Don’t fall victim to poker burnout

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The first time I looked at the issue of burnout was when I was doing organizational consulting. Employees at every level seemed to reach a plateau then crash and burn. They didn’t have significant mental health or personal problems, but stopped being productive.

Recently, several serious poker players have told me similar things about their playing. I thought it might be useful to take a look at the issue in relationship to poker.

Burnout is a state of emotional, mental, and physical exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest or motivation that led you to get involved in a particular activity.

Burnout is not to be confused with emotional problems, mental-health issues or personal issues; burnout is situational. Poker burnout can happen to any player at any level of play; it can part of general malaise or specific to poker.

Psychologists Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North have theorized the burnout process can be divided into 12 phases, which are not necessarily followed sequentially, nor are they necessarily in any sense are relevant or existent other than as abstract constructs.

• A compulsion to prove oneself
• Working harder
• Neglecting one’s own needs
• Displacement of conflicts (the person does not realize the root cause of the distress)
• Revision of values (friends or hobbies are completely dismissed)
• Denial of emerging problems (cynicism and aggression become apparent)
• Withdrawal (reducing social contacts to a minimum, becoming walled off; alcohol or other substance abuse may occur)
• Behavioral changes become obvious to others
• Depersonalization (life becomes a series of mechanical functions)
• Inner emptiness
• Depression
• Burnout syndrome

When you see your play as the definition of who you are and you feel that every suckout, bad beat or lost coin flip defines you instead of being part of the game; or you feel a compulsion to prove yourself by your play; or you seem to feel that playing is an unsatisfying grind; or you notice your behavior changing or your play changing you may be experiencing burnout-related issues.

Actually one can relate each of these steps to poker; but the important thing is if there has been a change and you’re feeling the negatives, do something about it to get your head back into the game.

Overtraining, overlearning and even overplaying can cause burnout and affect poker players. Sports psychology teaches us that overtraining can create burnout in competitors at all levels. This happens not only in all competitive activities, but in work and other recreational pursuits.

When poker no longer is fun; when grinding has taken its toll; when you feel trapped into playing, watch out for burnout.
The good news about burnout is that it can be alleviated; the bad news is if you’re burning out then your life and your game may go down the tubes.

Though poker is an enjoyment to most of us, even recreational poker players can burn out.

Burnout is often masked as irritability, depression, anger, decreased confidence, increased risk-taking and other psychological symptoms. Long-term tilt is also a sign.

Responses to burnout in poker are varied. Some players start playing on auto play and stop thinking about the situational aspects of the game.

Some get agitated and even go on tilt.

Some get depressed, start drinking and using other counterproductive coping strategies.

An otherwise solid player becomes totally reckless and starts playing impulsively. Or a player who knows the math and can make decent reads becomes super tight, seeing demons in every flop, turn and river and becomes unable to make a move. This “monsters under the bed” syndrome is particularly evident in good players who start to get scared.

Our mythical monsters might not be the same as childhood monsters, but the play on words in a useful metaphor to look at; we start thinking our opponents have flopped the nuts even when we have a good hand and lots of blockers.

What can you do if you lose interest and start feeling and acting impulsively or depressed; or experience other symptoms of burnout; or fear monsters on every flop, turn or river?

Quick possible solutions: Take a break; change from cash to tournaments; step down the limits you play at and experience the pleasure again; don’t take the results as a definition of who you are; stop being short-term results oriented; understand chance and skill; define your poker goals and see if they are realistic.

Some longer term solutions I think are relevant to poker playing include: goal-setting; visualizations; performance planning; enhancing self-confidence; concentration and attention.

Do something before this condition becomes chronic and you-ll be able to keep your head in the game.

— Dr. Stephen Bloomfield is a licensed psychologist and avid poker player. His column will give insight on how to achieve peak performance using poker psychology. Email questions for him at editor@anteupmagazine.com.