The Tough Stuff, Revisited
How burnout has became the hot button topic for head coaches around the world.
When The Tough Stuff was released in February 2021, I had no idea that burnout would soon become the hot button topic in coaching.
And I certainly didn’t expect to receive private messages like this:
"Not every coaching book has the potential to help a marriage."
"I feel pretty certain that somewhere down the line I'm going to say to myself that your book saved my career, or maybe 'just' my sanity."
"Coaches are suffering out there and your vulnerability will give permission for helpful conversations to take place."
Helpful conversations are taking place, and prominent coaches are beginning to tell their stories in the public forum.
Shortly after I finished writing, former Arsenal head coach Arsene Wenger detailed in his autobiography how he’d suffered from burnout in 2008.
Ralf Rangnick’s hiring at Manchester United surfaced old articles about how in 2011 he’d resigned from burnout just six months after become head coach at Schalke.
Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens “moved upstairs” after suffering from burnout through the NBA Covid bubble.
And after their Super Bowl victory, Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay started talking about burnout, and the possibility of leaving the coaching profession in favour of being a good dad.
Worryingly, the coaches dealing with burnout are getting younger and younger. It is not just the wear and tear of thirty years in the game, like stalwarts Wenger and Rangnick.
Brad Stevens was 44.
Sean McVay is two years younger than me.
What Is Burnout, Exactly?
The World Health Organization defines burnout as an occupational phenomenon resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.
It is characterized by three dimensions:
feelings of exhaustion
increased mental distance from your job
reduced professional efficacy
In other words: you’re depleted, you’re cynical, you’re ineffective.
And the only cause is your job.
Will We Listen?
For me, the big question is whether we’ll listen as more and more coaches point to the unsustainable nature of the job.
Or are we happy for the bodies to continue to pile up in the name of entertainment?
Because I short-changed you earlier. I only used four examples to illustrate my point. But there are more, and they all scream depleted, cynical, ineffective.
Macarthur Bulls head coach Ante Milicic became globally famous for his final press conference, uttering the now-infamous phrase, “I don’t want another job. I’m done. I’m empty.”
University of Washington football head coach Chris Petersen walked away from the $20 million remaining on his contract because the stress and anxiety meant he didn’t even enjoy playing in the Rose Bowl game — a lifelong dream.
University of Virginia football head coach Bronco Mendenhall walked away too.
And Alastair Clarkson voiced his concern that there had been a string of unseemly coaching casualties in the AFL, and that the enormous burden head coaches carry needs to become an action item.
Let’s Take Action
We don’t need to wait for more research to tell us that coach burnout is a major problem — the people in coaching are already telling us.
And let’s act.
“Any perceptions that a head coach doesn’t need help and a sounding board are misguided.” — Neil Craig
But let’s also be clear about one thing: this is not just about coach wellbeing. What we are talking about is coaching performance, of which wellbeing is one part.
What we are really doing is using wellbeing as the catalyst for wholesale change in the conceptualization of coaching, and the mentality that comes with it. We aren’t advocating for less coaching, we’re seeking better coaching.
Teams must do more for their coaches, including providing the unwavering organizational leadership required to shield coaches during this period of seeking better. There are deep-rooted perceptions of ‘what coaching looks like’ that infest all areas of sports — from staff to fans — that must be undone for this change to hold.
It is also true that as coaches we must help ourselves. We must be brave and demand that our performance and wellbeing be valued by the organizations that hire us. We need to ask about it at job interviews, request coach mentors by added to staff (ie. paid for by the team, not out of pocket), and ensure that there is a coach development budget for our continued success.
We must also change our behaviours.
And explain that behaviour change to fans, staff, players, and stakeholders.
Overcoming the wave of coach burnout is a multi-faceted challenge that doesn’t have one easy answer. It is a performance puzzle unlike any other performance puzzle we try to master. But that shouldn’t deter us from taking the difficult first steps.
If we continue to have helpful conversations, sharing our stories, and asking for help, we can take those difficult steps together.
Because together is how coaches gets better.