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Magazines & Newspapers' Articles



Overtraining and Burnout in the Martial Arts:
Are you Training-Fit or Training-ill?

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Much of the media articles presented are primarily on subjective interpretations of mortal combat (intensely hostile situation or potentially fatal confrontation). These unique interpretations are often synthesised and formulated, and furthermore generalised without much consideration to other constructs of realistic training. Combative technique is an important factor but the processes of 'Training' determine the ability to maximise performance.

Training correctly have positive effects on not only good fighting skills but optimal psychophysiologocal (mental and physical) health too. However, poor guidance from the coach/master/instructor/sifu can have detrimental effects on the students. Throughout my eighteen years of teaching, I have heard vast amount of anecdotal evidences of martial art practitioners dropping out from training as a result of excessive hard work or injury. The philosophy of 'hard work' instigated by many instructors is generally valid but often misplaced, whereby students were told to train as hard as possible and as often as possible. This vague approach is poorly structured and it was inevitable students developed chronic conditions of fatigue. It makes no sense to train 100% of effort everyday and every session - any Olympic coach/athlete can tell you that. Hence it is not how tough or skilful you are but knowing when to apply it.

This article is based on the assumption that the readers are already in training, and may have experienced some of the symptoms of chronic fatigue, and to address the problem immediately. An example study of an elite martial artist revealed some very interesting problems within the martial art culture, and the manifestations of low level of motivation. The story is true but some adjustments were needed to protect the subject's identity.

Training-fit or Training-ill
The present study defines the 'elite martial artist/athlete' a highly skilled person of a select class or group; and successfully competed under various combative arenas, and recognised by the martial arts community of great achievements. Throughout the essay, the term martial artist and athlete are used synonymously.

Cooper (1969) claimed that athletes are more confident, competitive and socially outgoing than non-athlete. Morgan (1997a) and Morgan and Johnson (1977 & 1978) stated, 'the successful elite athlete generally exhibits the psychological profile of a mentally healthy individual'. The problem is how can this healthiness be accounted for a large number of elite athletes when they lose a match or fail certain task. What happens when elite athletes are compromised by failure in training or competition? Negative response to high psychophysiological stresses affects the athlete's internal desire to continue training or competing. The amount of negative responses can lead to physiologic fatigue, and increase cognitive anxiety, thus reduces motivation (Bompa, 1999).

In this case study, the elite martial artist William (fictitious name) complained of lethargy, lack of energy, and lack of motivation during training. Hence, performance deteriorated and he initiated withdrawal from the sport and his peers. The subject was referred by the General Practitioner (GP) to a London Hospital for a general physical health check-up. There were no immediate indications of ill-health, instead excellent physical results; hence the physicians discharged William.

There was no psychological evaluation or report, therefore unable to ascertain the subject's feelings or mental health. Considering the evidence of the physical examination, the face value of William's problem appears to be psychological. Therefore, the initial part of the study emphasised strongly on psychological investigation, and latter part adopted interdisciplinary approach to tackle the problem from a variety of perspectives.

The Subject
"William" was the subject, and this fictitious name secured his confidentiality. This case study reported William a professional martial artist, age 21 years old, single, body weight 66kg, height 172cm, teaches daily, competes at international level, self-coached to a large extent. He had participated in a British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) prestigious martial arts documentary series, televised nationally and internationally hence the notoriety attracted massive audiences. William is undefeated in all combative arenas or situations, however, the successes were paradoxically paralleled with feelings of dissatisfaction. A governing body referred the subject to the first author after the National Health Service (NHS) physicians were unable to assist any further.

The Sport
A professional martial artist often makes up a large part of the financial income from teaching regular recreational classes at various clubs. Most elite practitioners belong to an organisation, and pledge loyalty to the organisation and the coach/master. High level of skills, fast decision making under ever-changing environment, agility and power is the cardinal characteristics of the martial arts. Full physical contact is common in training and competitions, and often strikes are delivered at high velocities of 8-14 metres per seconds (m/sec) to any part of the body.

Professional sporting contests are normally five-three minutes round with one minute interval rest between each round. Unofficial contests behind closed doors are fought on one round, and last anything from one second to several minutes (usually less than 30 seconds). Both types of contests are won on submission, knockout, choke-out or highest scores on points. Depending on the type of competitions, usually the martial artists wear a plastic or aluminium groin guard, gum shield, and fight with bare fists or protective gloves 8 ounce (oz)-12oz.

The Assessment Phase
Stage 1: Interview
William was unsure about revealing his personal psychological problems fearing his image and reputation would be damaged. It was important firstly to build trust and confidence between the interviewer and the subject. The initial interview was conducted in the comfortable environment of the interviewers home, and this made William felt at ease. Heyman (1993) suggested that sport psychologists should build a rapport with the athlete in order to understand the person as a whole.

The interview revealed that the subject sacrificed academic education, social life, time and money, and risked personal health and safety to become a highly recognised martial artist. At this early stage of investigation, the motivational problem seemed to be social but further examinations were conducted to investigate the dynamics of other interrelated factors. These motivational factors were personality traits, achievement, identity, personal investment, overtraining, and burnout (Box,1994: Bompa, 1999).

Stage 2: Self-report
In the second meeting, William was asked to complete a brief self-report of his daily routine and his complaints. The subject strongly emphasised the lack of motivation to train, lack of energy, feeling lethargic, difficult to sleep and dissatisfied with personal achievement and feeling guilty for missing a training session. The daily schedule appears to be extremely demanding with physical training of five hours to seven hours per day. In addition, William teaches two to four hours per day. The immediate problem was certainly excessive long duration of any training session, and this led to the speculation of overtraining and burnout.

Neuromuscular pathwaysOvertraining and Burnout
Silva (1990) defined the consequential stages leading to burnout: 1) 'Staleness' is the initial failure of the body to adapt to training stress; 2) 'Overtraining' is psychophysiological malfunction and demonstrated inability of the athlete to adjust to the demands of training stress; 3) Burnout also known as training stress syndrome is the exhaustive psychophysiological response to repeated unsuccessful efforts to meet the demands of training stress. Psychophysiological symptoms associated with burnout (see below) in athletes had been identified by several past researchers (Dale & Weinberg, 1990; Hackney, Pearman & Nowacki, 1990; Morgan & O'Connor, 1988).

Physiological Symptoms
1. Increased resting and exercise heart rate
2. Increased resting systolic blood pressure
3. Increased muscle soreness and chronic muscle fatigue
4. Increased presence of biochemical indicators of stress in the blood
5. Increased sleep loss
6. Increased colds and respiratory infections
7. Decreased body weight
8. Decreased maximal aerobic power
9. Decreased muscle glycogen
10. Decreased libido and appetite

Psychological Symptoms
1. Increased mood disturbances
2. Increased perception of physical, mental and emotional exhaustion
3. Decreased self-esteem
4. Negative change in the quality of an individual's personal interaction with others (cynicism, unfeeling, impersonal)
5. Negative cumulative reaction to chronic everyday stress as opposed to acute doses of stress

William's demanding routine and his symptoms strongly suggested that the speculation of overtraining or burnout was the correct line of enquiry. It was then necessary to established: 1) How long the problems have existed, 2) The severity of the problem, and 3) Relationship to other issues in the personal life (Hayman, 1993).

The symptoms of assumed overtraining or burnout had existed approximately 18 months, and William was too afraid to seek help any earlier. The severity is extremely high since William was prepared to give up martial arts in spite of high achievements and a recent fantastic film offer. This suggested some other underlying factor(s) had contributed to the lack of motivation.

A psychological profile of William was necessary to obtain his personality traits and his perceptions of the external environment. The subject gave written consent for further investigation thus allowed covert observation in his training hall, and at his day-to-day environment. To maintain minimal invasiveness, the first author was introduced to his coach and colleagues as a cousin on vacation, and very interested in martial arts.

Stage 3: Rating Scales Observation
Shank (1983) identified the following characteristics and behaviours as predisposing certain people to burnout: 1) perfectionism, 2) being other-orientated and 3) lack of interpersonal skills. Rating scales (Cofer & Johnson, 1960) method was used to ascertain whether William possessed the same personality profile. Hence, a checklist of the above three burnout identities were observed over two weeks (2 microcycles) during William's training sessions and his teaching period. Cox (1994) stated that several observations or interviews must be conducted to realise the athlete's core personality.

The observation revealed William was constantly dissatisfied with his techniques. His perception of correct feel to a technique was ever critical, and he trained diligently, sometimes in the excess of three hours on just one technique. This was also evident in sparring whereby he was extremely unhappy with his own performance when his opponent score just one point against him. William also made extreme effort to be the best, and sought approval or reassurance of his skills from his peers and coach. In the martial art culture, hegemony is very evident, and the coach or master is a very powerful and influential person. William had tremendous respect of this tradition, and was unable to voice his needs or his opinions or any difficulties, and was unable to say 'no' when he wanted to. The characteristics and behaviour of burnout (Shank, 1983) were evident during these observations. This was indicative that William's predispositions were highly prone to staleness, overtraining and burnout.

The predispositions did not necessarily mean William was burnt-out, and therefore further measurement was needed to reliably ascertain this assumption. The Maslach Burnout Inventory (Maslach & Jackson, 1986) composed of 22 items, and it was administered to assess three aspects of the burnout syndrome: Emotional exhaustion, depersonalisation, and lack of personal accomplishment (Cox, 1994). Again, William scored very high on these three aspects of burnout which confirmed the prognosis. Having established burnout was the primary factor to William's initial complaints of motivation and fatigue, it is paramount to determine other variables that may have contributed or caused the burnout.

Stage 4: Mood States Disturbances
McNair, D.M., Lorr, M., & Droppleman, L.F. (1971) Profile of Mood States (POMS) 65 items' inventory was administered during four environments. These were 1) training/competitive session, 2) teaching, 3) the social meetings with peers, and 4) coach-athlete relationship. William's spent most of his time within the martial art environment and not at home, and it was important to measure mood disturbances within these parameters.

Measurements of 6 affective states (tension, depression, anger, vigour, fatigue and confusion) were collected over the next two weeks at a frequency of three times per week. The scores for mood states: 1) at training session - exceptionally high score on tension and fatigue; 2) at teaching- high scores on confusion, fatigue and depression; 3) with peers - high scores on depression, confusion and fatigue; 4) and finally with coach/master, the scores were the highest for anger and confusion. All four states showed very low score in vigour. This was a typical mentally unhealthy profile of athlete as found in Morgan's (1985b) research on swimmers, runners, rowers, and wrestlers. The unsuccessful athletes had an inverted 'iceberg' profile, scoring low on vigour and high on 5 other affective moods states.

Stage 5: Determining Critical Factors
The inverted iceberg profile of mood states (Malasch, 1986) at training sessions, teaching, with peers and with coach strongly indicated William was generally unhappy with his martial art environment. There was one particular environment whereby William scored extremely high on 'anger' than any other situations. This external environmental factor concerning the coach and William suggested a critical underlying problem to his burnout. The POMS data reported William 'angry and confused' when he was with his coach, and this had prompted further interview on the coach-athlete relationship. William was questioned on his feelings towards the coach, and he was emotional when he revealed his disappointments.

William lost this critical respect when he found out the coach lied about his qualification and martial art ability, hence William felt cheated and was mainly self-coached. In addition, the coach often abuses his position of authority, and used William's martial status as his own hard work. On several occasions William were manipulated to protect his master's reputation by winning street-fights. Then, this so-called master would brag about how he could do better but he would never fight. He became very confused with morality, and was disillusioned for 18 months with training, teaching, and questioned his allegiance to this master or organisation.

Schmidt and Stein's (1991) proposed an investment model of commitment to predict the conditions of participation, burnout, and withdrawal from sport (Cox,1994). The model suggested that unhappy athlete continued participation because the athlete has personally invested heavily in the sport or no better career alternatives. In William's case, this was evident in that martial art was his life, and there was nothing greater than martial art.

Interdisciplinary Approach
Mono-discipline of psychological investigation to an athlete's problem is limited, and too one dimensional. The problem(s) are tackled more effectively from various directions (Collins et al., 1993), that is applying an inter-discipline approach through physiology, nutrition, biomechanics, and sociology. Greenspan & Feltz (1989) supports inter-discipline interventions and stated, 'psychological only interventions such as cognitive restructuring or relaxation are often effective, the complexity of sport often calls for innovative, multi-focussed solutions.' Therefore other disciplines are used to investigate William's problems.

Physiology and Nutrition
From the physiological standpoint, Guys Hospital discharged William reported a healthy individual based on the data collected on one occasion. The antecedents were ignored hence, past resting heart rate (37bpm) and resting blood pressure (120/80mmHg) were much lower, past bodyweight (70kg) was notably 4kg higher. The onset of symptoms and frequent illnesses (Dale et al., 1990) were the obvious indications of an unhealthy athlete. Early detection would have increased the chance of preventing burnout, but it is well worth considering the implications of these symptoms.

A well-planned training micro-cycle and macro-cycle ensure the type, volume and intensities of exercises and rests are at performed at an optimal level. Thus proper psychophysiological adaptation, and peak performance can occur at the designated period of the year. For example, William's three hours of heavy weight training every day is far too much and counterproductive; in addition there was only two hours rest before the next training session begun. Bompa (1999) stated, 'Restoring glycogen takes 10 to 48 hours after aerobic work and 5 to 24 hours following anaerobic intermittent activity; and proteins take 12 to 24 hours, fats, vitamins, and enzymes take more than 24 hours.'

Fluid intake was also a major part of William's nutritional problem as later discovered, and he did not take any water during any of his 2-3 hours training session. Noakes (1991) stated, 'Regularly ingesting 150 to 250mL of fluid (at 15-minute intervals) throughout exercise continually replenishes the fluid passed into the intestine and maintains a large gastric volume during exercise.' Thus it prevents dehydration, fatigue, and poor performance.

Due to William teaching in the evenings, the training session had to be reduced. This consisted of 5 days-a-week microcycle - the morning session start at 8:30hr to 10:00hr, and the second training session start at 15:30hr to 17:30hr. This was subject to recovery rate, and fitted well within his lifestyle. Each training session must be varied to avoid monotony, and the type of exercises, intensities, aerobic and anaerobic should be specific to the sport's demands. Training ethos needed re-evaluation, fluid intake throughout training session must be accepted as a positive value to prevent fatigue. Energy deficiency or fatigue is not only a by-product of lack of nutrition but exasperated by poor delivery of techniques.

Biomechanical analyses of William's techniques and transfer of the forces can determine the efficiency of movement. Thus William expends minimal amount of energy to produce maximum performance. The first author observed William spending three hours on one technique so that a good internal representation 'feel' was attained. The techniques that William was unhappy with can be recorded from high speed cameras (500 frames per second). Barlett, (1989) claimed that high speed cameras are necessary to accurately collect and collate data of high velocity movements. Subsequently, computer digitisation can reveal the velocities, angular velocities, displacement and angular displacements as well as response time. Acceleration meters can be attached to the limbs to record the relationship of acceleration and collision force. Force plates can test the ground reaction forces as well as the transfer of force on a designated target. These collected data can be compared to previous scores or other elite martial artists to ascertain a model technique or correction. William can use these factual data as well as his internal representation as a mean to assess the so-called 'perfect technique'.

Morgan and O'Connor (1988) observed that over-training in athletes represents a paradox because many of the benefits associated with exercise are reversed in the athlete who trains too much." The inability to recover from these excessive stresses can eventually manifest itself in physical injuries or psychological dysfunction. Cox (1994) stated, "Once the athlete experiences burnout, withdrawal from the imposed stressful environment is nearly inevitable."

William's burnout was ascertained through multiple perspectives and methods. It was clear that until POMS was administered- William was oblivious or unprepared to comment on his coach. Durtschi and Weiss (1986) stated, 'A psychophysiological model may be the most comprehensive way to assess athletes.' Specifically, psychological measures should be used with other measures, such as field observations, self-reports, physiological characteristics, and social and environmental variables.'

The self-report revealed William's heavy commitment and investment in the martial arts, and his withdrawal in the sport fitted the Schmidt and Stein's Investment Model of Burnout and Dropout (1991). The prolonged intensive schedule over several years, and William's personality traits were considered highly susceptible to burnout (Shank,1983). The Maslach Burnout Inventory confirmed the prognosis of William suffering burnout. Furthermore, McNair et al's POMS inventory (1971) identified the mood states at four different environments. The mood states strongly linked the primary underlying problem to the coach-athlete relationship.

Evidently, William's problem is not just psychophysiological but also psychosocial. It is uncertain which of the two critical factors of overtraining and coach-athlete relationship that caused burnout. However, the inter-relationship between the two critical factors has affected the burnout symptoms which manifested in William's unhappiness and under-performance. Sport sociologist Jay Coakley (1992) argues that stress is not the cause to burnout but merely a symptom. According to Coakley (1992), burnout in young athletes is caused by the lost of personal identity and victim of disempowerment. However, Williams problems were addressed and actions implemented from both psychosocial and psychophysiological perspectives.

Implementation and Treatment
Cox (1994) stated, 'The first and primary step in addressing burnout is self-awareness, the next is to take time off work from the offending activity.' Considering the severity of William's problem, and he accepts the fact of burnout syndrome, William was advised to withdraw from martial art environment, and take a complete rest (Morgan & et al., 1987). The other offending factor that contributed to William's burnout was the coach, and it was recommended that William change coach or self-coach through further sport science education. It is important that other enjoyable or social activities must fill-in the spare time while recuperating from the burnout. Otherwise boredom may exasperate William's mental health (Bompa, 1999; Morgan, 1987; Heyman, 1993; McCardle, Katch & Katch, 1996).

It was also recommended that William referred to a licensed counsellor to deal with his emotional complexities during the recovery period (Heyman, 1993). Until William has recovered, the strategy must be prevention of staleness and overtraining. This would entail cognitive restructuring to martial practice and re-evaluate self-perceptions, realistic goal-setting, imagery, outcome-orientation and well-planned training programmes (Cox,1994; Bompa, 1999). The well structured programmes must include daily and weekly monitoring of stresses. This can be measured by heart rate intensities, blood lactate biopsy, respiratory rate as well as psychological inventories. Morgan (1987) stated, 'monitoring moods states offers considerable potential for prevention of staleness.'

Finally, this case study ascertained William's low level motivation, lethargy, and withdrawal were the symptoms of his Burnout. It highlighted the important fact that underlying problems can be either psychological, physiological or sociological, and that inter-disciplines can provide multiple perspectives in resolving problems. Also, the inter-disciplines of sociology, psychology, physiology, and biomechanics are necessary to plan training programmes, and help athletes train at optimal level. Thus prevent staleness, overtraining or burnout and promotes peak performance at any chosen period.


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Master Wai-Po Tang, Martial Art Institute International, Wing Chun Kung Fu Club Classes, P.O. Box 628, Richmond, Surrey, TW9 1FF, England, UK.
Tel: 07976 610901 (mobile- UK) ; +44 7976 610901 (mobile-international)
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