work with other specialists - clinical psychologists, psychotherapists or psychiatrists, and if necessary, we redirect the athlete to another specialist.
- A sports career does not seem to be a piece of cake. What dangers await sportsmen and sportswomen, and how can they cope? Certainly, issues such as motivation, mental training and commitment are important - but how do you understand them?
- Athletes face various challenges at different stages of their career. For example, the transition from youth to senior sport, returning after an injury or competing for minutes on the pitch. Therefore, the better they prepare for them, the better chances they have of fulfilling their dreams and plans. One of the elements of preparation is mental training. From an early age, athletes learn how to cope with stress, making mistakes, how to increase concentration or build the right attitude. In this way, athletes learn more and more about themselves, develop mental skills and are equipped with mental training tools that they can use, not only during their sporting career but also afterwards, in their professional and private lives.
- I know that sport is not your only passion. Another one is drawing, which is sometimes helpful in the work of a psychologist. Apparently, during the training camps, you can often be seen with a tablet?
- Yes, at the beginning there were simple drawings on paper, but with time I started to draw on a graphics tablet. These are not advanced drawings, rather elements of visual thinking, but this skill is very useful in my work as a sports psychologist. The story of each athlete is very interesting to me and I want the people I work with to get personalised material. Drawing not only enables me to use different kinds of metaphors in my work but also to capture elements that are characteristic and important for the person. Some things are easier to explain in a graphic form, reinforcing the message. During the training camps, I try to catch some elements and statements of the coaches and players to create graphics and record them.
- You have recently defended your doctoral thesis entitled 'Dispositional and situational predictors of burnout in female and male basketball players aged 15-22 years'. In your work, you demonstrated how stress and burnout increase among young male and female players during the playing season, and what role social support, dysfunctional perfectionism and mindfulness play in this. What other interesting conclusions were reached?
- First of all, I was interested in how stress levels and symptoms of burnout change throughout a playing season, which lasts about nine months. I also wanted to see if factors described in the literature as protective or risk factors could predict the dynamics of this stress and burnout.
- The results confirmed a rather worrying phenomenon - stress and burnout among players, which were initially at a low level, started to increase over time. Even after the end of the playing season and the reduction of training loads. What is more, in the middle of the season there was an accumulation of stress related to training loads, matches and functioning in school and private life. This is such a critical moment when there is a subjective sense of resource depletion in players and their ability to cope with further challenges.
- One risk factor that may result in an increased likelihood of developing burnout is dysfunctional perfectionism. For example, dichotomous thinking, evaluating one's actions in binary terms, is a characteristic of perfectionistic athletes. Such athletes have a fear of making mistakes and virtually never experience satisfaction, even on a job well done. My research has confirmed that perfectionist athletes start the season with high levels of stress and struggle with prolonged stress, which translates into the development of burnout.
- In contrast, a protective factor that reduces stress levels is social support. Research has confirmed the protective function of support, but surprisingly only up to a certain point. After the critical point, around the middle of the season, the athletes became more and more stressed, even though their immediate environment was ready to help. This result shows that in case of increasing exhaustion, the athletes may interpret reality differently and make some cognitive distortions. Therefore, it is important to respect the subjective interpretation of reality and not to diminish the emotions felt by athletes.
- Research has also confirmed that mindfulness protects athletes from stress and burnout. The more mindful the players were (able to focus on what was happening at the moment, not living in the past and not worrying about the past), the fewer stress and burnout symptoms they experienced throughout the basketball season.
- You have examined almost all young basketball players and basketball players in the Pomeranian Voivodeship. Is the problem of burnout in sport big among them?
- At the time of the research I reached all basketball clubs and players aged 15 to 22 in the Pomeranian Voivodeship. The research was quite demanding because it assumed four measurements of the same group within one basketball season.
- In the case of burnout in sport, we can talk about the process of burning out and the full-blown burnout syndrome. It is difficult to estimate its scale, as most of the data available in the literature comes from the times before the pandemic, which could have exacerbated this phenomenon. It is worth noting that already before lockdown the rates were alarming and could concern up to 15% of players. It is worth mentioning that the return to sport after developing a full-blown burnout syndrome may take up to 2 years. Burnout syndrome may also develop into depression and increase the risk of addiction to psychoactive substances.
Photo: Paula Duda
- I wonder if the excessive pressure on young athletes translates into professional burnout and from which directions it comes: the athletes experience it from their closest environment - coaches, fans, but is it possible that they set the bar too high for themselves?
- Indeed, young athletes also struggle with high pressure of expectations or results. Athletes feel both external pressure, exerted by coaches, parents or club managers, and internal pressure, connected with the athlete's thoughts and beliefs about what they should do.
- Pressure is an indispensable part of competitive sport and it would be hard to imagine an athlete or coach not dealing with it. However, it is about certain proportions and the scale of feeling this pressure, which I feel is very high. As psychologists, we try to develop psychological flexibility in athletes, which enables them to act effectively and complete important tasks despite stress, pressure or other difficulties.
- In addition, we live in times when every behaviour or decision of an athlete is widely commented on social media. This used to not be the case, whereas nowadays dealing with criticism and heckling on the internet is starting to be an essential skill. The sooner a young player learns to deal with such situations, building up his mental resilience, the better.
- It is said that to be successful in sport you have to train from an early age. However, there are cases among sports stars that contradict this thesis. Are there any personality traits without which you cannot succeed in sport?
- Many scientists have searched for the profile of a champion, which would include certain personality traits necessary for success in sport. Analysing the results, they concluded that it is difficult to create one universal profile because the most outstanding athletes differ from each other in terms of temperament or personality traits. For example, Hubert Hurkacz, an extremely talented Polish tennis player, recently won the ATP tournament in Miami, proving that people who accused him of a lack of charisma or excessive politeness were wrong.
- I think it is the same with a sports career. There is no one-size-fits-all formula or algorithm that will guarantee a championship. Young players often worry that at this stage of training they should already be playing for another club or a higher league. This way of thinking takes the joy out of the game. Getting satisfaction from what you do is essential to stay motivated and stay in the sport as long as possible. A good example of this is the story of Marcin Gortat, who has had a career in the best league in the world, the NBA, but only started training basketball at the age of 18. Gortat often says that it was hard work, regularity and reliability that made his dreams come true. That is why it is worth following your path and creating your own story, enjoying every step of the way.
Dr Anna Ussorowska was interviewed by Elżbieta Michalak-Witkowska